The Intelligence Quotient:

The Contribution of Psychology to Standardized Social Darwinism

“It is safe to predict that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of these high-grade defective under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency. It is hardly necessary to emphasize that the high-grade cases, of the type now so frequently overlooked, are precisely the ones whose guardianship it is most important of the State to assume.”

Lewis. M. Terman (1916)

The commercialization of intelligence may be one of the most controversial issues American education has faced in the twentieth century. Lewis M. Terman introduced the concept of classifying students through IQ tests to the public at a time when society was probably eager for any solution psychology could offer for their social and educational problems. Between the 1890s to the early 1920s, many novel problems were arising in America’s educational system. A substantial amount of these problems were most likely caused by mere overpopulation; urban school enrollment was increasing at an unprecedented rate as immigrants flocked to the United States, a marked shift of families from rural to urban areas was also adding to school overcrowding, and finally newly enacted and enforced compulsory education laws were causing children to actually be present in classrooms. In a society where efficiency was of top priority, school administrators began focusing on new goals. Attention to college preparation shifted considerably to life preparation; people were being educated on how be useful members of society, not for higher education. Yet, at the same time, administrators may not have been ready to give up the ideals of American education and therefore were searching for a way to preserve academic traditions. On top of this, the costs of educating so many children were astronomical; education needed to be factorized and streamlined. Thus, the arrival of the IQ test came at what was probably a critical turning point in education philosophy. However, many questions regarding the philosophy and implementation of the intelligence tests themselves still remain. First of all, when did psychology first begin to affect education? What was the original purpose of the tests and how has this principle evolved over time? What groups were behind the IQ tests and whom did they aim their standards at? What has public sentiment been toward the tests? Lastly, what have been the lasting effects of the intelligence quotient?[i]

Education as a Science:

Thorndike’s Infusion of Psychology into Social Policy

During the time of Edward L. Thorndike, psychology itself was still a fledgling science, striving to prove itself through experiments and empirical data on human behavior. As a former animal behaviorist, Thorndike carried this meticulous nature over to his work on individual characteristics of humans, namely intellect and learning. Like many psychologists of his day, Thorndike found a lack of positions available for traditional psychology students and was forced to turn to new fields, such as child study and teacher education programs. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Thorndike had fully committed himself to education and began collecting data on learning theory. One of Thorndike’s more important revelations established his career; in 1901; using empirical evidence, he disproved one of the central theories of 19th century education by proving that learning difficult subjects like Latin and Greek does not in fact exercise and increase the strength of the mind. Thorndike then expanded this theory to say that intellect was genetically influenced and could not be improved nor changed in any way.[ii]

In 1910, Thorndike himself argued for the necessity of psychology in educational theory. He stated in his book The Contribution of Psychology to Education that “Psychology contributes to a better understanding of the aims of education by defining them, making them clearer; by limiting them, showing us what can be done and what can not; and by suggesting new features that should be made parts of them.” He argued that psychology gave definition and meaning to people’s perceptions of culture, knowledge and skill, and also that learning and comprehension were futile if they were not passed onto the next generation. Therefore, psychology was salient to education in that it not only defined concepts, but it designated