The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

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9780029146736: The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life

Book by HerrsteinRichard JMurrayCharles

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Chapter 1

Cognitive Class and Education, 1900-1990

In the course of the twentieth century, America opened the doors of its colleges wider than any previous generation of Americans, or other society in history, could have imagined possible. This democratization of higher education has raised new, barriers between people that may prove to be more divisive and intractable than the old ones.

The growth in the proportion of people getting college degrees is the most obvious result, with a fifteen-fold increase from 1900 to 1990. Even more important, the students going to college were being selected ever more efficiently for their high IQ. The crucial decade was the 1950s, when the percentage of top students who went to college rose by more than it had in the preceding three decades. By the beginning of the 1990s, about 80 percent of all students in the top quartile of ability continued to college after high school. Among the high school graduates in the top few percentiles of cognitive ability the chances of going to college already exceeded 90 percent.

Perhaps the most important of all the changes was the transformation of America's elite colleges. As more bright youngsters went off to college, the colleges themselves began to sort themselves out. Starting in the 1950s, a handful of restitutions became magnets for the very brightest of each year's new class. In these schools, the cognitive level of the students rose far above the rest of the college population.

Taken together, these trends have stratified America according to cognitive ability.


A perusal of Harvard's Freshman Register for 1952 shows a class looking very much as Harvard freshman classes had always looked. Under the photographs of the well-scrubbed, mostly East Coast, overwhelmingly white and Christian young men were home addresses from places like Philadelphia's Main Line, the Upper East Side of New York, and Boston's Beacon Hill. A large proportion of the class came from a handful of America's most exclusive boarding schools; Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover alone contributed almost 10 percent of the freshmen that year.

And yet for all its apparent exclusivity, Harvard was not so hard to get into in the fall of 1952. An applicant's chances of being admitted were about two out of three, and close to 90 percent if his father had gone to Harvard. With this modest level of competition, it is not surprising to learn that the Harvard student body was not uniformly brilliant. In fact, the mean SAT-Verbal score of the incoming freshmen class was only 583, well above the national mean but nothing to brag about. Harvard men came from a range of ability that could be duplicated in the top half of many state universities.

Let us advance the scene to 1960. Wilbur J. Bender, Harvard's dean of admissions, was about to leave his post and trying to sum up for the board of overseers what had happened in the eight years of his tenure. "The figures," he wrote, "report the greatest change in Harvard admissions, and thus in the Harvard student body, in a short time -- two college generations -- in our recorded history." Unquestionably, suddenly, but for no obvious reason, Harvard had become a different kind of place. The proportion of the incoming students from New England had dropped by a third. Public school graduates now outnumbered private school graduates. Instead of rejecting a third of its applicants, Harvard was rejecting more than two-thirds -- and the quality of those applicants had increased as well, so that many students who would have been admitted in 1952 were not even bothering to apply in 1960.

The SAT scores at Harvard had skyrocketed. In the fall of 1960, the average verbal score was 678 and the average math score was 695, an increase of almost a hundred points for each test. The average Harvard freshman in 1952 would have placed in the bottom 10 percent of the incoming class by 1960. In eight years, Harvard had been transformed from a school primarily for the northeastern socioeconomic elite into a school populated by the brightest of the bright, drawn from all over the country.

The story of higher education in the United States during the twentieth century is generally taken to be one of the great American success stories, and with good reason. The record was not without blemishes, but the United States led the rest of the world in opening college to a mass population of young people of ability, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, and financial resources.

But this success story also has a paradoxically shadowy side, for education is a powerful divider and classifier. Education affects income, and income divides. Education affects occupation, and occupations divide. Education affects tastes and interests, grammar and accent, all of which divide. When access to higher education is restricted by class, race, or religion, these divisions cut across cognitive levels. But school is in itself, more immediately and directly than any other institution, the place where people of high cognitive ability excel and people of low cognitive ability fail. As America opened access to higher education, it opened up as well a revolution in the way that the American population sorted itself and divided itself. Three successively more efficient sorting processes were at work: the college population grew, it was recruited by cognitive ability more efficiently, and then it was further sorted among the colleges.

THE COLLEGE POPULATION GROWS

A social and economic gap separated high school graduates from college graduates in 1900 as in 1990; that much is not new. But the social md economic gap was not accompanied by much of a cognitive gap, became the vast majority of the brightest people in the United States had not gone to college. We may make that statement despite the lack of IQ scores from 1900 for the same reason that we can make such statements about Elizabethan England: It is true by mathematical necessity. In 1900, only about 2 percent of 23-year-olds got college degrees. Even if all of the 2 percent who went to college had IQs of 115 and above (and they did not), seven out of eight of the brightest 23-year-olds in the America of 1900 would have been without college degrees. This situation barely changed for the first two decades of the new century. Then, at the close of World War I, the role of college for American youths began an expansion that would last until 1974, interrupted only by the Great Depression and World War II.

