Flunking "The Big Test"
by Steve Sailer
National Post (of Canada), 10/?/99
As smart young Canadians continue to brain drain themselves to the U.S., Canadian universities are gingerly Americanizing. Thus, it's time to consider the most distinctive element of the U.S. college system: its standardized national entrance exams like the SAT.
After a decade's research, the graceful prose stylist Nicholas Lemann has finally published his expose of the SAT, "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy." His conclusion: It's just not fair. How can you, he asks, "create a classless society by establishing a system that relentlessly classifies people"? But the bigger question is one Lemann relentlessly dodges: Can you create a classless society at all? The Khmer Rouge came closest, but to enforce classlessness, they still had to have two classes: the killers and the killees.
In the endless debate over mental tests, there's one sure-fire test of how morally serious an author is. Does he honestly grapple with the raw, hulking fact of human intellectual inequality? Lemann flunks his personal Big Test badly, as he spends 343 pages sidestepping this central reality.
The problem is that some people are simply smarter than other people. Yes, it helps to go to good schools and have parents who read to you and all that. Still, siblings raised in the same home routinely turn out highly different in intelligence. Even fraternal twins raised side by side aren't very similar. Only identical twins, who share the same DNA, tend to come out alike in IQ.
Is it fair that winners in this genetic lottery tend to be better able to provide for themselves? Of course not. But the relevant question for us is: What we do about it? Do we try to equalize mental ability? (Whacking smart kids on the head with a ball-peen hammer would be the most effective way.) Or do we treat brainpower as a precious natural resource that can benefit all of society?
Paradoxically, by focusing on usefulness rather than fairness, IQ tests like the SAT have helped eliminate much blatant unfairness. They've shown that discrimination is expensive. For example, everyone assumed men were smarter than women until pioneering IQ researcher Cyril Burt announced they were equal way back in 1912. After WWII when colleges began competing on their students' average SAT scores, they found that the easiest way to get more bright students was to stop discriminating against women. Similarly, this competition for brains also induced Ivy League colleges to finally stop mistreating Jews, the highest scoring ethnic group.
The Math portion of the SAT has been a huge boon to Asian immigrants. Software engineer and journalist Arthur Hu responds to Lemann's snide history of the SAT: "My father and mother from China sent 7 kids to MIT and Stanford on the basis of high SAT scores. Six of us are now in high tech and the other is a doctor. Isn't this exactly what the people who invented the SAT had in mind?"
Although Lemann shows no interest in technologists, we should note that the Math SAT has been a huge boon to American prosperity. It liberated a group so dispersed and downtrodden that it didn't even have a name until about 30 years ago: nerds. By identifying nerdy geniuses in high schools across America and Canada, many of whom were too bored to make good grades, the Math SAT enabled them to form critical masses of computer geeks in nerd havens like Stanford and MIT. Out of these colleges grew the great high-tech incubators such as Silicon Valley and Route 128, which are the engines of the current American boom. In contrast, Canada's lack of ultra-elitist tech schools is increasingly a drag on its economy.
The effects of the Verbal SAT are more troublesome, though. Certainly it has bestowed upon America more clever lawyers, but that is, shall we say, a mixed blessing.
The Verbal SAT has also allowed America's future elite of journalists, academics, and policy wonks to cluster together at Ivy League universities at an early age. There they form career-boosting friendships with like-minded young verbalists. Lemann, for example, became best friends at Harvard with Michael Kinsley, who went on to edit The New Republic, Harper's, and Slate. Along with other brilliant young Harvard men like James Fallows, former editor of U.S. News & World Report, they founded a movement called "neoliberalism." While the term is unknown to the general public, neoliberalism quickly became the reigning mindset of important magazines like Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly.
That the SAT jumpstarts the careers of brilliant young scientists and engineers is an unmixed blessing because their precocious creativity is tested against unforgiving reality: If their Hot New Idea turns out to be wrong, their bridge falls down or their computer program bombs. Verbal SAT elitism, however, brings together at an early age the young people with the most dazzling rhetorical talents who can thus mesmerize each other with their soaring theories of how the world ought to work long before they have a clue about how the world actually works.
For example, for 20 years Lemann's neoliberal friends have been publicly attacking IQ testing and the SAT. Lemann's big book was to be their coup de grace. Year after year he searched for flaws in the numbers and logic of the IQ realists like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray. And then Lemann punted. Those hoping for a refutation of The Bell Curve in The Big Test will be disappointed. In fact, in this purported history of testing, there are almost no numbers and not much more logic. Left with apparently nothing analytical to say about intelligence that wouldn't embarrass either his friends or the truth, Lemann padded his book with endless personal details about some excruciatingly boring people. Fortunately for Lemann, since his natural audience of liberal verbalists aren't too comfortable with either numbers or logic, they'll no doubt appreciate having neither their mental skills nor their prejudices challenged. In summary, the best example of the nefarious impact of the SAT is Lemann's own book.
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