A Cultural and Historical Framework
It is doubtful whether so much public interest has been aroused since
Darwin propounded his theories about the descent of man.
—Harlin Hines, Measuring Intelligence (1923)
Over the last 50 years, IQ testing has become a highly significant, though largely informal, social instrument lying at the very core of the American educational system. But its once automatic use in the schools and our present, almost equally automatic, tendency to deflate its significance obscures its very real historical importance as a product of American culture. The IQ1 was, and remains, far more than an educational tool. It is a way of seeing, a method for organizing social experience, and a cultural concept whose history is critically intertwined with the turbulence of the late nineteenth century and the specific order of the twentieth to which it gave way. In the half-century from 1870 to 1920, American society was caught in a whirlpool of movement and dislocation which profoundly altered every aspect of personal and social life. Within the vortex of the late-nineteenth–early twentieth-century world, two related processes—immigration and education—emerge as especially dynamic social forces. For, just as mass immigration was a symbol for— even the embodiment of—cultural disruption, education became its dialectic opposite, an instrument of order, of direction, of social consolidation. The IQ evolved from the interplay between disorder and direction; its nature determined by the problems immigration represented and the solutions education offered; its form and meaning determined by the needs of the society for which it provided solutions, explanations, and ultimately its own future problems.
It is my intention in the following essay to discuss the historical context in which IQ emerged in the United States to become such a powerful orga-