Tag Archives: education

The abolition of the GCSE and the return of O Levels

Robert Henderson

The Coalition’s Education Secretary Michael Gove has signalled his  intention to return the English examination system to something approximating to the O Level examination Gove proposes :

That GCSEs will ‘disappear’ from schools within the next few years

The National Curriculum in secondary schools will be abolished

The requirement that pupils obtain five good GCSEs graded A* to C will be scrapped

Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs

O-level pupils will sit the same gold standard paper nationwide from a single exam board


It is also implicit in the idea of returning to O Levels that coursework will be ended , the  exam grade will be determined solely on the basis of an end-of-course  (synoptic) exam  and a return to norm referencing rather than criterion referencing in the grading.  Criterion referencing allows any number of those taking an exam to achieve a particular grade. That opens the door to grade inflation.

Norm referencing means that within very narrow limits, one or two percentage points, the same percentage of those sitting the exam each year receive the same grades, for example there is a target  8% of those taking the exam to achieve an A. It might be raised to 9% in a strong year or reduced to 7% in a weak year.  This marking system would kill grade inflation at a stroke. It would also eliminate  variations in the difficulty of individual questions and of whole papers because it would not matter whether a particular year’s exam was harder or easier than the year before because the same proportion, more or less, of those taking the exam would achieve a particular grade each year. That would give a stable hierarchy of ability over time, something which would be of great assistance to employers and academics in higher education because they would know that a  particular grade indicated a consistent level of ability.

Gove’s proposals have  produced predictable squeals of outrage from the politically correct educational establishment and their political allies with much talk of “two tier systems” and “returning to the educational dark ages”, the latter  accompanied by a piece of moron’s logic that  if something has been discarded in the past it must by definition be  inferior to anything which replaces it.

O Levels were scrapped for English state schools in 1987 because they were supposedly both too narrow and relied overly on memory and the regurgitation of facts  and socially divisive because only a minority of pupils  could pass them  with the rest either left with no qualifications or those of  the easier Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) , which was also ended when GCSEs were introduced.   More on these points later.

The CSE  carried the possibility of being considered equivalent to an O Level, viz:

“There were five pass grades in its grading system ranging from grades 1 to 5, with grades 2 to 3 being recognised with equivalence to the three (later two: D and E) lowest O-Level pass grades (of which there were originally six, later five, A, B, C, D and E).

Achieving CSE grade 1 was equivalent to achieving an O level in the subject where the student may have reasonably gained an A, B or C grade had they taken an O-level course of study in the same subject.”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certificate_of_Secondary_Education#cite_ref-1).

The GCSE was  built upon dishonesty from the start . It purports to be a single exam when it is several exams of differing difficulty  under the same head, viz:

” Tiers

In many subjects, there are two different ‘tiers’ of examination offered:

Higher, where students can achieve grades A*–E, or a U

Foundation, where they can achieve grades C–G, or a U[3]

If a candidate fails to obtain a Grade G on the Foundation tier or a Grade D on the Higher tier they will fail the course and receive a U. Candidates who narrowly miss a Grade D on the Higher tier, however, are awarded a Grade E. In modular subjects, students may mix and match tiers between units. In non-tiered subjects, such as History, the examination paper allows candidates to achieve any grade. Coursework and controlled assessment also always allows candidates to achieve any grade.

In 2006, GCSE Mathematics changed from a 3-tier system — Foundation grades (D–G), Intermediate (grades B–E) and Higher (grades A*–C) — to the standard 2-tier system described above.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Certificate_of_Secondary_Education#Tiers and http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/educationandlearning/qualificationsexplained/dg_10039024).

The original GCSE was in reality the O Level and the CSE pushed under one heading with the Higher Tier equating to  the  O Level and the Foundation Tier to the CSE.  The main departure from the O Level/CSE regime was coursework  counting to the final grade .  An especially  pernicious aspect of  the sham of pretending  GCSE is one exam is that those taking tiers of different difficulty can obtain the same grade in ostensibly the same exams.  This means  GCSEs are next to useless as guides  for employers or  academics in higher education, because the person deciding to employ  or accept someone on a course could be faced with two applicants with the same grade who have achieved it by doing different  coursework and answering different exam, questions.

The GCSE waters have been muddied considerably since its inception. To the initial division  arising from the different  tiers has since been added  the Business & Technology Education Council Diploma known as BTech  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BTEC_First_Diploma) which is vocational and rated at the equivalent of 4 GCSEs grades A-C and the  Entry Level Certificate which is rated  below the GCSE and offers a range of vocational and academic subjects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entry_Level_Certificate ).   This means that at present we have at least  four different school qualifications masquerading as one.  To grasp fully the  absurd complexity of the present system of  sub-university qualifications now available in England see (http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/EducationAndLearning/QualificationsExplained/DG_10039017).

That England has arrived at a situation where multiple qualifications masquerade as one qualification is unsurprising.  It  is impossible to devise an exam which the entirety or even the vast majority of schoolchildren can pass because of the great differences in intellectual ability and inclination to study.  Ironically,  even the GCSE  taken at its own face value, that is as a single unified exam, does not fulfil this function. Despite  the fudging  of  the exam by providing different levels of difficulty and content, widespread plagiarism in the course work, modules which can  be re-sat over and over again, cheating by teachers and  remorseless grade inflation by examining boards competing for business, less than 60% of English schoolchildren in 2010/11 got 5 GCSEs at grades A-C  or their equivalent (http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/rsgateway/search.pl?keyw=066&q2=Search).

The reality of GCSE is that it is as educationally (and socially) divisive as the old O Level/CSE regime with the added disadvantage that not only are children still divided by attainment, the value of  the exam compared with the O Level is widely perceived – particularly amongst employers – as being much less.  If you passed O levels with decent grades it was generally taken as an assurance of quality.  GCSEs, with their ever soaring grades including a new starred A grade because so many As were being given, tales of teachers manipulating (to put it politely) the work of their pupils to ensure reasonable grades, regular reports of [plagiarism by the pupils  and employers complaining about school-leavers who are barely literate are seen increasingly as academically  dubious . The social divide is still massive. Children from fee-paying and selective state schools substantially  out perform those in comprehensives and those from poor homes do startlingly badly compared with those from well-to-do families ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/sep/03/social-class-achievement-school).  The division between the fee-paying and state schools is being further widened because many fee-paying schools  have already moved from the GCSE to the International GCSE (IGCSE) because the IGSC has many features of the O Level (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7962556/GCSE-results-private-schools-adopt-O-levels.html).

The reality of our present system is that it merely pretends that children generally  can undertake and benefit from  the same  education.  Along with that sham come the ills of  plagiarism, grade inflation and  a failure to produce adults who are reasonably literate and numerate and possessed of a decent store of facts across a wide range of subjects. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/may/12/english-maths-gcse-extra-study). Perhaps worst of all  the current system often inflates a child’s assessment of their own capacity. If someone gains , say, eight  As at GCSE, they will bewildered if they find their ostensible GCSE successes are a poor preparation for A Levels .

A return to O Level would not produce a perfect school world. Divisions based on innate intellectual and socially acquired  differences would  continue to exist and people would  be formally categorised as academic sheep and goats.  But does anyone honestly believe that children taking GCSE do not understand that they are being divided into sheep and goats through the various tiers in the examination or the  BTECH and the Entry Level certificate?