The three lines in the figure show trends established in 1920-1929, 1935-1940, and 1954-1973, then extrapolated. They are there to highlight the three features of the figure worth noting. First, the long perspective serves as a counterweight to the common belief that the college population exploded suddenly after World War II. It certainly exploded in the sense that the number of college students went from a wartime trough to record highs, but this is because two generations of college students were crowded onto campuses at one time. In terms of trendlines, World War II and its aftermath was a blip, albeit a large blip. When this anomalous turmoil ended in the mid-1950s, the proportion of people getting college degrees was no higher than would have been predicted from the trends established in the 1920s or the last half of the 1930s (which are actually a single trend interrupted by the worst years of the depression).

The second notable feature of the figure is the large upward tilt in the trendline from the mid-1950s until 1974. That it began when it did -- the Eisenhower years -- comes as a surprise. The GI bill's impact had faded and the postwar baby boom had not yet reached college age. Presumably postwar prosperity had something to do with it, but the explanation cannot be simple. The slope remained steep in periods as different as Eisenhower's late 1950s, LBJ's mid-1960s, and Nixon's early 1970s.

After 1974 came a peculiar plunge in college degrees that lasted until 1981 -- peculiar because it occurred when the generosity of scholarships and loans, from colleges, foundations, and government alike, was at its peak. This period of declining graduates was then followed by a steep increase from 1981 to 1990 -- also peculiar, in that college was becoming harder to afford for middle-class Americans during those years. As of 1990, the proportion of students getting college degrees had more than made up for the losses during the 1970s and had established a new record, with B.A.s and B.S.s being awarded in such profusion that they amounted to 30 percent of the 23-year-old population.

MAKING GOOD ON THE IDEAL OF OPPORTUNITY

At first glance, we are telling a story of increasing democracy and intermingling, not of stratification. Once upon a time, the college degree was the preserve of a tiny minority; now almost a third of each new cohort of youths earns it. Surely, it would seem, this must mean that a broader range of people is going to college -- including people with a broader, not narrower, range of cognitive ability. Not so. At the same time that many more young people were going to college, they were also being selected ever more efficiently by cognitive ability.

A compilation of the studies conducted over the course of the century suggests that the crucial decade was the 1950s. The next figure shows the data for the students in the top quartile (the top 25 percent) in ability and is based on the proportion of students entering college (though not necessarily finishing) in the year following graduation from high school.

Again, the lines highlight trends set in particular periods, here 1925-1950 and 1950-1960. From one period to the next, the proportion of bright students getting to college leaped to new heights. There are two qualifications regarding this figure. First, it is based on high school graduates -- the only data available over this time period -- and therefore drastically understates the magnitude of the real change from the 1920s to the 1960s and thereafter, because so many of the top quartile in ability never made it through high school early in the century (see Chapter 6). It is impossible to be more precise with the available data, but a reasonable estimate is that as of the mid-1920s, only about 15 percent of all of the nation's youth in the top IQ quartile were going on to college. It is further the case that almost all of those moving on to college in the 1920s were going to four-year colleges, and this leads to the second qualification to keep in mind: By the 1970s and 1980s, substantial numbers of those shown as continuing to college were going to a junior college, which are on average less demanding than four-year colleges. Interpreting all the available data, it appears that the proportion of all American youth in the top IQ quartile who went directly to four-year colleges rose from roughly one youth in seven in 1925 to about two out of seven in 1950 to more than four out of seven in the early 1960s, where it has remained, with perhaps a shallow upward trend, ever since.

But it is not just that the top quartile of talent has been more efficiently tapped for college. At every level of cognitive ability, the links between IQ and the probability of going to college became tighter and more regular. The next figure summarizes three studies that permit us to calculate the probability of going to college throughout the ability range over the last seventy years. Once again we are restricted to high school graduates for the 1925 data, which overstates the probability of going to college during this period. Even for the fortunate few who got a high school degree in 1925, high cognitive ability improved their chances of getting to college -- but not by much. The brightest high school graduates had almost a 60 percent chance of going to college, which means that they had more than a 40 percent chance of not going, despite having graduated from high school and being very bright. The chances of college for someone merely in the 80th percentile in ability were no greater than classmates who were at the 50th percentile, and only slightly greater than classmates in the bottom third of the class.

