Ideas about Inferiority

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Ability, Merit and Measurement: Mental Testing and English Education 1880-1940 by Gillian Sutherland and Stephen Sharp
    Oxford, 332 pp, £25.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 822632 2

Since the last century, national success – the capacity to compete in global markets, generate new technologies or produce and sustain a proud, healthy and energetic citizenry – has been linked to schooling as it never had been before (A Nation at Risk is the spectacular title of the Gardner Report on education which has been causing a stir in America.) Until the 1880s or thereabouts, the provision for education was much discussed, but rarely in Britain was the state of popular knowledge equated with national survival. Reading and writing for the poor attending Sunday schools, basic skills for manual workers, a little social science for the class of superior workers, liberal education for future governors and those destined for the professions: allowing for some disquiet on the part of moralists and humanists bothered by questions of justice or high culture, these aims were usually considered sufficient. Making little or no demand upon the Treasury, they were all the more satisfactory.

In the last years of Victoria’s celebrated reign the tone of educational discussion changed. No longer were market incentives regarded as adequate for fulfilling the conception of national need characteristic of Gladstonian Liberalism with its habit of deferring to respectable public opinion in educational decisions. Henceforth, said critics, reformers, some politicians and a number of senior bureaucrats, the ability of England to meet overseas challenges required a top-down effort at social planning. The nation’s future lay with her children. Forster’s Education Act of 1870 (subsequently amended), the Balfour Education Act of 1902 (subsequently extended) and provision for technical and vocational education at public expense became central aspects of Late Victorian and Edwardian social reconstruction. In retrospect we notice the same deliberate and piecemeal social engineering characteristic of Victorian legislation generally, but there were enough innovations to set the early 20th century apart from prior departures in public policy.

Compulsory systems of mass education are gigantic laboratories. They provide modern governments with unexampled opportunities for social experimentation. They are at the same time the begetter (but also the begot) of large numbers of salaried professionals eager for careers: health experts and physical therapists, psychometrists and biometricians, statisticians and budget analysts, guidance counsellors and specialists in the treatment of reading disorders. The very scale of intervention is daunting but exciting. The Dr Knocks of this world are ecstatic, a million thermometers to be thrust at once into the mouths of compliant patients. The possibilities for regimentation, if merely at the level of enforcing a common dress code or delousing immature scalps or inculcating solid habits of thrift and temperance, are irresistible. An army of children and adolescents passing through the impressionable years: could a saint resist such a run at the future? As a potential source of values, either reinforcing those of the home or imposing upon them, schools stand alone.

Subtracting a certain amount of Utopian overkill, we are still left with the important question why, if schools are the key to national regeneration, are so many chances thrown away? Why, if the survival of a nation depends upon its supply of educated citizens, busily performing the many tasks required of a happy society, did the British create a system of selection as restrictive, unjust and unimaginative as the 11-plus? These are standing historical questions. A number of explanations exist: ‘objective’ ones, for example, having to do with taxation policy and the allocation of existing resources, or demand curves (but demand was probably there), or bureaucratic rationalisation appalled by the sloppy if flexible historical practice of allowing overlap between elementary and secondary education. It seemed sensible to divide the two at a rough and ready line drawn somewhere near puberty. Although much deplored today, the 11-plus was not too dissimilar from methods of tracking used throughout Europe.

