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The IQ Fallacy

A Three Part Series

Through most of the 20th century, those little numbers have been used both to take away needed assistance and to take away hope. Yet such was not their original intent.

Part III: Kicking the Habit

Anyone alive in the western world today is accustomed to a simplistic view of intelligence as a single entity measurable by a single number. So entrenched is this way of thinking that we fall easily into discussions of who is "smarter" or "more clever": that is, until the occasional example of a brilliant tennis player devoid of social skills or business acumen, or a child with autism and a high IQ score, causes us to fumble. "Talented, but not smart," we decide, or "plenty of brains but no common sense." What is it that we are groping to express by such observations?

Despite our superficial glibness about "intelligence," this underlying sense that there may be more than one way of knowing the world has a long and venerable history. In classical times it was common to differentiate reason from the faculties of will and feeling; in medieval times this triumvirate of mental abilities became reason, courage, and faith. With the advent of the study of psychology in the late 1800s, various investigators posited an even wider array of human mental faculties. It is only since the early 1900s that these more complex considerations have given way to the quick and easy -- and exceedingly well-marketed -- device of the IQ test.

With the publication in 1983 of Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, the notion of an array of mental competencies again entered public dialogue, this time in a form that was readily accessible. Gardner, a well-known research psychologist, proposed on the basis of experimental evidence that there are six distinct intelligences, or ways of knowing the world: linguistic, involving mastery of complex grammatical rules and the shifting usages of words; logico-mathematical, involving the ability to think in abstract terms about the properties of physical objects; musical, the ability to find meaning and communication in sets of pitches; spatial, the ability to problem solve by thinking in images, to orient, to locate and to recognize; bodily- kinesthetic, the ability to gracefully and accurately use one's own body; and personal intelligence, involving access to one's own feeling life (intrapersonal skills) as well as the ability to perceive the moods, motivations, and intentions of others (interpersonal skills).

The average individual will develop varying degrees of competence in these areas, yet will tend to process information better through one or two. By definition, people with developmental disabilities or delays have particularly unusual profiles in the way they process and know the world. Able in some areas, they may need thoughtful support in others. Sometimes an impairment of one ablity may be so critical as to eclipse other capacities, as when a kinesthetic or motor disturbance hinders all communication until facilitation is introduced ....doubtless by an individual whose own personal and kinesthetic intelligence are valued. Viewed through Gardner's prism, intelligences sparkle, mix, are hidden and are revealed like the colors of a rainbow.

Yet in the black-and-white realm of intelligence testing, only the linguistic and logico-mathematical modes are visible. Through the optical illusion of the IQ test these abilities appear sui generis: disconnected from culture, from personal experience, from physical state, from inhibiting factors like motor disorders, from enhancing factors such as abilities in music, art, or other domains. The modern secular school has concentrated its powers on the cultivation of these linguistic and logico-mathematical skills -- and, to a lesser extent, of intrapersonal skills such as self-awareness and self-esteem. The level of these intelligences is measured meritocratically: that is, ranked through competition in a hierarchy of losers and winners. The hierarchy, known as "tracking," is based on an unquestioned assumption that competition and gatekeeping are necessary to the education process. Tracking generally begins at a very early age, traditionally begins for children with disabilities upon diagnosis, and both students with disabilities and minority students are disproportionately represented in the lowest track, called special education.

The key to understanding the value choices of our schools can be found in their history. Developed through the latter decades of the Industrial Revolution, our system of public schooling was designed to separate and teach children in factory-like production lines in preparation for their adult lives on factory-like production lines. Teachers worked the lines as quality-control experts in rigidly- defined specialities (e.g. elementary reading, secondary history), testing, labeling and grading. Overall design and functioning of the system was kept entirely in the hands of management. Efficiency was the standard: those deemed unlikely to pull their weight in adult life received little serious attention, and those competencies which could not be readily harnessed into competition and production were overlooked.