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, the largest change in the probability of going to college was at the top of the cognitive ability distribution. By 1960, a student who was really smart -- at or near the l00th percentile in IQ -- had a chance of going to college of nearly 100 percent. Furthermore, as the figure shows, going to college had gotten more dependent on intelligence at the bottom of the distribution, too. A student at the 30th percentile had only about a 25 percent chance of going to college -- lower than it had been for high school graduates in the 1920s. But a student in the 80th percentile had a 70 percent chance of going to college, well above the proportion in the 1920s.

The line for the early 1980s is based on students who graduated from high school between 1980 and 1982. The data are taken from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), which will figure prominently in the chapters ahead. Briefly, the NLSY is a very large (originally 12,686 persons), nationally representative sample of American youths who were aged 14 to 22 in 1979, when the study began, and have been followed ever since. (The NLSY is discussed more fully in the introduction to Part II.) The curve is virtually identical to that from the early 1960s, which is in itself a finding of some significance in the light of the many upheavals that occurred in American education in the 1960s and 1970s.

Didn't Equal Opportunity in Higher Education Really Open Up During the 1960s?

The conventional wisdom holds that the revolution in higher education occurred in the last half of the 1960s, as part of the changes of the Great Society, especially its affirmative action policies. We note here that the proportion of youths going to college rose about as steeply in the 1950s as in the 1960s, as shown in the opening figure in this chapter and the accompanying discussion. Chapter 19 considers the role played by affirmative action in the changing college population of recent decades.

Meanwhile, the sorting process continued in college. College weeds out many students, disproportionately the least able. The figure below shows the situation as of the 1980s. The line for students entering college reproduces the one shown in the preceding figure. The line for students completing the B.A. shows an even more efficient sorting process. A high proportion of people with poor test scores -- more than 20 percent of those in the second decile (between the 10th and 20th centile), for example -- entered a two- or four-year college. But fewer than 2 percent of them actually completed a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, about 70 percent of the students in the top decile of ability were completing a B.A.

So a variety of forces have combined to ensure that a high proportion of the nation's most able youths got into the category of college graduates. But the process of defining a cog...

Revue de presse :

Michael Novak National Review Our intellectual landscape has been disrupted by the equivalent of an earthquake.

David Brooks The Wall Street Journal Has already kicked up more reaction than any social?science book this decade.

Peter Brimelow Forbes Long-awaited...massive, meticulous, minutely detailed, clear. Like Darwin's Origin of Species -- the intellectual event with which it is being seriously compared -- The Bell Curve offers a new synthesis of research...and a hypothesis of far-reaching explanatory power.

Milton Friedman This brilliant, original, objective, and lucidly written book will force you to rethink your biases and prejudices about the role that individual difference in intelligence plays in our economy, our policy, and our society.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. Commentary The Bell Curve's implications will be as profound for the beginning of the new century as Michael Harrington's discovery of "the other America" was for the final part of the old. Richard Herrnstein's bequest to us is a work of great value. Charles Murray's contribution goes on.

Prof. Thomas J. Bouchard Contemporary Psychology [The authors] have been cast as racists and elitists and The Bell Curve has been dismissed as pseudoscience....The book's message cannot be dismissed so easily. Herrnstein and Murray have written one of the most provocative social science books published in many years....This is a superbly written and exceedingly well documented book.

Christopher Caldwell American Spectator The Bell Curve is a comprehensive treatment of its subject,never mean-spirited or gloating. It gives a fair hearing to those who dissent scientifically from its propositions -- in fact, it bends over backward to be fair....Among the dozens of hostile articles that have thus far appeared, none has successfully refuted any of its science.

Malcolme W. Browne The New York Times Book Review Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein write that "for the last 30 years, the concept of intelligence has been a pariah in the world of ideas," and that the time has come to rehabilitate rational discourse on the subject. It is hard to imagine a democratic society doing otherwise.

Prof. Eugene D. Genovese National Review Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray might not feel at home with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lani Guinier, but they should....They have all [made] brave attempts to force a national debate on urgent matters that will not go away. And they have met the same fate. Once again, academia and the mass media are straining every muscle to suppress debate.

Prof. Earl Hunt American Scientist The first reactions to The Bell Curve were expressions of public outrage. In the second round of reaction, some commentators suggested that Herrnstein and Murray were merely bringing up facts that were well known in the scientific community, but perhaps best not discussed in public. A Papua New Guinea language has a term for this, Mokita. It means "truth that we all know, but agree not to talk about." ...There are fascinating questions here for those interested in the interactions between sociology, economics, anthropology and cognitive science. We do not have the answers yet. We may need them soon, for policy makers who rely on Mokita are flying blind.

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