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The Politics of Biological Determinism

The          Politics of Biological Determinism

By Stephen Jay Gould

The following has been condensed from the introduction to Stephen Jay Gould's 1996 edition of "The Mismeasure of Man." Given the growing reliance on standardized testing within education, and the origin of such tests in assumptions about the biological innateness of IQ (especially along lines of race), we believe that Gould's remarks shed some insight into the sociopolitical context of increased calls for high-stakes standardized tests. This is particularly the case when standardized test scores are seen as proxies for intelligence and are used to determine which schools are granted society's best educational resources and rewards and which students get into the best colleges and universities.

I regard the critique of biological determinism as both timeless and timely. It is timeless because the errors of biological determinism are so deep and insidious and appeal to the worst manifestations of our common nature. It is timely because the same bad arguments recur every few years with a predictable and depressing regularity.

No mystery attends the reason for these recurrences. They are not manifestations of some underlying cyclicity, obeying a natural law that might be captured in a mathematical formula as convenient as IQ; nor do these episodes represent any hot item of new data or some previously unconsidered novel twist in argument.

The reasons for recurrence are sociopolitical and are not hard to find. Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power.

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