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The Future For The Tests

Creator: Walter Lippmann (author)
Date: November 29, 1922
Publication: The New Republic
Source: n/a

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The claim that we have learned how to measure hereditary intelligence has no scientific foundation. We cannot measure intelligence when we have never defined it, and we cannot speak of its hereditary basis after it has been indistinguishably fused with a thousand educational and environmental influences from the time of conception to the school age. The claim that Mr. Terman or anyone else is measuring hereditary intelligence has no more scientific foundation than a hundred other fads, vitamins and glands and amateur psychoanalysis and correspondence courses in will power, and it will pass with them into that limbo where phrenology and palmistry and characterology and the other Babu sciences are to be found. In all of these there was some admixture of primitive truth which the conscientious scientist retains long after the wave of popular credulity has spent itself.


So, I believe, it will be with mental testing. Gradually under the impact of criticism the claim will be abandoned that a device has been invented for measuring native intelligence. Suddenly it will dawn upon the testers that this is just another form of examination, differing in degree rather than in kind from Mr. Edison's questionnaire or a college entrance examination. It may be a better form of examination than these, but it is the same sort of thing. It tests, as they do, an unanalyzed mixture of native capacity, acquired habits and stored-up knowledge, and no tester knows at any moment which factor he is testing. He is testing the complex result of a long and unknown history, and the assumption that his questions and his puzzles can in fifty minutes isolate abstract intelligence is, therefore, vanity. The ability of a twelve-year-old child to define pity or justice and to say what lesson the story of the fox and crow "teaches" may be a measure of his total education, but it is no measure of the value or capacity of his germplasm.


Once the pretensions of this new science are thoroughly defeated by the realization that these are not "intelligence tests" at all nor "measurements of intelligence," but simply a somewhat more abstract kind of examination, their real usefulness can be established and developed. As examinations they can be adapted to the purposes in view, whether it be to indicate the feeble-minded for segregation, or to classify children in school, or to select recruits from the army for officers' training camps, or to pick bank clerks. Once the notion is abandoned that the tests reveal pure intelligence, specific tests for specific purposes can be worked out.


A general measure of intelligence valid for all people everywhere at all times may be an interesting toy for the psychologist in his laboratory. But just because the tests are so general, just because they are made so abstract in the vain effort to discount training and knowledge, the tests are by that much less useful for the practical needs of school administration and industry. Instead, therefore, of trying to find a test which will with equal success discover artillery officers, Methodist ministers, and branch managers for the rubber business, the psychologists would far better work out special and specific examinations for artillery officers, divinity school candidates and branch managers in the rubber business. On that line they may ultimately make a serious contribution to a civilization which is constantly searching for more successful ways of classifying people for specialized jobs. And in the meantime the psychologists will save themselves from the reproach of having opened up a new chance for quackery in a field where quacks breed like rabbits, and they will save themselves from the humiliation of having furnished doped evidence to the exponents of the New Snobbery.




A Postscript


This discussion has already provoked a lengthy correspondence which suggests the advisability of summarizing at this point the conclusions arrived at in the series of articles. The argument which I am prepared to defend is as follows:


1. The statement that the intelligence of the American nation has been measured by the army intelligence tests has no foundation. Generalizations, like those of Mr. Lothrop Stoddard, that "the average mental age of Americans is only about fourteen" are in the strictest sense of the word nonsense.


2. There is reason to hope that for the purpose of more homogeneous classification of school children the intelligence tests may be of some practical benefit if administered with scepticism and sympathy.


3. This benefit, is in great danger of being offset by dangerous abuse if the claims of the intelligence testers are not purged of certain fundamental assumptions.


4. The most important of these fundamental assumptions are:
(a) that the intelligence test measures "intelligence,"
(b) that "intelligence" is fixed by heredity, and that the intelligence test reveals and measures hereditary intelligence.


5. The attempt to construct a universal test of native intelligence on these assumptions may be an interesting theoretical experiment, but the claim that such a test exists, or is likely soon to exist, is scientifically unsound, is designed to lead to social injustice and to grave injury to those who are arbitrarily classified as predestined inferiors or superiors.

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