What a return to O Levels would  do is restore confidence in the school exam taken at 16, provide a reliable standard  by which to judge a person’s general ability and   a raise standards by ending plagiarism and the collusion between  teachers and pupils  to either cheat outright or stretch the rules to the point where most people would call it cheating even if the rules are not technically breached, for example, by a teacher  virtually re-writing a poor piece of coursework by giving extensive suggestions to the pupil.

If O Levels are reinstated they would have the beneficial knock-on effect of improving academic work beyond 16.  Universities are complaining about students arriving unfit to undertake degree courses because A Levels do not prepare them for the demands of a university (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/8505962/Schools-fail-to-get-spoonfed-pupils-ready-for-university.html).This is a consequence of A Levels  having their  demands rduced because pupils who have taken GCSE start their A Level courses ill equipped for that qualification’s demands.  If O Levels are truly reinstated that will allow A Levels to become more rigorous and this in turn will send students to university better equipped for degree courses.

But  practical measures such as  end-of-course exams and the abolition of coursework would not be sufficient in itself to revive  English school examinations. It is  also the hostility to facts which makes the GCSE a flawed educational tool.  The new O Level should return facts to their necessary place which is the foundation of  understanding .  The complaint that O Levels  relied too much on the memorising of facts is mistaken for two reasons. First, the regurgitation of facts in Gradgrind fashion would not have got an O Level candidate very far, especially in the humanities, which routinely asked those sitting the exam not only to provide facts but also to analyse and interpret. Second, the acquisition of knowledge is of itself essential to a deep understanding to any academic subject. Anyone who has ever acquired a deep knowledge of anything (not just academic subjects) will have had the experience of,  without consciously trying, making connections and gaining insights which were utterly beyond them even when their knowledge had reached significant level. It is what I call the intelligence of erudition – see (https://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/the-intelligence-of-erudition/).   The value of a detailed knowledge of a subject also sabotages the objection that O Levels were too narrow. Knowing a little about many subjects is never going to be as valuable as knowing  much about a few subjects.

A word of warning .  If it is  intended to return to the O Levels as they were originally constructed, all well and good.  However, I doubt whether this is what is intended . I took my O Levels in the early 1960s when they were still pristine. Sciences were tested individually and each had separate practical exams. Essays were required for most questions in the humanities, extended written answers in the sciences  and multiple choice questions was unknown. There was no course work or modular exams and  the entire subject was tested at the end of the course. By 1970 the practical science exams had gone and multiple choice had begun to infect some subjects.  When they were scrapped in the 1980s they were a shadow of their original selves with large amounts of multiple choice questions.   If Gove merely wishes to return to 1987 that would be better than nothing but far from the best which could be done.

Gove’s proposals are generally sensible, not least the setting up a single examination board to prevent examination boards competing for customers by lowering standards.  Such an  examination board should be a not-for-profit organisation to remove the profit motive entirely from the process of setting and marking exams. What does concern me is the idea that the new O Level would be suitable for 75% of children – this is the clear implication of the intention that 25% of schoolchildren will  take the new CSE. It is simply impossible to produce an exam which caters for three quarters of children for the same reasons that an exam cannot cater for all children, namely, the differences in innate intellect and social circumstances are simply too great to permit it.  Even in its last decade O Level was meant for at most the top third of pupils ( (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1981/mar/10/o-level-mathematics).  The danger is that the  new O Level, if it is to truly be a single exam without the fudging found in the GCSE, will have to be made simple enough for the less able pupils in the top 75% to successfully sit the exams.  That would produce an exam which  was less rigorous than the GCSE Higher Tier examination.

Whatever exact form they  will take, Gove’s new exams are unlikely to become reality while the Coalition exists. Nick Clegg has said it will not take place while the LibDems are in the Coalition. This means that they are unlikely to see the light of day for several years and only then if the Tories return with a working majority at the next election, something which does not look likely at present. Gove’s ideas are best seen as aspirations rather than practical politics.

If you really want parental choice you need a school voucher system but….

….don’t forget the administrative complications

By Robert Henderson

The “free schools” currently being promoted by the Coalition Government (in reality the Tory part of it)  has two flaws:  it mixes private enterprise and public service and is in practice something likely to be of interest to the middle-class .  If greater choice and diversity for all was really wanted it would require a voucher system  which included all parents and guardians and kept private money out of the picture.

I am not ideologically opposed to a voucher system  for  school education  provided the voucher does not end up as a subsidy for private school fees, that is, the voucher should  not be used to pay part of  the  fees of, for example, Eton.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that a  loosening of direct state control of education is in principle a good  thing.  However, attractive as the idea  is,  there are very large  administrative problems involved in moving to a fully-fledged voucher  system.

The most obvious  difficulty is what real choice can a parent have in  practice if they only have two or three schools in their catchment area?  Precious little, because it is unlikely that all will be good. Outside  the larger cities and towns the choice, particularly in rural areas, is  likely to be even more restricted.

Catchment areas could in theory be  greatly widened or even abandoned  altogether,  but neither  is  practical because  few parents and even fewer  children want to be travelling long distances to school every day or meeting the increasing cost of doing so.  In places where there are competing schools a  reasonable distance from a child’s home, a catchment might reasonably be defined as being within a thirty minute journey by public transport.

Allowing popular schools to expand is an  alluring idea but most  schools, and most are in cities and towns,  would have the land to do so  significantly.

The reality for most parents is that, as things stand, they will not be able to exercise significantly more choice than they do presently.

But even where  a school does have the land to expand fresh problems arise. First, where is it to get the money to fund expansion? The individual voucher  will pay for  the tuition, administration and the  maintenance of the  existing school. It will not fund  new buildings.

Who is to pay? The taxpayer? Private investors? If the latter, how would  the private investor be repaid? Out of future voucher proceeds? If so,  that would reduce the amount of money available for teaching, books, computers and so on.

Second, if a school expands it must draw pupils away from other schools  in the catchment area. Those schools at best will be underfunded and at  worst will become unviable. If the former the question why should the  pupils there be left  in a declining school with little morale has to be answered? There is no moral answer. If the latter, where exactly would  the  pupils from a failed school go to get an education?  Not to the  expanded school because that will already be full.

Is there any way to circumvent these  difficulties? A variety of private  options are possible. Parents could club together and use their vouchers  to fund a school of their own in its own premises. But that would be an  unstable  institution because parents would cease to have an interest in  the school once their children left, either through age or because the  family moved away.  Suppose a school had fifty pupils and ten suddenly  left. It could make the school unviable.

Private schools, in their own premises,  charging no more than the  voucher cost could arise, but they would drain pupils from the existing  state schools.

The third private option would be for private investment in existing  state schools. To an extent this is already happening. The problem with  this would be that once the schools have been
placed in private hands  the private contractor will have the option of blackmailing the  government into  paying more or seeing the school close down  leaving  pupils with nowhere to go. This is something which is already happening  in PFI projects generally. Alternatively, the private contractor might  go bust or simply walk away for a contract. Who would educate their  pupils then?

There is a general problem of how to maintain provision if the state  and private sector becomes entwined. Suppose private schools took so  many  pupils that many state schools had to
close.  That would reduce  the default  state educational provision. If there is a severe  depression and private schools really  felt the pinch, many might go to  the wall. Who would run the schools then? The taxpayer would have to  stump up to keep things going.

All of this is rather daunting. However,  we might inch towards a voucher system by degrees. The first thing to do would be to make all  state schools self-governing. This would prepare them administratively  for a voucher system.