Despite sporadic reforms, the framework of the old factory is clearly visible behind even the newest of schools. The modern school still tends to neglect spatial, bodily or musical forms of knowing, despite the fact that many students process information better through these channels. It also neglects interpersonal intelligence, leaving school activities and "book learning" relatively unintegrated with the long-term spiritual and moral life of the community in which the school is located: after all, in the factory the "big picture" was always the exclusive province of management. We sense intense frustration over this latter neglect in the comments of parents of children with disabilities. While they tend to frame their arguments for school inclusion in the spiritual and moral language of unconditional acceptance and opportunity, proponents of the factory school insist that the cultivation of interpersonal intelligence has no rightful place on the production line.

But what is this production line producing? The logic of our factory-model schools, as justified by decades of intelligence testing, is cumulatively manifesting glaring limits. Reliable studies have shown that the score on an IQ test does indeed predict one's ability to handle school subjects, yet foretells little of success in later life! The logic of the IQ test is therefore a circular logic, measuring and predicting success in situations like IQ tests: situations on which the modern school was modeled. Yet we are now faced with the fact that our schools are failing us, that graduates are unemployed and find no useful role in their communities. Outspoken critics such as New York Teacher of the Year John Gatto protest that our schools, designed as "instruments of the scientific management of a mass population," reward "cog in the machine" uniformity, rendering students dependent, insensible to reality and unfit to function in their communities. This verdict comes as no surprise to students in special education, almost half of whom fail to graduate from high school, and the vast majority of whom fail to find employment. Lowered to the bottom of our schools, they have served as canaries in the mine.

The late Marc Gold, whose innovation in the field of employment for individuals with "mental" or "perceptual" disabilities can be summed up in three words: "Train, don't test," was acutely aware of the inability of IQ testing and the standard school curriculum to accurately frame ability. IQs, Gold insisted, simply tell you the least a person can do; they can never tell you the most. Addressing the parents of supposedly incapable individuals with autism, Gold blasted the test- and-label agenda: "I would imagine that those individuals ...who came to me with the label 'autism,' and who allegedly had many of the characteristics that were regarded as being 'autistic,' needed careful and objective re- evaluation. We who work with the handicapped have a continuing responsibility not to accept labels, and not to accept characteristics that are 'hanging tools' that we can use to make sure that the individual stays functioning at the same level...why don't we believe that (people with autism) all have receptive language, and stop telling them, even in an indirect way, all the ways we expect them to behave; stop discussing all the things they do that you or I consider to be 'autistic'.... I think that diagnosis is useless, and that prediction or prognosis is fatal." This sounds exactly like what the proponents of school inclusion, facilitated communication, and supported employment are saying in the 1990s: Gold, a prophet in the wilderness, offered this devastating critique in 1973.

IQ testing, and the separating and gatekeeping which go with it, are part and parcel of a grand social experiment that has failed. A new school restructuring movement, born in the late 1980s, is focusing on inclusion, individualization rather than group tracking, and meaningful educational outcomes for all students. Pioneering universities have dismissed the concept of preparing teachers for "special ed" and "regular ed," and now offer a single, unified training program. Service systems are turning to the concept of providing support for what the individual wishes to undertake, rather than taking away choice from a labeled population. Individuals who have carried the label "retarded" are angry, and have organized their own advocacy efforts to remove this stigma. Even government Offices of Mental Retardation are re-examining, not just their name, but their way of doing business: IQ numbers, they are coming to realize, have little correlation with a person's support needs.

These changes are so far tentative and fragile. The grandiose experiment in social engineering which they replace still has a strong hold on our collective imagination. For some reason, the drugged-like vision of a machine or factory where everyone is neatly numbered and sorted, where prognosis follows diagnosis as the night the day, has proven highly addictive. It will take personal care and strong advocacy to assure that we kick the habit and get used to life as it really is.


Biklen, Douglas. Schooling Without Labels. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1992.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983.

Gatto, John. Dumbing Us Down. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1991.

Gatto, John. "Why Schools Don't Educate," a speech on being named New York City Teacher of the Year for 1990.

Gold, Marc. "Some Thoughts on Training," from the Proceedings Manual of the 5th Annual Meeting and Conference of the National Society for Autistic Children, June 1973.

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