The most familiar explanation attributes the history of the 11-plus to England’s tripartite social structure, tracing the origins of class-specific education to Victorian educational pioneers like Canon Woodard, founder of schools such as Lancing, St John’s Hurst-pierpoint, Ardingly and Ellesmere. Recently a more conspiratorial explanation has been suggested: namely, that the 11-plus owed its influence to the biological racism of the Imperial period. Victorian class prejudice was thus taken one fateful step further. Not only could large numbers of impoverished members of the lower classes expect to lead lives that were narrow, nasty, brutish and short: they were also destined to suffer from the stigma of inferior genetic endowment. A higher level of schooling for them would simply be a waste of scarce resources. Not all the poorer members of the working classes were ‘mentally deficient’, a condition that begged for scientific proof, but some investigators detected signs of a lower ‘general intelligence’ or ability (the famous ‘g’ factor). This, too, required scientific proof, and it was found. We enter upon the early history of intelligence testing. We meet eugenists like Sir Francis Galton and his successor and biographer, Karl Pearson and the now infamous Sir Cyril Burt and a cast of fellow travellers. Even Sidney Webb cagily voiced eugenical arguments while remaining a committed environmentalist. We encounter the first steps towards academic respectability, such as the founding in 1901 of new journals like Biometrika, and the creation of the Eugenic Education Society. Some historians have noticed that eugenists penetrated the membership of the Royal Society and the British Association and tried to influence the readership of the Lancet. We hear about public lectures, such as the one given at Caxton Hall in 1911 under the sinister title, ‘Heredity and the Jew’. Finally – Roy Lowe in particular has levelled this charge – we are told that in the 1930s eugenists captured a major citadel of environmentalist and ameliorative opinion when the Board of Education succumbed to the cumulative pressure of the hereditarian lobby, and of its friends in the press, on consultative committees, in the medical profession and in newly-created professional societies such as the Central Association for Mental Welfare. Allies could also be found among the executive of the National Union of Teachers.

There are many kinds of hereditarian views, from what is essentially a scientific interest in chromosomes to the belief in absolute genetic determination. Many of them are not pretty. Phrases such as ‘the deterioration of the national stock’, ‘ineducable children’, the abolition of the ‘brutal element in the struggle for existence’, and ‘social waste’, are not comforting and are not meant to be. Any division into permanently inferior and superior, given the complexity of the brain and the effects of circumstances on behaviour, must be completely beyond suspicion. Impossible. The path from the double helix to social policy takes us out of a world of scientific discovery into one where ideologies and prejudices flourish. Place extreme hereditarian views against a historical background of growing national unease over Britain’s Great Power status, and the anxious imagination understandably leaps from the early 1900s to the monstrosities committed in Middle Europe in another generation.

Strong views strongly expressed are heard, especially if uttered by men of influence and status. Historians have to decide whether the situation was as disturbing as some evidence suggests. No one disputes the existence of eugenicist views in Edwardian and Georgian England. The question is rather the extent to which they were actually folded into educational policy, principally through the medium of written mental tests, becoming in time the principal justification for limiting the supply of secondary education.

There are therefore two issues: the adoption of IQ tests weighted against the socially disadvantaged and their use in merit selection. With the cool head, sure grip, empirical outlook and superb command of the sources of government and local administration typical of her research, Gillian Sutherland challenges the general hypothesis that the widespread adoption of intelligence testing in England is a major cause of perceived rigidities in the structure of English schooling. She points out that from the late 19th century onwards the problem of weak intelligence was always addressed within a progressive rather than a custodial context, that even persons classified as feebleminded or adult idiots or ‘moral defectives’ were usually thought capable of integration into society. This was especially true of the young, whose mental inheritance, it was argued, could not be gauged with certainty.

Psychometry is double-edged. In the hands of some, measurement is a tool for identifying the unfit; in those of others, it is the basis for a programme of special education and encouragement. It is true, says Sutherland, that eventually the Board of Education began to believe in mental tests as a useful indication of potential achievement, but not unless their reliability was above reproach (as apparently the Moray House tests were). As for biological determinism, the dominant view at the Board, reinforced by sentiments expressed in the reports of the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded (1908), and of the Mental Deficiency Committee appointed by the Board in the mid-1920s, was that mental defects were mainly medical or social in origin. The connection between cretinism and thyroid disorders had been known since the 19th century, and more was being learned about the effects of certain diseases or enzyme deficiencies. It was appreciated that IQ test design was critical, that variations in administering tests affected their trustworthiness and that the nervous state of the child at the time of testing influenced the outcome. Given the prominence accorded Burt in some accounts of the history of intelligence testing, it is interesting to read Sutherland’s discussion of the 1925 affair of Form 41D which had been produced at Branch ‘M’ in the Board of Education to certify a child as abnormal or ‘dull and backward’ (a category invented in 1899). Containing some of Burt’s tests of verbal abilities, Form 41D was roundly denounced by the elementary education inspectorate and subsequently modified.