The second thing would be to put more money into schools to bring them  up to the mark before a voucher system was introduced. The money should  come from  abolition of LEAs (which would  free up a good deal of money  they spend on their administration and reduce the administration schools have to undertake) and the abolition of all teacher training colleges and departments (teachers would learn on the job).

I would further free up teachers by  reducing the current  age-group  tests to the three ‘Rs’,  making all school exams true exams, that is, their  classification to be simply a final exam mark  with no course work to  count towards the grade and generally reducing the  information sought  by the Dept of Education and Science. I would  also reduce the stress on  teachers by abolishing  league tables,  which  have  merely distorted  the way schools’ operate to the detriment of true education. Government  could control quality by ensuring that the school public exams were of  sufficient standard.

The real answer to our present educational woes is of course a good  school for everyone.  But even if that were possible people would still  have preferences.  The only honest way of deciding who should go to  which school when a school is oversubscribed is to put all the names  into a hat and draw out enough to fill the school .

There is also the question of  the curriculum and  religious schools.  Would it be reasonable to allow schools to set  their own curriculum beyond the teaching of the three Rs?  Would most
people want Creationism taught as science?  I suspect a large majority would not. Nor is the idea of segregation within religious schools an easy question to decide. C of E schools are often
very mixed in terms of faith, ethnicity and race where a catchment area is mixed. However, other  religious schools, especially Muslim ones, are  frequently mono-cultural, that is, comprised entirely or almost entirely of the faith they represent. This is plainly dangerous for social cohesion.  More broadly, should it be government policy to allow vouchers to be used to create what are de facto ethnic minority schools?  The same objection applies as to religious schools.   To prevent ethnic minority ghetto schools a maximum percentage of any school being from ethnic minorities should be made law.

The move to self-governing schools  would multiply the opportunities for fraud and allow  administratively incompetent school managers to get into serious financial trouble without meaning to. Consequently, it would be necessary to put in place a rigorous external  audit regime to keep  dishonesty and  financial incompetence in check and there should be a legal requirement for bursars with the right background in financial management to be appointed by every school.   There would also have to be checks on schools to ensure they were appointing and remunerating staff fairly -  no favouring of friends and relations –   and operating the entry to a school within the legal framework.

Tuition fees and Coalition lies

The coalition are floating their penal proposals for student funding on several lies.

Lie 1. The tuition fee  debt  will not affect the ability to get a mortgage because the tuition fee debt will not  be collected if a person’s income falls below the minimum contributory figure which is set to become £21,000.

This is a lie  because (a)  if the person’s income is above £21,000 (and any first-time  house purchaser’s income will have to be substantially above that),  the amount paid on the student debt reduces their disposable income, a fact which will be taken into account by any mortgage provider, and (b) the unpaid debt increases year by year as interest and inflation uprating are applied.

Lie 2. That the system is fairer than a graduate tax, because if a graduate tax was applied it could be evaded by working abroad, something particularly likely in the case of foreign students studying in Britain.

This is a lie because, although in theory true, the reality is that under the proposed system of tuition fees, there will be no means in practice of ensuring  those who study in Britain and then work abroad of pay their debt.  (This applies to student maintenance loans as well as tuition fees.)

Lie 3. That the average graduate earns much more than a non-graduate over a working lifetime.

This is a lie because the projection is made from historical data. When the argument was first used it was claimed that the figure was £450,000 not £100,000. The reason it dropped was beautifully simple: the £450,000 figure was based on data from a time when far fewer people went took a degree (less than 8% in 1970 and 43% now)  and a degree was scarcer and consequently more valuable.  It is likely that the £100, 000 figure will be lowered further as the earnings of recent graduates become more prominent in the projections.

It is worth adding that even £100,000 is a pitifully small reward for it works out at £2,500 pa over a 40-year career.  Moreover,  those  additional earnings are before tax.

Finally, there is already solid statistical evidence that arts degrees and what the public likes to call “Micky Mouse degrees”  such as media studies provide  no additional earnings.

Lie 4 That the debt will not put people off going to university.

This is a lie in the sense that the coalition cannot have any certainty of the claim’s truth yet present the claim as objective fact. While it is true that to date tuition fees have not reduced the willingness of people to go to university,  the massive increase in fees and the  rising cost of living necessitating further borrowing  will easily produce total debt  per student in the region of £40,000. There must come a point where the disincentive effect kicks in. In  addition,  would-be students have increasing knowledge of the travails of students who have already been burdened with debts and the falling monetary value of a degree.

Lie 5 That the proposed fees are fair because it is unfair to expect those who do not go to university to pay for those who do.

This is a lie because our taxation system is based not on any concept of hypothecated taxes (taxes for a particular purpose),  but on a central treasury which is used as elected politicians decide. This means that there are any number of instances where people pay taxes for things they do not approve of or do not directly benefit from, for example,  the childless paying for the children of others, the non-motorist paying for roads and  the pacifist paying for armed forces.  If the coalition was consistent on this claimed principle they would insist that only those who benefitted from school education paid for it.

Lie 6 There is no alternative to such  tuition fee increases to funding the present level of  higher education.

A straightforward lie.  What the coalition means is they do not choose to use any of the alternative measures.  These include:

1. Ending Foreign aid – a saving of £9 billion pa.

2. Reducing the per capita Treasury funding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to that of England – saving £15 billion pa

3. Raising basic income tax by a penny in the pound – additional tax raised of £3 billion pa.

The other alternative would be reduce taxpayer funded degrees to 20% of  school leavers (Germany has only 25% at university).  That would allow full tuition fees to be paid and a maintenance grant to be paid.

How British higher education became corrupted

Education is a first rate example of how quasi-commercialism can corrupt. It was a pincer movement from the bottom and the top, from schools to universities. Prior to the end of the 1980s our universities had been funded for decades by the University Grants Committee (UGC) which was made up academics. The UGC received an annual sum of money allocated by the Government to higher education. The UGC then allocated this  to the universities. This was not a perfect system because the academics tended to favour the older universities over the older regardless of performance. However, broadly speaking it worked and most importantly there was no pressure on universities to tout for students regardless of quality. This in turn meant that academic standards were maintained. Indeed, the newer universities were very sparing in their granting of degrees because they wished to build their academic reputation.

The Thatcher Government changed all that. They first cut in real terms the funding of given to the UGC, then abolished the UGC in 1987 to be replaced by the University Funding Council (UTC) which was manned not by academics but businessmen.  The money was then primarily attached to  the individual – a second criterion based on the quality of research was also introduced but it was the numbers of students which brought in the large majority of the money. This forced universities to actively compete for students. This might not have mattered too much if the numbers of students had remained static but it did not because the Thatcher Government began the push towards dramatically expanding student numbers without a corresponding increase in funding.  This meant that spending per student was reduced and universities had to get as many students as they could to maintain income.  That alone caused universities  to drop their standards, both in terms of who they accepted and the class of degrees they awarded, because universities with a reputation for high entry standards and strict marking of degrees risked being shunned for those with a reputation for being laxer.  To take on stark statistic: in 1970 less than 40% of degrees awarded by British universities were firsts and upper seconds: the figure for these classes of degree awarded in 2006 is over 60%. 

