there are a thousand kinds of human excellence. Among them intelligence, we might agree, is a potential something which distinguishes us from the brutes; it is one of the trailing clouds of glory that children bring to the schools with each new generation; it is a name for the possibility of intellectual achievement, part of the hope that humanity may be made divine. But is this the intelligence that intelligence tests measure, that Head Teachers report on and 11+ Examiners select? That it is not will surely furnish material for a crucial chapter in The English Ideology, if that emancipating book ever comes to be written by The New Left.

Accepted doctrines about intelligence are ideological, not because they are untruths but because they are partial truths applied in education for the benefit of non-educational interests. Above all they help to reconcile us to an educational system which preserves the traditional privileges of birth and wealth while making the minimum necessary concession to the technical and political pressures towards recruiting talented people, whatever their social origin, as high scientific and professional manpower. Of course, for the elite minority, the aristocratic preference for character over brains, for the rounded man over the expert, continues as an essential element in the containment of meritocracy. This older educational ideology justifies the public schools, makes possible an occasional special case for the college admission tutor and defends those advertisements for young managers in the posh newspapers which stipulate “public school boys only”. But for the mass of the white and blue collar class, intelligence is incorporated into established thought as the arbiter of educational opportunity.

This could be dangerous to ancient privilege. After all, liberal and egalitarian reform was demanded until recently in precisely these terms. The sad paradox is that intelligence testing has provided, a formal equality of opportunity and has helped to meet the demand for new white collar workers in such a way as to leave us no nearer than we ever were to the kind of educational system which, as socialists, we seek.

The ideology of the IQ has its source in the five beliefs that intelligence is measurable, hereditary, educable, scarce and a property of individual persons. Belief in measurability is essential for, given the nature of intelligence as a potential for future performance, it makes possible the early identification of the clever and the stupid. Moreover, the “operational” definition that intelligence is what the tests measure ensures that only those psychological traits which are convenient and desirable from the point of view of the schoolmaster, the administrator and the employer are included. This means that intelligence is what predicts performance best in the educational system as it is, serving the economy and the state in the way it does. Hence the emphasis on speed, accurate memory, verbal facility, orderliness—what some modern psychologists call convergent thinking. All these are praiseworthy attributes but there are others no less laudable. For example, it is possible to define and measure creativity—a capacity for elaborating complex and original relationships—divergent rather than convergent thinking. And it is possible to identify people with high creativity scores and relatively low IQs. It is significant that in comparing two such groups the Chicago psychologist, Getzels, found that the intelligent pupils were preferred by teachers to the creative ones. Getzels concludes from his researches that by breaking the hold that the IQ has on the concept of giftedness, one can identify a number of groups whose potential contributions go unrecognised in the classroom today.


A hereditary basis for measured intelligence is no less essential to the psychometric ideology. It is politically convenient in providing a modern scientific substitute for the old Phoenician parable of the metals, which embarrassed Plato when he expounded his theory to Glaucon. With the aid of the test, men of gold may be separated early from the men of silver and of brass, and the inequality of their educational treatment may be justified in the name of equality of opportunity. The theory thus legitimates a distribution of opportunities for grammar school education which some hereditarians would argue to be reflective of the genetic composition of social strata in Britain today. Set against variations in grammar school places of one in three in one county to one in ten in another, the argument is ridiculous. But applied to differences between classes, it commands widespread assent and those like me who argue that differences in the class distribution of IQ (and therefore grammar school places) may be due entirely to environmental causes are a small minority. Moreover, the IQ has the impressive subtlety that it contains less class bias than alternative measures of ability such as attainment tests in English and Arithmetic.

Nor does the subtlety of the theory end there. A small concession to the force of environmental and other disturbances to the accurate measurement of this genetic entity explains away the results of the famous Scottish mental surveys of 1932 and 1947, directs research towards the trivialities of refined psychometry and distracts attention from the determination of human attainment by class, ethnic, familial and other social influences. Even the direct study of the genetic basis of intelligent behaviour tends to be neglected and we know next to nothing about it. The assertion that there is such a basis is a hypothesis, though admittedly a plausible one. What we do know without any doubt is that there are powerful social forces which act on the mental development and functioning of the individual. Environments can enrich or stupefy mental life and the process is cumulative. Different families, different class or cultural groups promote different levels of “achievement motivation” in their members. Hereditarian doctrines are the refuge of pessimism and all too often the instrument of perpetuated inequality.