Even further refinement of intelligence tests in the 1930s did not, according to Sutherland, lead to unqualified enthusiasm for them. For by then psychologists, long struggling against the opposition of doctors for professional recognition, were developing the field of the psychology of individual differences and publicising the idea of maladjustment – a far cry from equating low intelligence with whole sectors of the population. Environmentalist and developmental, the idea of maladjustment led to the creation of child guidance clinics. These were supported by the Board, and Sutherland attributes the failure to extend the programme of clinics to straitened resources rather than capitulation by the Board to proponents of the doctrine of the mentally ineducable.

There remains the specific issue of the use of intelligence tests to select pupils for places in the system of secondary education. Here Sutherland departs from several of her predecessors, notably Olive Banks and Brian Simon. She argues that the decentralised character of educational administration in England left the decision on selection in local hands. On the basis of careful sampling research described in Appendix II, she concludes that only 81 out of 146 local authorities in England and Wales regularly or even intermittently used an IQ test in its ‘broadest and loosest sense’ in the 20 years after 1919. She even questions whether other standardised tests were commonly used – for example, measurements of English or mathematical proficiency. She finds so much variation in testing at local authority level that she is led to reject categorically the assertion that a passion for mental measurement permeated the educational establishment of England and Wales. Her own arguments are detailed and precise, but she is the first to acknowledge gaps in the data.

In this meticulous account, the history of mental testing in England is not the story of the insertion of Darwinian/Galtonian views into the education process. It is instead a discussion of hesitation. While considerable experiment with standardised measurement went on, no common opinion as to its efficiency resulted. The rhetoric of ‘social waste’ was present but never instrumental. There was resistance all along, the Welsh resisting even more than the English. A certain amount of pragmatism, a certain amount of British dislike of tidy bureaucratic solutions, as well as comfortable traditions of assessing ability, did not allow much room for ‘scientific’ methods of selection. Intelligence testing, in fact, was never as important in Britain as it was in America. Never was it accorded the same respect as a sorting-out device.

The British conception of merit, no matter how strenuously the case for objectivity in selection was argued by Mid-Victorian fabricators of Civil Service examinations, had more in common with European notions of mobility than transatlantic conceptions of opportunity and achievement. The supply of real talent, it was believed, was always likely to be limited and drawn from strata already enjoying status and income – generally speaking, the children of professional families. Success in life was a function of the chances imparted by upbringing as well as schooling, and the ‘g’ factor was only one among a number of traits, including character, essential to later achievement. (In fact, psychologists are often reluctant to correlate academic with career success, since so many social variables enter into the second.) No society had the resources to reverse the stubborn facts of social and economic life, and any effort to ‘force the pace’ (as the Times Educational Supplement put it in 1910) would doubtless interfere with existing bonding and socialising arrangements. Insert into this reasoning a tendency to link class to the occupational structure, introduce the realities of unemployment in the 1930s, subtract the need to accommodate a large and heterogeneous immigrant population, and England’s resistance to intelligence testing is understandable. ‘In the years before 1940 mental measurement did not take the English educational world by storm. Rather, when it was noticed at all, it was exploited, but to the service of existing élite structures and methods of selection.’

This makes perfect sense. Sutherland, in collaboration with Stephen Sharp, has performed an immense service in shifting historical attention from the Board of Education to local education authorities, where the most important decisions on testing were made. But the problem of the dissemination of ideas about inherent inferiority is not thereby totally disposed of. There is a further step – the magnitude of it cannot be exaggerated – which takes us from local authority to classroom. What did teachers themselves make of IQ testing? Sutherland identifies two possible responses. At one level, objective assessments are an affront to the teacher’s powers of judgment. At another, they are ‘professional’ tools enhancing the authority of the teacher as a developer of talent. The latter is particularly significant where status is perceived to be low.

There is a third level, the influence of biological theories of personal or social worth on pedagogy. We have little historical perspective on the effect of classroom experience on the shaping of individual values and beliefs. The wider question of the spread of the various forms of biological determinism from which this century has suffered requires inquiry into the history of teaching. Without in the least minimising the real difficulties confronting teachers in the classroom, it is still useful to remember that in these minuscule laboratories a glance, a careless phrase, the absence of encouragement or a habit of playing favourites has a practical effect similar to living in a Malthusian universe which nobbles so many before the race has started.