The massive increase in student numbers from the late 1980s meant that the average quality of student was lowered. This is not a subjective judgement.  IQ  is  distributed within  the  British  population approximately as follows: IQ below 90 25%, IQ 90-110 50%, IQ Above 110 25%. In 1970 less than 10% of school-leavers went to university. They could all comfortably come from those in the 111+ range (they will not have done but most would). Raise the numbers to the current level of around 40% and as a simply matter of arithmetic, many must have IQs of less than 111 and because a significant part of those with above average IQs  will not go to university, there must be significant numbers now going to university with IQs below of 100.  Degree courses had to be lowered simply to cater for the less able. This was done in three ways: traditional degrees became less demanding; a swathe of new subjects such as media studies and tourism were granted degree status and the standard of marking was relaxed. The result has been a reversal of the situation when roughly a third of students obtained firsts or upper seconds to a situation now where two thirds receive a first or upper second.    

Because the increase in student numbers has not been met by a proportionate increase in state funding, staff-student ratios have increased, teaching time for each student reduced, both in terms of direct instruction and the time available to staff for marking.

To these attacks on university standards were added eventually the toxic effects of the poison injected into the opposite end of the education  system. “Progressive, child-centred education” really gained a hold in the 1960s. Anti-competitive and ideologically driven, the grammar schools were first almost destroyed, ironically rescuing the public schools which were on their financial knees by the mid-sixties because of the drain of middleclass pupils to free grammar schools, and teaching  methods gradually corrupted so that children were not challenged over errors and all opinions (at least the politically correct ones) became equally valid”.

The progressive ideal was greatly furthered by the introduction in the 1980s of a single school-leaving exam (the GCSE) to replace the CSE and O Level’. Had assessment remained entirely by final (synoptic) exams, The introduction of the GCSE would still have been mistaken because no  examination can meaningfully assess  the broad range of ability displayed by those who sit it – there has been a tacit recognition of this by the inclusion of questions and course tasks of different difficulty within a GCSE subject and candidates can choose to do the hard or the easy and this is reflected in their grades. The exam consequently says nothing about the standard of the candidate as such because the mark tells you nothing about the difficulty of the tasks attempted: for example someone taking just the harder questions in an exam  could score the same mark as someone attempting only the easy questions.

Mistaken as the exam was in principle, it was further damaged by the inclusion of substantial amounts of coursework – cue plagiarism and third party out-of-school help – and coaching by teachers, licit and illicit (the licit includes teachers being able to take an initial piece  of coursework by pupils and making suggestions for  its re-writing) and the use of modular exams (exams which tested only part of the course) which can be retaken several times during a course.

The school examination system has been further contaminated by the various examination boards becoming nakedly commercial bodies who compete greedily for candidates. The result is similar to that experienced by universities: standards have been dropped to attract business. The old practice of setting percentages for those gaining a grade and for those passing was dropped allowing any number of people to gain any grade.  Freed of this constraint grades have inexorably risen year after year for both GCSEs and the university entrance A Levels. So bad has the inflation become that A* grades had to be introduced because A grades were so plentiful that they allowed no distinction to be made between the better candidates. Predictably, the A* grade has now met the same fate as the simple A.

Finally, because so many more pupils were taking GCSE than O Level, the standard of the exam had to be reduced for the same reason that the standard of the degree was reduced: the number of less able students taking the courses increased dramatically. The dire failure of GCSE began to be acknowledged by even the Blair Government with first the Education Secretary Alan Johnson announcing that coursework would be reduced in some subjects and abolished in a few such as maths (the Times 6 10 2006) and then a junior education minister Lord Adonis announcing that consideration was being given to allowing state schools to substitute the international GCSE (IGCSE) for the GCSE (Daily Telegraph 25 10 2006). The IGSCE is an exam closer to the old O Level and is taken by pupils outside Britain and increasingly by private schools in Britain.

The upshot of all this is a decline in academic standards generally. The decline of GCSE standards meant A Level pupils began their A Level courses less well prepared than they had been previously which meant A-Levels had to be reduced in difficulty which meant that those arriving at university were less well prepared and the degree courses had to be made easier.

A further  pernicious consequence of the  gigantic expansion of university numbers is the abolition of  student grants and the imposition of tuition fees. This is not only discouraging students from poorer homes – there is now a lower proportion of workingclass in the British university population than there was in the 1960s – and leaving most students with considerable debts, but also creating a mentality amongst students, politicians, educationalists and indeed the general public, that education is only a tool to obtain a better job, that it has no general value.

The irony is that even at the economic level this mentality is at odds with reality.  Successive governments have claimed that the lifetime earnings of a graduate are on average £450,000 greater than that of a non-graduate. This may have been true of graduates before the great expansion in student numbers but it is not now. The £450,000 has been revised to £100,000, a pretty small sum divided by the 40 years of the average working life. Of course that figure, even if it is true, hides a multitude of difference, with some degrees being next to worthless either because of the subject or the class of degree obtained.

What should be done? Ideally we should return to a system whereby students have their higher education fully funded and a maintenance grant paid.  This could be done by reducing the percentage of school-leavers going to university at the taxpayers’ expense to 20%. Mad you say? Well, Germany, the most successful European and arguably First World economy sends only 25% to university. Nor am I saying only 20% of school leavers should go to university in Britain, merely that the taxpayer should only fund 20%. There would still be opportunity for a would-be student who did not qualify for state paid-for degrees to fund a degree themselves, either on a full or part-time basis. The quality of degrees should also be improved by withdrawing state funding from what the public quite rightly thinks of as “mickey-mouse” degrees. The quality of school exams also needs to be raised significantly to prepare students for university.

 I said that would be the ideal funding solution, but there is a very large fly in the ointment: the EU. As things stand any prospective student legally resident within the EU has to be educated at British universities on the same basis as British students. The reintroduction of free university education and maintenance grants for British students would have to extended to EU residents as things stand. (It is worth considering in the context of EU interference in our affairs whether  the reason why tuition fees were introduced and maintenance grants abolished was because of the cost of educating non-British EU students. I rather suspect it was). The answer would be, as in so many things, to leave the EU and be once more masters in our own house.

 Would a reduction to state-funding for only 20% disadvantage the poorest students? It could conceivably do that if selection procedures are left as they are because they will still unfairly favour the middle-classes because they tend to get the better tuition at school.  How can this be avoided? By using IQ tests as well as A-Level or equivalent qualification results to determine entry. This would allow universities to meaningfully assess the abilities of students from different background. For example, suppose the choice was between someone from a public school with three As  and an IQ of 120 and a pupil from a comprehensive with a bad educational record who has three Bs and an IQ of 140, it would make perfect sense to take the comprehensive pupil because they would have the much greater potential.

As I write this I can hear the politically correct chanting their favourite anti-IQ tests mantras of “IQ tests only test how good you are at IQ tests” and “There is no correlation between IQ and academic achievement”. The answer to the first is that you might as well say that maths exams only tests maths or English exams English.  IQ tests test that part of the intellect which is the most useful but not comprehensive guide to a person’s intelligence. Nor am I suggesting that it should be the only criterion, a certain level of academic attainment also being required.  The answer to the second is simply, IQ is a necessary but not sufficient condition for academic success. If you have an IQ of 1590 you may or may not take a first in maths at Cambridge: if you have an IQ of 80 you will never take such a degree.

