An extract from Ian Gilbert’s book Why Do I Need a Teacher WhenI’ve got Google? in response to this article from The Guardian on innate intelligence and social background, this awful story from the BBC on eugenics in North Carolina and, on the same day, this report from the OECD on how children from poorer backgrounds CAN do well at school if they learn to develop resilience and self confidence. And also, now a great article from Steve Jones on the ‘science (if that is the right word) of eugenics’.

Eugenics plays a part. In 1910 Binet’s test were translated into English by the American eugenicist Henry Goddard who wanted a way of filtering out the ‘feeble-minded’ from American society. Like the Englishman and cousin to Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Galton before him, he believed that intelligence, and related defects therein, was hereditary and therefore breeding was at the heart of any attempt to raise a nation’s overall intelligence. For Galton, this entailed mating the clever people together, namely the well-off and well-educated. For Goddard the key was to stop the stupid people breeding and if, regrettably, forcible sterilisation was not palatable to the American people the least they could do was to put them in ‘colonies’ . Don’t worry, though as, according to Goddard, ‘segregation and colonization is not by any means as hopeless a plan as it may seem to those who look only at the immediate increase in the tax rate.’ He claimed that such a capital investment would be more than recompensed by the savings in almshouses, prisons, psychiatric hospitals and ‘the reduction in the annual loss in property and life due to these irresponsible people’.

In Great Britain in 1907, The Eugenics Education Society was created to spearhead a campaign to have eugenicist views more widely accepted and, as quoted in The Making of Intelligence by Ken Richardson, a book I would make compulsory for all teachers, even the Encyclopaedia Britannica waded in, with one contributor asserting as fact that, “It is cruel to the individual, it serves no social purpose, to drag a man of only moderate intellectual power from the hand-working to the brain-working group.’ According to Richardson, the campaign led in no small way to the hugely influential 1938 Spens Report The Report of???The Consultative Committee on ???Secondary Education ???With Special Reference ???To Grammar Schools And Technical High Schools – in which it was stated:

‘Intellectual development during childhood appears to progress as if it were governed by a single central factor, usually known as ‘general intelligence’, which may be broadly described as innate all-round intellectual ability. It appears to enter into everything which the child attempts to think, or say, or do, and seems on the whole to be the most important factor in determining his work in the classroom. Our psychological witnesses assured us that it can be measured approximately by means of intelligence tests.’

 The report goes on to declare, ‘We were informed that, with few exceptions, it is possible at a very early age to predict with some degree of accuracy the ultimate level of a child’s intellectual powers’ before concluding that, given the evidence, ‘Different children from the age of 11, if justice is to be done to their varying capacities, require types of education varying in certain important respects’.

 The principle ‘psychological witness’ to which the report refers is the controversial English educational psychologist Cyril Burt, whose later research has been equally controversially discredited.  Burt was a member of the British Eugenics Society (as the Eugenics Education Society had become in 1926) and was the author of a 1909 paper which, according to Wikipedia at least, concluded that ‘upper-class children in private preparatory schools did better in the tests than those in the ordinary elementary schools, and that the difference was innate’. In his 1963 report ‘Is Intelligence Distributed Normally?’, on the subject of the normal curve of distribution of intelligence, he stated that:

‘Subsequent work in genetics has since furnished strong theoretical grounds for believing that innate mental abilities are not distributed in exact conformity with the normal curve. So far as they are inborn, individual differences in general intelligence are apparently due to a large number of genes of varying influence.’

 Compare that with this more scientifically-enlightened quote from a 21st century professor Robert Winston:

 ‘The kind of child you have depends almost entirely on how you bring it up. Genes and inherited dispositions are pieces of trivia really’.