Life Lines: Ideas that failed – IQ as a numerical assessment of...

Life Lines: Ideas that failed – IQ as a numerical assessment of eminence

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

The IQ or intelligence quotient was introduced early in the 20th century to measure learning abilities in school children. It spread from Germany to the United States where it was enthusiastically adopted in K-12 schools.  

I took the test four times. The first score I got, 116, was in first or second grade. The second score, about 3 years later, was 130. The third test in junior high school (PS210) was 149. The last score was in my freshman orientation week at NYU and it was 160. How do I know my scores? I was a teacher’s pet throughout my education and in high school, one of my volunteer activities was filing the report cards of students after teacher’s made their entries. 

In the process of filing I looked at my own record card (and my friends) and saw my scores for K-12. I saw my NYU score while being counseled in the Freshman week follow up. My test scores for various aptitude tests were on the sheet of paper my counselor was reading. She said I was talented but very insecure.  

The IQ score is usually interpreted in 30-point intervals with normal 100 (86-115); bright 130 (116- 145); and genius (146 and up) for the more intelligent students. 

A more damning score exists for categories of students classified as slow learners, with a terminology no longer used, morons 70 ( 56-85); imbeciles 40 (26-55); and idiots (25 and below). Those with less than normal IQ scores are sometimes classified collectively as retarded, feebleminded, or regarded or euphemistically as exceptional children.  

High IQ was widely admired and accepted as the basis for success in  school and in life. Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius used the IQ test about 1910 to identify 1000 gifted children in California (mean IQ = 140). They were followed at Stanford University for more than 50 years.  They became college educated successful lawyers, MDs, professors, CEOs and other middle-class professionals with numerous publications and comfortable incomes.  

In contrast George and Muriel Goertzel’s Cradles of Eminence used a different approach. They selected 300 Americans who lived in the 20th century who had two or more books written about them. Their mean IQ was 127. Instead of comfortable middle-class upbringings that were characteristic of Terman’s high IQ children, the Goertzel’s biographies revealed about two-thirds had troubled homes growing up with a parent who was a business failure, psychotic, idiosyncratic, alcoholic, or physically handicapped. 

The Goertzel’s argued that IQ was insufficient for eminence. Eminence required what they called “a neural itch” that stimulated children to focus more intensely on their work, to exercise their imagination and creativity, and to generate the energy to complete tasks and compensate (sublimate in Freudian terminology) for the stress they encountered growing up. 

Not a single one of the 1000 Terman high IQ children ended up with a biography written about him or her. If being the subject of a biography is a measure of eminence, IQ is a poor predictor. IQ is more aptly an academic quotient and not an intelligence quotient. It measures the ability to take tests not the capacity to be innovative or driven to greatness.  

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.