Societies and the implications of differing racial IQs

The general differences between societies plausibly express the societal differences in IQ: the more complex the society the greater the need for IQ related problem solving; the less complex, the greater the reliance on knowledge based behaviour. That is not to say that complex societies do not rely greatly on knowledge or that the simplest society allows no room for reasoning. Rather, it is that the balance between IQ related problem solving and knowledge is differs according to the nature of the society. If IQ is largely innate this raises some immensely difficult moral questions for any society. Take away sentiment and the hard truth is that on rational grounds no white or Asian society would want to host a large black population because that will substantially lower the average IQ of the society, with all the problems that brings in terms of anti-social behaviour and the loss of national intellectual capacity.

To say that the IQ distribution of a race implies nothing at the individual level may be pedantically true but it does not alter the fact that if a low IQ race is present in substantial numbers most will have low IQs. In a high IQ society that is a problem for such individuals because there is less opportunity to lead a normal life for the low IQ individual. Self-evidently There is not “a place for everyone”.

Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen provide a clear message: some societies, and most particularly those with a predominately black population, simply do not have sufficient people with IQs high enough to sustain a modern society. There are two rational conclusions to draw from their work. The first is that it is pointless for advanced states to keep on trying to modernise countries with low IQ populations which cannot sustain the sophisticated societies needed to maintain an advanced modern state and those populations should be left to find their own level.

The second is that the only active intervention which might conceivably improve conditions in low IQ states is their formal re-colonisation and permanent administration by the advanced states, for that at least would bring order and societies which had infrastructure which worked.

The first course of action has the difficulty of seeming cruel at worst and heartless at best. The second is a political non-starter because of the sacrifices those in the advanced states would have to make in terms of money and personnel and the almost certain guerrilla resistance of at least part of any population which was subject to an attempt at re-colonisation.

Lynn and Vanhanen’s remedy for the problem is the half-way house between decolonisation and doing nothing. They advocate transfers of wealth and expertise from advanced high IQ societies to the IQ deficient ones. Not only is this profoundly unlikely to be something the populations of advanced states will tolerate for ever, but the experience of 40 years or more of vast amounts of Aid being poured into low IQ countries shows that such assistance is worse than useless because it invariably produces corrupt regimes and large Aid dependent populations.

If Lynn and Vanhanen are right, the cold reality is that there is currently no way of radically changing the nature of low IQ societies. Indeed, by feeding them with Aid the donors are making matters worse because they help to increase the low IQ populations vastly beyond the level at which a viable society for the population could exist. However, low IQ populations may not be forever because even if IQ is now substantially innate it may not be so in the future. It is probable that within the next fifty years genetic engineering, chemical manipulation, surgical alteration and cybernetics may provide humans with the capacity to raise the IQ of those with low IQs. This would of course raise immense moral questions as well as practical difficulties such as who would provide the expertise and materials needed to change the IQ of hundreds of millions of people.

Other things being equal, the vast majority of adults would seek the highest IQ for their child, or if the alteration could done after birth at any age, to seek the highest IQ for themselves and their children. It is also true that in a society where there was any meaningful democratic expression it would be impossible for a government to deny such engineering to those who wanted it.

But it probably would not be left to the individual. If some states positively insist on altering the IQ of their entire populations, this would lead to fears that any country which did not follow suit would be left behind in the competitive struggle between societies. Alternatively, manipulation of IQ could be selfishly used by elites to create a permanent advantage for them. Not a pretty future to contemplate.

IQ and a dysgenic Western future

 Since Hitler, unapologetic eugenics has been beyond the Pale in mainstream political and academic discourse, although it chunters along unnamed in abortions for the genetically unfit and raises its head occasionally in books such as The Bell Curve which explores the effects of differential breeding, mainly in the USA, and concludes that there is a risk of a serious dysgenic effect on national IQs.

The dysgenic effects feared by the Eugenics movement in white societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were that much higher breeding rates of the less able (in practice defined as the poor) would bring about the degradation of the human stock of nations. This was a false fear in the context of the racial make up of white societies of the time because there is a phenomenon known as reversion to the norm. This means that higher IQ parents will tend to have children with lower IQs than their own, while lower IQ parents, i.e., those below the mean, will tend to have children with IQs higher than those of the parents. The effect of this would be to roughly maintain the distribution of IQ in a population. Thus, if the poor, less able, call them what you will, in a population breed more freely than the more able, the long-term loss of intellectual resources in a population should be slight going on non-existent. However, there is a nasty fly in the ointment: each racial group maintains its own IQ distribution regardless of where a particular population lives – the Japanese in America have the same IQ distribution as Japanese in Japan, blacks in Jamaica a similar distribution to those of sub-Saharan blacks. Hence, a low IQ racial group will remain trapped in its inferior IQ distribution Moreover, even with inter-racial breeding the average IQ will still be depressed to a degree when people from lower IQ racial groups breed with a higher IQ group.

If a low IQ minority increases through immigration or breeding at a faster rate than the high IQ majority three effects will be felt: (1) the intellectual resources of the country will decline, (2) an ever more substantial part of the resources of the high IQ majority will have to be devoted to containing the effects of the low IQ minority and (3) there will be a tendency for members of the high IQ majority to emigrate to countries where there is either a smaller low IQ minority or the natural resources (especially land) of the country are greater, the consequence being to further reduce the intellectual resources of the country they are leaving. Increasing white flight from Britain in the first decade of the 21st century is a good example of this trait.

If the aggregate level of intelligence is what matters to the maintenance of a sophisticated society, there must be a point at which the society cannot be sustained if the aggregate IQ is reduced below whatever is the minimum level. This is the danger which faces advanced countries which have experienced and are experiencing large-scale immigration of low IQ races.

The different personality traits of blacks, whites and Asians may mean that the efficiency of a society composed of two or more of the races would be less than that of one composed of only one the race. One race may perform better in a racially homogenous society than another, for example, perhaps it is more important for blacks to be in a homogenous society than whites or Asians because the IQ difference is simply too great for blacks to operate efficiently in a high IQ society. Perhaps Asians with their reduced sociability have a greater need for formal order and find it difficult to integrate into the comparatively free wheeling societies of whites, although their superior IQ allows them to find strategies to live within such societies without integration. It may be that the marrying of  relatively high sociability and high average IQ amongst whites means that they are best able of the three major racial groups to function with large minorities of the other racial groups within their society because the social forms they naturally create are more flexible than the societies created by blacks and Asians. However, even if true, that would not mean that a mixed society is beneficial to whites, merely those whites are better able to accommodate minorities and mitigate their ill effects. (It is worth noting that the economic, political and cultural dominance of whites over the past 500 years has been accomplished by societies which enjoyed a very large degree of racial homogeneity).

Where one of the groups in a population is much smaller than the other the larger will naturally dominate, especially in public matters such as politics. But where neither can naturally dominate how will things such as the political system be determined?  Because of innate personality biases one racial group may naturally favour representative government, the other some form of authoritarian government. There is no obvious way of deciding the matter short of violence.

What is certain is that racially mixed societies will be less cohesive than racially homogenous ones. The reason is obvious: the natural sense of “tribal” solidarity is fractured. People feel at best less natural sympathy with other racial groups and at worst a suspicion and antipathy to them. Of course, it is not only racial difference which creates such a situation for ethnic differences, whether historical or cultural, can have a strong divisive quality. But there is a fundamental difference between cultural and biological difference: the former is susceptible to change on a human time scale; the latter is not. An immigrant of the same racial type as the majority population of the receiving country but of a different ethnicity can have children who can be assimilated within a generation to the point where they are indistinguishable from the native majority. An immigrant of a different racial type can remain set apart from the receiving country’s majority population indefinitely if they and their descendents retain their racial type by breeding with others of the same race.

