And so, we finally reach the conclusion. Here I explicitly take on the arguments of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve. They argue that the normal distribution of intelligence across a population is more or less immutable and that “the story of attempts to raise intelligence is one of high hopes, flamboyant claims, and disappointing results.”
According to the data, they’re pretty much correct. Or at least, it would be correct to say that attempts to raise IQ have been largely disappointing failures. But, raising IQ is meaningless. What could it matter if you had a higher IQ score? As we saw in Chapter 3, IQ is just a mathematical construct. And, because IQ scores are re-normed so that the average score is always 100, if everyone’s scores go up (as has happened with the Flynn effect) the numbers remain the same. What’s almost certainly true is that the normal distribution of the scores will remain the same. How could it not?
There are, however, two arguments to make in response. First, although we must accept that IQ distributes normally, we don’t have to accept that this distribution is unduly influence by social background. Currently, your socio-economic profile is one of the most important indicators of educational success and, as I argue throughout the book, our school system is systematically biased in favour of the most advantaged ensuring that the gap between the most and least advantaged is widened. The school system has normalised teaching in ways that favour those with the great social advantage with a focus on relevance, problem solving, choice and generic skills. If we want to re-bias the system in favour of the least advantaged we should instead focus on powerful knowledge, cultural literacy, explicit instruction and subject disciplines.
The second argument is that thinking in terms of IQ is unhelpful. I’ve argued that what makes people clever is what we know. Unlike IQ, knowledge does not distribute normally and the effects of knowledge are asymmetric. To explain, let’s substitute intelligence for wealth. If everyone in the country was give £1000 it would have no effect on those at the top of the distribution but it’s effect on those at the bottom would be disproportionately powerful, perhaps even life changing. Everyone would be wealthier by exactly the same amount but the lives of the least wealthy would be materially different. Now, return to intelligence. If, as I’ve argued, knowledge is what really counts, imagine what happens if everyone receives exactly the same increase in knowledge. As with wealth, those at the top of the distribution barely notice, but for those on the left hand side of the curve, this increase in knowledge represents choice, opportunity and freedom from the narrow constraints of personal experience.
We make children cleverer by raising the quality and quantity of what they know. And by so doing, the advantage gap may be narrowed, if not closed.