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Intelligence, Destiny, and EducationReview - Intelligence, Destiny, and Education
The Ideological Roots of Intelligence Testing
by John White
Routledge, 2006
Review by Ed Brandon
Feb 3rd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 6)

Long a pillar of the London Institute of Education, John White has in retirement sought to shake some of the foundations he might previously have been happy to take for granted.  This book, however, mainly explores a connection White had stumbled upon many years ago: the homologies between Calvinism and the Anglo-American IQ school, as exemplified by writers such as Burt or Jensen.

White had drawn attention to the similarities in a newspaper article back in 1969: the idea that people have a limit to their intellectual abilities is as unverifiable and unfalsifiable as the claim that God exists; the genetic, innate and unalterable determination of intelligence (IQ) parallels Calvinist predestination; Galton's concern for the gifted and the cretinous is analogous to fixation on the elect and the damned.  In his second chapter, White extends the number of overlaps between Calvinist thinking and ideas typical of the IQ movement: the idea of a vocation, of the centrality of families, of the importance of education, of the place of race, and less clearly, of gender.

Most of the book is taken up with accumulating evidence that the similarities between these positions are not coincidental but the result of genuine historical continuities and interactions.  Towards the end, White broadens his target to include not only Galtonian IQ but also the content of the English National Curriculum, timetabling, and examinations: all apparently the misbegotten offspring of Calvin through Peter Ramus and the Scots.

White's historical investigations allow him to trace back the thinking of people like Burt to Galton, and in particular to an 1865 article that prefigured his famous Hereditary Genius of 1869.  Burt, and Burt's father, idolized Galton; Burt taught Eysenck; Eysenck taught Jensen.  White not only discloses the intellectual ancestry, and flirtations with eugenics, of the main figures in the psychology of intelligence in the 20th century, but he also digs into their family and religious backgrounds, revealing that very many show puritan (Congregational, Presbyterian, and Quaker) connections. It is not just British and North American figures who find themselves in White's files: Jean Piaget turns out to have been "brought up in a rigorous protestant faith" (p. 83) with a mother whose great-grandfather was from a Quaker family from Lancashire.  White summons up a considerable number with this kind of background, though he notes that one or two turn against their childhood leanings, for example, John Dewey.

In the growing academic discipline of psychology and its application to intelligence, White can trace things back to Galton.  But how to go further?  White notes that psychological thought in the early nineteenth century in Britain was hardly hospitable to views such as Galton's on the nature of genius, or less exaltedly, intelligence.  Its guiding framework was still empiricist associationism.  I might add that the word 'intelligence' is only noted once in the index of William James' large Principles of Psychology from later in the same century (1890), and the context (ch. 22) is one of how far other animals can be said to reason.  Galton himself is largely absent from James' survey (he is mentioned as an early user of questionnaires, for his account of visual imagery and word associations, and for an observation on South African cattle). 

While White notes that innate features of the mind are to be found in Descartes, he doubts that Galton derived them from that source.  Rather he surmises that Galton was here borrowing from the remains of a Calvinist concern for abstract and logical reasoning which White sees as flowing from the work of Peter Ramus.  Catholics could leave knowledge to their priestly authorities, but for protestants it was crucially necessary to understand the universe and its relation to the divine for oneself. 

Despite several pages of text and an illustration from one of Ramus' treatises, White never really makes it clear what Ramus was up to.  I think he omits to mention that Ramus converted to Calvinism and was slaughtered in the St Bartholemew's Day massacre of 1572, and he only hints at the fact that all his adult life Ramus had led a campaign against Aristotelian logic and its teaching.  White does emphasize Ramus' binary differentiating of things/concepts and his largely successful attempts to impose a particular structure on different academic disciplines.  So while Ramus hardly had an alternative logic to the Aristotelianism of the Catholics (the Kneales, in their magisterial The Development of Logic, remark, concerning Ramus' influence on protestant Britain, "since we can find little of value either in Ramus's criticisms of Aristotle or in his original work, it is difficult for us to understand what made his admirers enthusiastic; but if we may judge from the references of Marlowe and other writers of the time, what attracted most attention was his passion for simplicity and order" (p. 302) – they have four pages setting out Ramus' work in logic), he was, for the Calvinists, "one of us", and so it may not be surprising that he had such an influence on pedagogy within Calvinist circles.  In any case, it is within that tradition, and its realization in Scotland, that White traces the ideas he supposes Galton to have inherited.  His last suggestion for a near-contemporary source is a Scottish Calvinist, George Combe, who brought phrenology to Britain, and whose 1828 best-seller talked in a Lamarckian way of "the hereditary transmission of qualities" of mind and intellect from parents to children.

Flowing from Ramus' pedagogical concerns, White traces the growth of a modern type of subject-based curriculum (one that rejects an almost exclusive focus on classical languages in favor of discrete intellectual disciplines) in Scottish universities and later English "Dissenting Academies".  Here also he finds the origins of pedagogical timetables, and the emphasis on regular examinations, that characterize our modern understanding of post-primary education.  These topics converge in the work of Robert Morant, a civil servant White introduces before even Burt (p. 7) as laying the foundations for English secondary schooling in the 20th century, and find a recent reflex in the English National Curriculum, about which White claims that its "self-evidence" was taken to be so obvious that it was introduced without any statement of aims or goals to be achieved.

White's amateur history of ideas is not offered just for its potential interest.  He emphasizes at the start that he thinks the notion of IQ bizarre and erroneous (but since he refers us to other recent writings for the main arguments here this is hardly the place to challenge him, though I do think his arguments rather weak), and towards the end he recognizes that the other elements (timetables, examinations, a particular type of curriculum) may well be as unmotivated.  So the book is a call for change, or at least reflection on the possibilities thereof.  But it is curiously muted, perhaps in tacit recognition of the well-known genetic fallacy.  The fact, if it is one, that ideas about intelligence or a sensible curriculum were derived from false theology does nothing to impugn those ideas.  So all White can argue is that those ideas do not derive any support from Calvinism; their historical derivation leaves open that they may well have other adequate supports.  As indicated, in the case of IQ White gestures here at why he thinks it does not, referring the reader to more extensive critiques he has published elsewhere.  In the case of the other items, besides the point that timetables or the English National Curriculum are obviously not the only way to achieve whatever goals we might have for a school system, White is content simply to record the historical affiliations.  So White's explicit conclusion is mainly an invitation to dig more deeply into the intellectual history he has uncovered.  The lack of a clear focus may be in part responsible for the repetitions (one curious passage from Galton is quoted on at least three separate occasions) that a more determined editor might have excised.

 

© 2009 Ed Brandon

 

  

Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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