Ethnic solidarity is essential to the coherence and survival of a population. In his “On Genetic Interests”, Frank Salter concludes “Territory is a collective fundamental good for harmonising familial and ethnic genetic interests and securing long-term genetic continuity”. This goes to the heart of ethnic solidarity and survival. The dictum applies to a large degree even where a population does not have formal control of the territory because numerical dominance on the ground is nine parts of the biological law. Britain provides a first rate example with the Welsh and Scots maintaining de facto territorial control of their territory.

The societies most at risk at present are white societies, because it is they which have experienced and are continuing to experience mass immigration of racial groups which differ from their own majority populations. Whites are also displaying low fertility rates, most below replacement level, while immigrant groups are generally breeding above replacement level, often well above replacement level.

Why are whites showing such a disinclination to breed? In part it is selfishness. In pre-modern societies (including many still extant) Man has frequently acted to restrict population at the level of the individual, particularly by infanticide, a very widespread behaviour throughout history. It is not that great a leap in human behaviour for individuals to move from “I must kill this baby because I do not have the resources to raise it” or “to try to raise the child will lessen the chances of my other children” to “I will not have a child because to do so will lessen my own chances of satisfying my own desires”.

This mentality is bolstered by any political ideology which exalts the individual and diminishes the coherence and importance of the ethnic group, whether that is a band, tribe or a nation. Liberal Internationalism is such a creed, which adds to overt individualist propaganda the effects of mass immigration and so-called free trade and free markets, all of which attack the economic and territorial security of nations. This increases the insecurity of whites who breed less freely as a consequence.

But the position is more complex than simple ideology. Even in the more prosperous developing countries – where attitudes to breeding are still traditional – demographics are shifting towards the advanced country distribution. Clearly, increased prosperity and security is an important driver of reproductive change. Longer life spans also probably have an effect, although exactly what is difficult to assess – if I had to venture a guess the effect would be that the longer the life the less feeling of urgency in the individual to breed.

There is also the question of what constitutes genetic inheritance from a human standpoint – note I say from the human standpoint not what genetics may tell us. Because sexually reproducing organisms halve their genetic transfer every generation (more or less), the genetic inheritance of any individual is soon diffused to the point of practical non-existence within the context of the ethnic group, although a significant genetic similarity between members of an ethnic group and more broadly within a racial group continues. Human beings unlike animals can be aware of this. Such people breed regardless of this fact and tend to favour to others genetically related to them tenuously if at all by blood, such as in-laws and great grandchildren or grand nieces and, of course, if the individual is not aware of the rapid genetic dilution he or she still shows such favour to those who are not genetically close. What matters to the individual is the continuing of the genealogical line regardless of the genetic content of the line. It is the cultural transfer which counts. No other animal has such an imperative.

Whatever the reason for white demographic decline, it does raise the question of what would be the objective consequences if whites became greatly diminished in numbers and power in the world or even vanished as a distinct race. Judged by the history of the world to date it would in all probability remove from the world the race most capable of imaginative thought and invention. That could mean the future development of Man took a much narrower and more limited course.

It is also true that white majority societies have been the only ones which have meaningfully honoured the liberal with a small “l” values which have ameliorated the cruelty which is a normal part of most societies. If white dominated societies ceased to exist through whites becoming the minority in them or because they have been so fragmented by immigration that the values are extinguished by ethnic strife, there can be no confidence that the values would survive at all.

Why have whites dominated?

 Plausibly, whites have been the culturally dominant race – in the sense of creating the most sophisticated societies to date – because they marry a high average IQ with a superior verbal ability to that of Asians. This means they can both handle the IQ demands of an advanced sophisticated society and have sufficient sociability to create structures which extend the group loyalty and sense of oneness beyond the family or tribe without resorting to unashamed authoritarian control, for example civil society and representative government. They display strong traits of initiative, imagination and intellectual curiosity, traits which may be linked to their relatively high sociability, a behaviour which encourages emulation and competition between and within the sexes. Other biological traits such as testosterone levels somewhere between blacks and Asians may also promote such behaviour.

There is evidence that enhanced traits of individuality and imagination go back to the beginnings of modern European man. The vast majority of extant cave paintings in the world are found in Europe, especially in the west of the continent. (The cave art of the Palaeolithic and the finely honed flint tools of the later Stone Age, whose workmanship goes far beyond the demands of the demands of simple utility, arguably represent a higher state of development than the 19th Century Tasmanians).

The great ancient white civilisations which arose around the Mediterranean, those of Greece and Rome, show an immense fertility of mind. It is here that we first find evidence of analytical thought as a conscious pursuit. Their art is both extensive and varied and subject to fashion, that is, it changes regularly over time. That art, both visual and literary, is concerned with either Homo sapiens or gods who share human qualities, evidence of a similar mentality to that which drove the Renaissance. In terms of advanced social organisation, the Greeks created the idea of direct democracy and the Romans incorporated democratic aspects into the first great European political entity.

These traits continued throughout the mediaeval European world, even though they were gradually placed ever more firmly in the constraining context of Christianity. Illuminated European manuscripts often reveal a lively irreverence and interest in the profane world in their illustrations, monarchs, great nobles and religious orders vied with one another to produce ever more magnificently egotistical material statements in the form of gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, great castles and religious buildings, parliaments were created in many kingdoms. Intellectuals such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Peter Abelard and William of Occam wrestled with the implications of existence. Then came the Renaissance which saw the qualities of individuality and imagination given full rein, aided by the advance of the vernacular throughout Europe and, most importantly, printing. From that point onwards the general cultural advance of Europe has never faltered and has produced science, high technology, representative government and an ever changing kaleidoscope of artistic endeavour. These were the building blocks of modernity.

The acceptance of Christianity within Europe is interesting in itself for the religion embodies the notion of individualism, both in the personification of God and the individual’s relationship with God. Moreover, the placing of God in human form in the person of Christ echoes the humanising of the Greek and Roman gods. Old wine in new bottles.

How the IQ level of a society rises

 How natural selection works on the mind is still uncertain, but if the attributes of mind are substantially genetically determined then they must be subject to natural selection. If this is the case then natural selection would favour differences in mentality which are suited to particular environments.

The mechanics of a rising average IQ would seem to be simple. If IQ is genetically determined, in part or whole, it will be subjected to natural selection. If a higher IQ is advantageous in an environment it will be preferentially selected. That will result in an increase in the average IQ within the group. From that increase will arise the possibility, but not the necessity, of more complex social arrangements. If such arrangements occur, natural selection will favour ever more strongly the high IQ which in turn will provide the opportunity for a yet more complex society. And so on ad infinitum or at least to the limits of what can be achieved within homo sapiens. (Of course, it may become possible for Man to go beyond what natural selection can achieve by means such as cybernetics or genetic engineering.)

The ability of a racial group to naturally evolve into  more sophisticated societies is not a certain or rapid thing. The vast periods of time in which, from the palaeontological and archaeological evidence we have, little social change appears to have occurred are testimony to that. More certainly we know that throughout historical times different human populations have lived in very different stages of social evolution. Even today we see people living around the world in every social state from hunter-gatherer to the most sophisticated form of the modern industrialised society.

What we are talking about is the potential to evolve socially. This potential may lay untapped for tens of thousands of years, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, because the point is not reached where an increase in average group IQ coincides with an environment favourable to utilise the potential of the increased average group IQ.

