‘Bell Curve’ Ballistics

Robert J. Samuelson, Washington Post, October 26, 1994.


“The Bell Curve” — the controversial book about the role of intelligence in society — is already a commercial success. Its publisher reports that it has now gone to four printings, totaling 200,000 copies. This is heady stuff for an 845-page book crammed full of tables and charts. But whether the book can improve public debate (its avowed purpose) is less clear, because it broaches two subjects that drive Americans to passionate incoherence: class and race. The debate will remain constructive only if we grasp what “The Bell Curve” does and doesn’t say.

Although public attention has focused on race, the book is mainly about class. Intelligence, it argues, has become critical in determining class status. More specialized jobs demand more brain power, and schooling has become more democratic. In 1940 only 25 percent of adults had graduated from high school and only 5 percent from college; by 1990, those rates were 78 and 21 percent. The combination of new jobs and more schooling means that bright people move up the social ladder.

This wasn’t so a century ago, argue authors Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. Then people clustered (or were segregated) into neighborhoods and jobs by ethnic group or race, and women were confined to the home by custom. The American ideal has been partially realized. People succeed on their abilities. This thesis is less novel than it seems. Other writers (Mickey Kaus, Labor Secretary Robert Reich) have also concluded that society is splitting along lines of skill and, like Murray and Herrnstein, they have mixed feelings about the change.

Washington Post