I heard of Lewis Terman and George Stoddard’s argument while mulling over a quiet disaster.
For five Saturdays over a recent semester I taught an “Advanced Language Arts” class to seventh and eighth-graders identified as gifted. Hosted by a nationally-known program advocating for gifted education and selected after advertising the class to an unspecified number of schools, our group was small, five girls and two boys, and met for three hours at a time. Our focus was creative nonfiction: personal narratives. No grades, no testing, just exercises, encouragement and feedback. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been surprised the class didn’t go as planned but these children had been identified as gifted, they were giving up several Saturdays to meet, their parents had paid three hundred bucks for the privilege and—this is where I made my first mistake—I accepted the assertion by one of the administrators in the program that I should assume they could read and write at the same level as the first year college students I’d been teaching for the past few years.
I knew better, but suspended my skepticism and planned accordingly starting with a craft essay on writing personal essays, an interview with David Sedaris and a copy of the Sedaris essay “The Drama Bug” where he dryly unpacks his teenage fascination with mimes and acting. In another pile I stacked an assortment of essays for them to sort through including “The American Male at Age Ten” by Susan Orlean, a New Yorker essay I thought of as the toughest in the bunch.
Within the first few minutes the class divided along gender, class and immigrant lines. The girls were a mix of apathetic and endearing silliness. Two were first-generation US citizens from highly-educated families including one university professor. The other three advertised all the signs of white, middle-class upbringing: school-savvy and laden with cell phones and tales of hyper-scheduled weekends. They chatted freely and managed the craft essay but couldn’t make sense of “The Drama Bug” which jumped around too much for them and didn’t follow an easy chronological order. The interview drew a mostly muted response so we switched gears and worked on brainstorming exercises jotting ideas down on a white board. Lists of experiences, memories. I didn’t know if doing so would lead us anywhere but it got us out of our seats and talking to one another. I decided an acceptable outcome for the session was getting to know one another so let them talk and listened as they talked about their ideas of good writing, eventually distributing lists of writing prompts cut out on strips of paper (insert examples) and asking them to write their own. One girl, older, taller and eager to prove her ability read “The American Male at Age Ten” and found Orleans’ profile of a young boy easier to follow than Sedaris’ tongue in cheek fantasies about becoming a Shakespearean actor. She jotted down “If a man came up to you and asked for a goldfish, what would you do?” as her brainstorm idea which the other girls found fantastic and hilarious and for a discussion exercise sat with one of the boys who neither spoke nor made eye contact with her.
The boys worried me from the start, exhibiting an unnerving disconnect — little eye contact, responses like “I don’t know” when questioned what they liked to read and the posture of prisoners to the clock. During a break, I pried out of them the admission they’d been signed up against their will. One spoke in a whisper so quiet I had to strain to hear him. He liked history a little. Facts. Things like that. His mother, who’d immigrated to the U.S. from a south Asian country in his early childhood, signed him up for the class. She worried about his English language skills and thought it might help. After class, she sought me out to ask how he’d performed and telling me he needed help, tutoring, things to read. Her English wasn’t strong so she couldn’t help him. Give him extra work, she said. Help him. Through all of this, he stood by slumped and defeated, the picture of mortified adolescent embarrassment personified. I tried to mollify her concerns while explaining we hoped each student would develop a short essay by the end of the class and wondering how he’d ended up in the class.
The other boy’s story was similar. He looked like the youngest in the class and spoke the least. Every now and then he’d jot down a note or two but would spend the fifteen hours in class time in near silence, briefly answering my questions when I sat next to him, his sentences often trailing off and only coming alive—smiling and appearing moderately happy—when laptop computers arrived (as demanded by the program) allowing him to click through the software and play on the Internet radio site Pandora. When asked what books he liked he didn’t know. He didn’t really like reading but did well in those classes. The only evidence as to why this was so came in his habit of taking short summary notes on anything we read. I would speak with his father a few times. An immigrant from a North African country he smiled and looked with concern as his son, on the first day, sought out a seat at the back of the room as far from the other children as possible. I attempted to engage him in conversation but never made any progress.
They were polite but when spoken to offered the shortest responses they could or didn’t speak at all. The girls were boisterous and engaged, two of them showing real interest and skill in their writing assignments, the others discussing the reading with interest but offering writing a sentence or two at most in response to our writing prompts. One, the most talkative in the group, admitted she decided to attend the class upon realizing it would “save her” from other activities her parents used to fill her weekends. In terms of their interest and abilities the group struck me as what I might expect had I selected a group of children randomly from any seventh grade classroom. But these children weren’t randomly selected, some had signed up after a standardized test identified them as talented and gifted, others after being willing to pay the tuition.
The disparate ways in which these seven children came into the classroom led me first to Lewis Terman, professor of psychology at Stanford University and the man responsible for bring the IQ test to the United States and one of those most responsible for the popularizing and rapid growth in intelligence testing after World War I and then to George Stoddard, one of Terman’s most tireless critics. A professor in the education department at the University of Iowa, his work as director of the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station lead him to question the conclusions and implications advocated by those promoting intelligence tests. While Terman spent his career seeking those on the extreme ends of the intelligence spectrum—exceptional on one end, mentally disabled on the other—Stoddard focused on the children in the middle; the “normal” ones. Terman’s concern with vast gaps in ability allowed him to construct a view of intelligence as easily quantifiable, something that was “plainly visible” while Stoddard’s work taught him to see the world in less stark terms. What to make of the orphaned children whose IQ test scores rose considerably after being adopted into stable, secure homes. If intelligence was as “native” as Terman argued then why did children taking Terman’s own tests see their scores change based on their environment? Terman, said Stoddard, failed to acknowledge the nature vs. nurture debate was a fallacy; it wasn’t an either/or question, the environment and our sentient selves were so inextricably bound up together he doubted how we might divide them with any confidence. Worse, Stoddard questioned the motives of those who did so. Terman was a eugenicist and, Stoddard said, created tests to advance these beliefs and to shape a future where every child would have his or her life course determined by a test claiming to quantify intelligence as a single number. For questioning the truths upon which he’d built his entire career, Terman found Stoddard to be a “dangerous man.”
Terman’s flawed science and disturbing social outlook should have made his work appear dubious at best in the decades following his death in 1956—and many view him with an uncomfortable skepticism, including those at Stanford—but his legacy lives on in the form of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, the Stanford Achievement Test, the crop of similar tests authored due to his influence and a national policy using legislated tests like those designed for No Child Left Behind as a punitive and crude sorting measure; his most lasting legacy being his impact on the concept of gifted and talented education. The National Association of Gifted Children and other likeminded organizations list him as the “father” of gifted education—a moniker embracing Terman’s own beliefs in the primacy of heredity and a designation that, as Terman’s original IQ tests did, disproportionately identifies children of a narrow, middle-class background as of superior intelligence. Despite a wealth of evidence undermining Terman’s assumptions and interpretations, his dream came true. The test won.