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« Regeneration Through Violence (Andrew) | Main | Jewish "I.Q." vs. "The Mothers of Brooklyn" (Anna) »

November 02, 2007


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Oy. There's a Shel Silverstein poem, "Helping," included as a song on Free To Be You and Me, the peace-and-love children's tape I listened to growing up, which ends with the punch line:

"Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it"

"And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping's all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without"

The account of the American Enterprise talk had me, as a 5/8 genetic Jew, involuntarily singing those last two lines. It also triggered the original, snarky response that I challenge Murray to sit through the doltish company forced on me through seven years of Hebrew school and continue to believe that we're such a clever lot.

The perniciousness of positive stereotyping as a corollary to negative stereotyping is a discussion Ruchira and I have had before, though maybe it was on the defunct Dissemination blog.

This particular form of positive stereotyping strikes me as especially ironic, since a pet theory of mine-- at least as plausible as Murray's inane free-associations about the Talmud-- is that at least one of the complicated reasons for Jews' relative professional success in America is the cultural emphasis placed on the importance of effort, rather than innate ability. We're obligated, to our parents (to give them their "naches") and to the pride of our community as Jews, to achieve, and if God didn't give some of us smarts, so the thinking goes, then we're just going to have to work harder. I never got the sense that bragging about "my son, the doctor," was a boast to having birthed a natural born genius; it was the pride of a mother in having done, and made her son do, what they were supposed to in terms of personal sacrifice. Phillip Roth captures this dynamic well in his fiction. Stanley Kaplan, the child of Jewish immigrants, founded his testing empire on this premise during an earlier period of eugenic hysteria in 1938-- proving wrong those who believed that the NYC Regents' Exam tested aptitude by showing that you could teach to the test. (My own surviving Jewish relative of that generation, when hearing mention of Kaplan, Inc., still responds, without fail, "I remember when we were at City College and Stanley Kaplan was teaching kids for a nickel out of his basement."). I wonder if those Jews who come to believe, smugly, that our general success is somehow innate will lose that sense of the value of effort and end up achieving (or having children who achieve) less? Or perhaps smugness is enough-- I remember reading of a study that showed that children who were told that they had received high marks on an aptitude test in fact later tested higher than those who were not told they had high aptitude.

As for the general over-reliance on and obsession with "aptitude"...

"[C]onsideration ought to be limited to "individuals" who need to be evaluated for a specific task at hand. Even when a group consists of individuals with closely comparable traits in some enterprise or the other, it is dangerous to base human interactions on that blanket calculation. Doing so is unfair to the individual. It is a prescription for short changing some and setting up others for failure."

...Exactly. You should be a disabilities rights lawyer! Individualized determinations are what we're all about.

I could think of a million anecdotes from work to illustrate that somewhat opaque burst of enthusiasm. Just as one example, I had a client with Autism, who is non-verbal, but has held a job at a large hardware store for years (supported by an aide who assists in interfacing with people) on the basis of a strength and love for sorting tools into their proper place. The former client is much loved by family, friends, etc. Could the client do anything? Obviously not, but the client has a valuable role, and is well suited for the particular position. Judging the client's IQ is not really possible, given the social and communication impairments related to the Autism (it's guessed to be impaired), but is moreover not really relevant to any question worth answering: how the individual is best served, or how society best includes and treats the individual.

Two clarifications:

1) In my rhetorical question regarding the former client, I meant "anything" in the sense of "anything, without limitation, that the client were to set out to do."

2) I am not arguing that an IQ test is never useful-- it can have a diagnostic utility, e.g. in differential diagnoses between learning disabilities or mental illness and cognitive disabilities, for the purposes of treatment-- just that it begs the questions that people try to use it to answer. Also, any psychologist worth her salt who performs such tests (and I often work with such psychologists and neuro-psychologists as experts) will tell you that an IQ is an average derived from a number of sub-tests testing disparate skills, that socio-economic factors are known to influence testing, and that the test is just one piece of a person's profile. They will also tell you that while carefully validated, such tests will always depend somewhat on the subjective scoring choices of the tester and are not objective medical tests (e.g. of cholesterol or insulin levels), another reason to question social scientific claims based on the "science" of IQ data.


I was hoping that you'd weigh in here, given your Jewish background but more importantly, your experience of working with the disabled who will not meet Watson or Murray's standards of qualified humans. Yes, that discussion was on Dissemination. I wish I could have retrieved it because several others spoke up and the points of view were illuminating. But as with many other defunct blogs, Dissemination has disappeared into thin air taking our collective wisdom with it.

I am glad you brought up your autistic client and how his special skill makes him a desirable and successful employee in the narrow field of expertize required of him. You, I am sure will also attest to the fact that others with different disabilities too have their special charm and value and deserve a shot at a fulfilling life, however difficult that effort may be in a world that is normalized for modal values. Down Syndrome for example, very often confers on those affected by the condition, a friendlier, kinder and more sunny disposition than James Watson probably could ever hope to possess.

Ah, would I have made a competent disabilities lawyer? Perhaps. But in my previous life as a conscientious teacher who enjoyed the give and take with the students and their varied abilities and aspirations, I guess the experience was not so different.

Yes, people often talk about a "Prince Charming" personality in connection to Down Syndrome; my clients with Down Syndrome have in fact, without exception, been delightful company. The quirky, difficult adults with schizophrenia can be pretty interesting to interact with, as well, though I try not to worry about whether I "like" my clients, since there are some who badly need help and have good cases but are not very likable, and others who are quite likable, but who need my help less.

A pet rant of mine, on which perhaps I'll post someday, is the failure of secular culture-- of which I consider myself, as a non-believer, a part--to yet come up with an adequate substitute for the various religious concepts-- soul, karma, etc.-- that are used to get at the idea of the equality and sanctity of each human life. As a person with an abiding respect for science, I'm troubled by the instrumentalism of some, like Watson (though certainly not all), in the scientific community, when they turn their focus to their fellow humans.

There are aesthetic ways to think about this-- an appreciation for variety over standardization-- as well.

Really, I'm not doing the topic justice, here, but liked your post.

the reason we are enthralled to IQ is that our economy is giving greater and greater returns to education. IQ is one of those things that makes completing college much easier. and the reason we care about education is the income it produces, and the income leads to assets which is how we measure our status in society. ultimately the problem of course is the fact that our society pretends as if worth is judged by moral character and not money, but the reality is that the latter is the true criterion of success. between 1800 and 1970 the wages of the unskilled and skilled closed so that the return on a college education was far less than it is today. now the gap is growing, and continues to grow.

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