Sunday, June 08, 2008

IQ and Higher Education   posted by DavidB @ 6/08/2008 04:25:00 AM

Readers in the UK may have seen recent press reports about a controversial article by Bruce Charlton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Newcastle. Charlton points out that average IQ differs in different social or occupational classes (e.g. doctors or lawyers have higher IQ than casual labourers), and that in consequence, if IQ is relevant to higher education, we would expect participation in higher education also to vary according to class. Predictably, ritual curses and denunciations have rained down on Charlton's head.

I wanted to read Charlton's article, but found it more difficult to find than I expected. The press reports suggested that it appeared in Times Higher Education (the former Times Higher Educational Supplement), but on tracking down the relevant issue I found a report about Charlton's article, but not the article itself. The article is however available as a Word document on the THE website. (See the right margin of the webpage here). I make a few comments of my own below the fold.

Probably most readers will agree with the broad thrust of Charlton's article, but there may be a confusion between the IQ of parents and that of their offspring. Charlton seems (as far as I can see) to assume that the mean IQ of applicants to higher education is the same as that of adults in their parental social class. This is not generally the case. The correlation between the IQ of parents and offspring is only about .5, which implies considerable regression towards the mean. The IQ of the offspring of parents with IQ of, say, 130 will on average be lower than 130, while that of parents with IQ of, say, 85 will be higher than 85. There is a difference of up to 40 IQ points between adults in the highest and lowest occupational classes (depending on the classification used), but only about 15 to 20 points between children from those classes. (For some data see Anastasi, chapter 15.) The difference in average IQ between social classes is kept roughly constant by social mobility, as the dimmer children of the higher classes tend to fall in the social scale and the brighter children of the lower classes tend to rise. (See Mackintosh, pp. 144-8). This does not invalidate the main point of Charlton's article, but it may affect some of his specific quantitative comparisons.

I think it may also be unfortunate that Charlton describes the present system of entry to higher education as 'meritocratic'. Entry to publicly funded higher education should not be seen (primarily) as a reward for past achievement, or a badge of 'merit'. The proper criterion for entry decisions is how far an individual can benefit from the course of study concerned. In general, individuals who have struggled at school are unlikely to benefit from higher education at all. If applications for a particular course of study exceed the number of places available, those applicants should be chosen who will benefit most from the use of scarce resources. It is the scarcity of high quality resources that justifies the selectivity of the 'elite' universities. One would not expect an haute couture seamstress to stitch potato sacks, and one should not expect a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge to teach mediocre students. Such students would not derive the greatest benefit from the teaching, and indeed the teaching would probably not be the best available for such students.

I am assuming in all this that higher education is by definition at a more advanced and demanding level than that of ordinary school education. It is not to be confused with post-school education at a similar level to that of schools, such as is provided by Further Education Colleges in Britain. This may be admirable in its own way, but it is not higher education.

Anne Anastasi: Differential Psychology, 3rd edn., 1958
N. J. Mackintosh: IQ and Human Intelligence, 1998

Labels: ,