October marks the 20th anniversary of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” the extraordinarily influential and controversial book by AEI scholar Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Here, Murray answers a few questions about the predictions, controversy, and legacy of his book.
It’s been 20 years since “The Bell Curve” was published. Which theses of the book do you think are the most relevant right now to American political and social life?
American political and social life today is pretty much one great big “Q.E.D.” for the two main theses of “The Bell Curve.” Those theses were, first, that changes in the economy over the course of the 20th century had made brains much more valuable in the job market; second, that from the 1950s onward, colleges had become much more efficient in finding cognitive talent wherever it was and shipping that talent off to the best colleges. We then documented all the ways in which cognitive ability is associated with important outcomes in life — everything from employment to crime to family structure to parenting styles. Put those all together, we said, and we’re looking at some serious problems down the road. Let me give you a passage to quote directly from the close of the book:
Predicting the course of society is chancy, but certain tendencies seem strong enough to worry about:
- An increasingly isolated cognitive elite.
- A merging of the cognitive elite with the affluent.
- A deteriorating quality of life for people at the bottom end of the cognitive distribution.
Unchecked, these trends will lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the cognitive elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, restructuring the rules of society so that it becomes harder and harder for them to lose. (p. 509)