Social evolution could also be delayed if the move from a simpler to a more complex society requires a certain average group IQ to be reached, a critical mass if you will. For example, imagine that a group of hunter-gatherers starts with an average IQ of 50 and this gradually rises. Imagine further that to become a settled community indulging in farming requires and average IQ of 70. Of course, such radical cultural change is unlikely to ever have been so brutally direct or mechanical for any hunter-gather group will have moved by degrees from hunter-gathering to farming, but the general principle holds good.

It is noticeable that the major racial groups have reached different degrees of social evolution. It is not that any single racial group has reached a uniform level of social evolution, rather that the different racial groups seem to have an upper limit to the level of general social and cultural evolution each can achieve. For example, no black society created a system of writing as far as is known and nowhere outside of Europe did forms of government which went beyond monarchical autocracy evolve naturally – countries outside Europe have of course mimicked, at least in form if often not in content, non-autocratic systems after contact with Europeans.

Another way of judging whether racial type places limits to social evolution is to look at how the various major racial groups have responded to the example of more sophisticated societies. Whites in Europe and their descendents abroad have shown a general ability to imitate the leaders in social evolution, whether that be Rome and Greece in the ancient world, Italy in the Renaissance or Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Asians have shown themselves capable of rapidly copying the white example in some respects at least, most notably by industrialising. Blacks are the odd man out. Nowhere is there a black majority society which has managed to modernise by its own efforts. Indeed, it is not possible to find a black majority society of any size which has been capable of modernising successfully even with a great deal of outside support from the First World.

The intelligence of erudition

 There is phenomenon which anyone who has gained a substantial knowledge of a subject may recognise: it is the point at which a qualitative change in understanding appears to occur, where connections are effortlessly made between disparate pieces of data and a  general understanding of the whole emerges. This is not a conscious process but an emergent property of the accumulation of information. Is that IQ ability driven? It is clearly different from the type of ability quantified from the exercises which comprise IQ tests, but equally it is not the simple application of learned information to solve a problem. Moreover, the phenomenon arises with all types of data. Einstein could not have developed his theories without his learned knowledge of the way the physical world worked both at the level of his personal experience and through absorbing the scientific discoveries, thoughts and mathematics made and developed by others. Similarly, the mechanic develops an “instinct” for what is wrong with an engine through the experience of tinkering with many engines.

Of course the nature of the intelligence of erudition varies from individual to individual, from the person who ends up with a mass of data and no clear overall understanding of the data (we all know people who display “a ghastly erudition”) to the individual who clearly sees not only the wood from the trees but identifies the important trees within the wood. Nonetheless, even the person who has no clear overall understanding of the data will generally have a better grasp of a subject than someone with a slight understanding, no matter how intelligent that person should be.

There are interesting differences in the way this phenomenon develops and is sustained. Mathematicians, philosophers and physical scientists frequently produce their best work when young, after which they spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture their youthful intellectual zest. Other intellectuals such as historians and sociologists are notorious for producing their best work when in middle age, by which time they have ingested vast amounts of information about both their subject and the way human beings behave generally, and have allowed whatever unconscious process occurs considerable time to organise, connect and elucidate what they have learned. This suggests that erudition is more useful in some areas than others, although it does not necessarily follow that IQ related ability is more important in subjects such as maths and physics than in history or sociology – this would be so even if it could shown that as a matter of contingent fact mathematicians and physicist have higher average IQs than historians and sociologists (they probably do). It could be that once a certain level of intellectual adequacy is reached people are drawn to subjects by their personality rather than IQ related abilities.

To what degree is high ability in subjects such as history, sociology and literary criticism IQ ability dependent? As mentioned above they do not obviously call on the qualities measured by IQ tests. However, looked at more closely it is plain that these disciplines rely on IQ dependent abilities such as the recognition of contradiction or the construction of methods of quantifying social phenomena and, of course, they can involve the mastery of the indisputably high IQ subjects such as maths, physics or philosophy where that is the subject matter to be studied within the context of another subject, for example, the history of science or philosophy. But what do we make of the ability of the historian to concisely interpret a vast amount of data or the literary critic to see within text echoes of other writers and ideas? Are those abilities IQ dependent in the same way as understanding a complicated equation is IQ dependent?  There is a good case for saying that they are, because what the historian and the literary critic are doing is sifting material and assigning values to it. That is a form of pattern matching, although a very complex and diffuse one.

Let me take the cases of the chess players Garry Kasparov and the Polgar sisters to illustrate two aspects of the intelligence of erudition. Kasparov has an IQ of 135, good but not outstanding, yet he was able to become world champion at an activity considered exceptionally intellectually taxing. It was not solely or arguably predominantly IQ which made him world champion for there will almost certainly be many topclass chess players with substantially higher IQs. So how did he become world champion? To become a very high performing chess player requires not merely natural talent but the building up of a vast catalogue of games in one’s memory. From that comes the emergent property of the intelligence of erudition to go with the IQ based abilities. Bearing in mind Kasparov’s relatively modest IQ and the many higher IQ players he was competing with, plausibly it was the intelligence of erudition which was probably the prime determinant of his success. Of course, other qualities not obviously IQ dependent come into play with high level chess such as courage and sheer physical stamina (I am assuming that the support staff and technology available to any grandmaster will be much of a muchness) but understanding born of great familiarity with played chess games must have been by far the prime determinant.

The two Polgar sisters demonstrate another aspect of the intelligence of erudition. Their father set out from their early days to deliberately produce two chess prodigies. He did this to substantiate his belief that particular abilities, including intellectual abilities, could be instilled by training (shades of J B Watson). He succeeded. The sisters both became grandmasters. That they did not become world chess champions – an objection often made by those opposed to his ideas – is neither here nor there. The fact that he was able to take two babies and turn them into very high performing chess players – a very select band – is persuasive evidence for the power of inducing intelligence in specific areas of expertise. Of course, one cannot draw firm conclusions from a single instance such as the Polgars, but it is food for thought when the question of intelligence is considered.

What happened with the Polgars is really no more than the age old trait of children following their parents into the same work or being put to an apprenticeship at an early age. Some societies have operated on the basis of children following their parents’ occupations by law. Many of those occupations can plausibly be linked to IQ related abilities, especially visio-spatial ones, for example, those required of any craftsman. One could argue that genetic inheritance plays its part, but this is not plausible where many generations are involved, both because the genetic inheritance of someone with an innate ability is diluted rapidly through the generations and also because presumably genetically related abilities generally suffer from reversion to the norm.

What would be interesting is a study of how easy or difficult it is to induce the ability to undertake particular activities which would be considered IQ dependent. I have a sneaking feeling that if those engaged in programmes designed to enhance IQ concentrated instead on programmes designed to enhance the intelligence of erudition they would find it a more fruitful activity.

How valuable is the intelligence of erudition when compared with IQ related ability? Obviously, learned ability is fundamental to all human societies, from the hunter-gatherer upwards. Most of what we consciously do is guided by our own experience or the experience of others, although of course knowledge is only valuable when it can be applied, whereas IQ related problem solving ability in principle can get you through a very large number of possible situations, both novel and familiar. There is also a clear distinction between knowledge which can be applied without the need for any external assistance and that which requires external assistance, for instance, knowing how to use a calculator is useless without a calculator: knowing how to do mental arithmetic is a  skill always available. But what of really high level intellectual ability? In its outcomes can erudition compete with innate IQ related ability? Can someone without a startlingly high IQ make as profound a contribution to intellectual history as those with such an IQ simply through intellectual application? Step forward Charles Darwin.

