The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality

The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality

The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality

The IQ Mythology: Class, Race, Gender, and Inequality


Ever since Alfred Binet carried out a 1904 commission from France's minister of public instruction to devise a means for deciding which pupils should be sent to what would now be called special education classes, IQ scores have been used to label and track children. Those same scores have been cited as "proof" that different races, classes, and genders are of superior and inferior intelligence.

The Menshes make clear that from the beginning IQ tests have been fundamentally biased. Offered as a means for seeking solutions to social problems, the actual measurements have been used to maintain the status quo. Often the most telling comments are from the test-makers themselves, whether Binet ("little girls weak in orthography are strong in sewing and capable in the instruction concerning housekeeping; and, all things considered, this is more important for their future") or Wigdor and Garner ("naive use of intelligence tests... to place children of linguistic or racial minority status in special education programs will not be defensible in court").

Among the disturbing facts that the authors share is that there is mounting political pressure for more tests and testing despite a court trial in which the judge stated that "defendants' expert witnesses, even those clearly affiliated with the companies that devise and distribute the standardized intelligence tests, agreed, with one exception, that we cannot truly define, much less measure, intelligence." The testing firms have responded to this carefully orchestrated need with new products that extend even to the IQ testing of three-month-old infants. The authors stress that, if the testers prevail, there is little doubt that these and similar tests would be used "ad infinitum to justify superior and inferior education along class and racial lines."


How deeply IQ tests, or the mythology surrounding them, have entered the national consciousness is evident from the virtually standard use of "IQ" as a synonym for "intelligence." But there are many other striking expressions of this phenomenon, including the way the tests turn up in works of fiction.

"[T]here was the idiotic testimony of those peculiar witnesses, IQ tests: those scores invented me," observes the narrator in a well-known book of autobiographical short stories. "Those scores were a decisive piece of destiny in that they affected the way people treated you and regarded you; they determined your authority." The narrator is unusual; he has reason to be pleased with the way IQ scores invented him, yet he assures his readers that the invention is based on "idiotic testimony."

Although IQ scores invented the narrator/author, the invention was not haphazard or accidental; it took place along well- established guidelines or, more accurately, class and racial lines. The narrator is middle-class. He is white. His (adoptive) parents, who were born before the last century ended, probably completed their education during World War I. At a time when high school was reserved for a small part of the population, both parents graduated from high school; the mother went on to two years of college.

The narrator/author grew up in Missouri in the thirties and early forties. He belonged to a Boy Scout troop that was exclusively middle- and upper-middle-class. One boy hummed Brahms, another knew some of Shakespeare's plays by heart. IQ tests do not call for a real interest in culture, but they do require an acquaintance with selected aspects of the dominant culture (one IQ test literally calls for a recognition of Shakespearean characters, another for knowing the instruments in a symphony orchestra).

At the school the narrator attended, "the varying kinds of . . .

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