Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 6

Nicholas Lemann, “The Great Sorting”

1. In the world of intelligence testing, what does g refer to?

2. When was the Educational Testing Service founded? Who founded it?

3. When it comes to test scoring, what is reliability? What is validity? Why do they matter?

4. When was the SAT introduced? What was its purpose?

5. Roughly when did intelligence-testing begin in the United States? When did criticism of intelligence-testing begin in the United States?

6. Why do you think there was so much attention to similarities and differences between the IQ and the SAT tests? What did the ETS claim the SAT measured?

7. What Cold War policies related to education and the military were responsible for promoting the SAT?

8. Who was James Bryant Conant? Who was Henry Chauncey? What were their respective ideas about the role that testing could play in the growth of higher education after 1945?

9. Why do think the SAT was accepted easily and spread quickly in the United States? What factors associated it with meritocracy rather than aristocracy? How does Lemann explain this?

10. What impact did college deferments have on the military obligations of U.S. citizens? Did this policy have the results that policy-makers desired? Why or why not?

11. What do you think have been the major consequences of standardized testing for higher education since the 1950s?

12. Lemann compares the SAT to railroads in the 19th century. Explain.

13. What does the history of the SAT teach us about scientific and technological approaches to human nature during the 20th century?

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “Ten Myths About the SAT”

1. Compare this critique of the SAT to the thinking of Henry Chauncey and other architects of standardized testing. Which analysis do you find more persuasive and why? What sort of meritocracy (if any) do you believe emerged in the United States during the 20th century?

John Carson, The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940, pp. 11-37, 159-194

“ ‘The most precious gift of nature’: Natural Aristocracy, Republican Polities, and the Meanings of Talent”

1. Why were debates about the nature of intelligence so central to late-18th century social and political theorists on both sides of the Atlantic?

2. Thomas Jefferson, like many of his contemporaries, believed in both a “natural aristocracy among men” and the potential for republican government to equalize opportunity. Are these contradictory or compatible? Explain.

3. Why does Carson argue that “talents” were central to the debate about difference and equality in the age of democratic revolution?

4. What does merit mean to you? What did it mean to the European and American thinkers described in this chapter?

5. Helvétius’ position on the nature of intelligence represented one end of the Enlightenment spectrum on this subject. Explain.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft was concerned with what the debate about human nature and republican citizenship meant for women. What were her views?

7. Did advocates of republican government hold very similar or very different ideas about heredity and environment?

“American Psychology and the Seductions of IQ”

1. Carson identifies evolutionary perspectives and statistical approaches to human characteristics as two 19th-century factors that paved the way for intelligence measurement in the United States after 1900. Explain.

2. Why was intelligence such a difficult subject to study scientifically? How did testing technologies make it easier? What characterized the intelligence that intelligence tests claimed to measure?

3. Why is it significant that intelligence tests were first administered to feebleminded Americans and schoolchildren?

4. If the point of IQ was to identify and classify mental subnormality, why did intelligence-testing spread to normal populations?

5. What role did the eugenics movement play in the spread of mental testing in the United States?

6. Why does Carson write that “the Stanford-Binet in 1916 marked a fundamental divide in the American history of intelligence” (p. 183)?

7. Who was Lewis Terman?

8. Define Charles Spearman’s concept of general intelligence, or g.

9. What ratio did the IQ (intelligence quotient) measure? How do you think that calculating IQ as a single number influenced conceptions of intelligence? What specific mental skills did the IQ test seek to measure?