 Did Darwin have a high IQ?

The importance iof the intelligencve of erudition can be seen in the case of Charles Darwin, a man  widely recognised as one of the most important intellectuals in history. A strong case can be made for his theory of natural selection being the single most influential idea ever, because not only did it profoundly change the intellectual relationship between man and his perception of his place in existence, its influence has stretched far beyond biology. It might even be said to be of universal application because all natural repeatable events, circumstances and ongoing processes are subject to selection. Just as organisms compete to survive so do inanimate objects and processes, whether natural or man-made. A pebble on the seashore made of granite will outlast one made of sandstone; war machines will compete in an arms race; ideas will clash and be selected or not according to their intellectual and emotional power in a particular situation. Today his idea is applied increasingly to design generally using computer programmes which mimic evolution on projects as diverse as discovering the most efficient phone network and the design of new anti-bacterial drugs.

 But Darwin’s importance goes far beyond a single idea. He contributed greatly to other parts of evolutionary theory including the descent of Man and the development of emotions in Man and animals. He was also a good guesser. Frequently his hypotheses were untestable in his own lifetime because the knowledge needed to test them were not available but have been given Further credence by later discoveries, for example, his belief that modern Man originated in Africa, an hypothesis which is widely accepted today because of DNA analysis. It is difficult to think of a man who has had a more profound intellectual effect on the world.

Darwin was obviously exceptionally intellectually capable in the sense that he produced very important work, but is there anything in his life and work which is suggestive of a genius level IQ? He did not show any noticeable aptitude for the traditionally high IQ subjects such as maths and philosophy, nor is his life before his voyage on the Beagle suggestive of any great intellectual power. It is true that the young Darwin showed a strong interest in the natural world, both in biology and geology, but this interest was more that of a gentleman dilettante rather than of a serious scientist.

Even after returning from his voyage on the Beagle Darwin retained something of the gentleman dilettante, although he was very hardworking and persistent in his interests. He spent more than twenty years toying with the idea of evolution through natural selection and engaging in other work which was largely a matter of observation. When he came to publish his work on evolution he only did so because he is afraid that his ideas would be trumped by the publication of Wallace’s very similar theory. (That he suddenly rushed to publish gives the lie to the commonly retailed idea that he had withheld publication for fear of a hostile public reception, especially from the devout.)  The most plausible explanation for the delay is that Darwin simply did not have the motivation to make the intellectual effort to finish his great work until he was threatened with being trumped Wallace. It is only from that point onwards that Darwin begins to produce the work for which he is chiefly remembered today. He was no feverishly intelligent, intellectual personality bursting to put his ideas before the public as soon as possible.

But although Darwin took a long time to get to the point of publication, he undoubtedly spent an immense amount of time and effort assimilating information about the Natural world from his teenage years onwards. By the time he finished the Origin of Species he had developed the intelligence of erudition to a very high degree.

Darwin’s working method was to create a mound of evidence on which he built sustained argument. (Ironically, the critics of The Origin of Species frequently complained that he lacked powers of reasoning when in fact the book is one sustained immense argument). The data he worked upon was not inherently difficult to understand being primarily a question of observation by Darwin or others. Anyone of normal intelligence could master it with sufficient application. Where Darwin differs from the vast majority is in the tenacity with which he assimilated facts and the use he put the data to after he had assimilated it. What Darwin had was an abnormally sustained concentration of thought.

So what are we to make of all this in the context of Darwin’s IQ? Obviously he had to have the mental wherewithal to allow him to handle large amounts of data and construct coherent arguments from the data. He needed to be able to see not only the wood for the trees but to see the important trees in the wood. The question is how he managed to accomplish such tasks. Was it primarily IQ related ability or is it a consequence of learning? The material he dealt with suggests the latter, that he had the intelligence of erudition in spades.

Based on the content of Darwin’s work and his failure to display any aptitude for indubitably high IQ subjects such as maths, there is no reason to believe he had a very high IQ. He needed an IQ high enough to allow him to undertake the tasks of assimilating essentially simple information and engaging in a sophisticated analysis of it. Perhaps an IQ in the 110-120 range would have fitted the bill for those tasks.

Does an IQ test measure general intelligence?

Although IQ tests undoubtedly measure a wide range of mental ability and are valuable tools in predicting whether someone is likely to be fitted for a particular job or academic course and are predictors of social outcomes. But identifying useful mental qualities is one thing, assuming that the qualities constitute the totality of intelligence quite another. From early in the history intelligence testing psychologists have attempted to establish that the tests measure a quality of general intelligence which they call “g” – the British psychologist Charles Spearman was the originator of the idea in the early years of the twentieth century. The problem is that there is no absolute proof that “g” exists or that IQ tests measure it. However, what IQ tests do plausibly measure is a general ability which applies to a wide range of mental tasks for there is a strong tendency for individuals to perform similarly across the spectrum of tests which make up an IQ score, for example, a high IQ individual will score strongly on all IQ problems, although not with an exact evenness of performance.

 But there is an alternative explanation for why individuals score similarly across the range of IQ tests. This is that what is measured by such tests is a catalogue of different abilities, each dependent on some structural quality of the brain, and that the normal development of the brain is such that each structure from which an ability derives develops in concert with all the other structures and, consequently, the various abilities are kept roughly in step. Put another way, a person with a high IQ scores highly across the range of tests because the brain can only develop in a way which produces structures which are roughly equal in ability.

 This is not quite as improbable an idea as it might seem at first glance because  normal organic development generally displays just such behaviour, for example, the growth of parts of an organism are normally proportionate to the individual organism’s size. If this alternative explanation is correct, the practical effect of such a brain would be the same as a brain governed by some general principle of intelligence. An analogy would be with computers which have programs designed to tackle the same tasks but which have qualitative differences in power and scope. The case of idiots savants with high level specific abilities, which in any other circumstances but those of the idiot savant would be considered high IQ activities, could be accommodated within the hypothesis that intelligence is a conglomeration of separate abilities rather than being a single entity, for it could be that normal development is arrested in most areas and enhanced in one or two. Indeed, high performing idiots savants provide a serious problem for those who wish to claim that “g” exists and the type of explanation offered by those in the field – that the abilities of such idiots savants are talents rather than intelligence – is scarcely convincing.

 Against the idea of discrete abilities forming a suite of intellectual tools which give the impression of a single quality of intelligence is the fact that those with innate deformities and deficiencies of the brain or damage to the brain utilise other parts of the brain to perform functions normally associated with the deficient or damaged parts.

There is the further problem for the idea of ‘g’, namely, that there are clearly some forms of what would be considered high level intellectual activity which do not seem to fall into the obvious realm of IQ tested abilities, for example, literary talent, historical and sociological insight. It is true that those who excel in such fields will probably have a healthy IQ, but it is not obvious how the abilities tested by IQ relate to the abilities displayed in such work. It might be thought that this is evidence for “g” and that performance in subjects such as history and sociology is simply an expression of “g”, that is, “g” is being tested by other means than an IQ test. The problem with that argument is that people with similar IQs, both in overall score and in the shape of the IQ, do not display equal facility at intellectual tasks across the board and the difference in particular abilities cannot be put down to simply differences in upbringing or of temperament.


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