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From the Stanford alumni magazine in 2000:
The legendary Stanford psychologist helped hundreds of gifted children and showed America that it’s okay to be smart. But behind his crusade was a disturbing social vision.
By Mitchell Leslie
… Edward’s high score on an IQ test had qualified him for Terman’s pathbreaking Genetic Study of Genius. Terman, who had grown up gifted himself, was gathering evidence to squelch the popular stereotype of brainy, “bookish” children as frail oddballs doomed to social isolation. He wanted to show that most smart kids were robust and well-adjusted — that they were, in fact, born leaders who ought to be identified early and cultivated for their rightful roles in society.
Though the more than 1,000 youngsters enrolled in his study didn’t know it at the time, they were embarking on a lasting relationship. …
Forty-four years after Terman’s death, the study is still going on. About 200 of his “kids” are alive, still completing periodic questionnaires on their health and activities and returning them to Stanford’s psychology department. The Termites, as they’re fondly nicknamed, have been tracked for nearly 80 years now, through nearly all the milestones of life. It’s the longest-running survey ever carried out. And although Terman didn’t conceive it as such, the study established a powerful new research approach: the longitudinal investigation, in which scientists follow a group of people over many years to learn how factors in early life influence later variables such as health and longevity.
… A story of a different kind emerges from Terman’s own writings — a disturbing tale of the beliefs of a pioneer in psychology. Lewis Terman was a loving mentor, yes, but his ardent promotion of the gifted few was grounded in a cold-blooded, elitist ideology.
Thank goodness, Stanford and Silicon Valley aren’t run on cold-blooded, elitist principles these days!
Especially in the early years of his career, he was a proponent of eugenics, a social movement aiming to improve the human “breed” by perpetuating certain allegedly inherited traits and eliminating others. While championing the intelligent, he pushed for the forced sterilization of thousands of “feebleminded” Americans. Later in life, Terman backed away from eugenics, but he never publicly recanted his beliefs.
Looking back, what are we to make of the man and his work? That’s a question Al Hastorf has been grappling with. The former Stanford provost and vice president is the third director of the Terman study (he succeeded psychology professor Robert Sears), overseeing the project from his office in Jordan Hall. An amiable and restless man with a wry sense of humor, Hastorf has been pondering Lewis Terman’s legacy for a chapter he’s writing in a book on pioneering psychologists.
“There’s a certain delicacy about talking about him,” Hastorf begins, “because he was probably one of the first really big names Stanford had.”
To most people at Stanford, the name Terman evokes another person entirely: Fred Terman, ’20, Engr. ’22, the engineering professor, dean and provost who helped launch California’s electronics industry in the 1950s and who was Lewis Terman’s son.
Well, that obviously disproves Lewis Terman’s confidence in the importance of heredity.
But while Fred got his name inscribed on buildings on and off campus, Lewis probably had as much impact on people’s lives, because he almost single-handedly introduced IQ testing in America. …
It’s almost as if the Terman family is the most important in the rise of Silicon Valley.
Eager to measure human minds, Terman plunged into intelligence testing soon after he arrived at Stanford. … Terman and his Stanford colleagues translated Binet’s test, adapted the content for U.S. schools, set new age norms and standardized the distribution of scores so that the mean score would always be 100. Terman called the new version the Stanford-Binet test.
With questions ranging from mathematical problems to vocabulary items, the Americanized test was supposed to capture “general intelligence,” an innate mental capability that Terman felt was as measurable as height and weight. As a hardcore hereditarian, he believed that genetics alone dictated one’s level of general intelligence. … To denote it, he selected the term “intelligence quotient.”
In 1916, Terman sprang his test on America. He released The Measurement of Intelligence, a book that was half instruction manual and IQ test, half manifesto for universal testing. His little exam, which a child could complete in a mere 50 minutes, was about to revolutionize what students learned and how they thought of themselves.
Few American children have passed through the school system in the last 80 years without taking the Stanford-Binet or one of its competitors.
Fewer have gotten into Stanford U. without taking one of its cousins, such as the SAT.
Terman’s test gave U.S. educators the first simple, quick, cheap and seemingly objective way to “track” students, or assign them to different course sequences according to their ability. The following year, when the United States entered World War I, Terman helped design tests to screen Army recruits. More than 1.7 million draftees took his tests, broadening public acceptance of widespread IQ testing.
And the U.S. military continues to intensively use cognitive tests descended from the Stanford-Binet.
… Two-thirds of the Terman men and women earned bachelor’s degrees — that’s 10 times the national rate for their time and all the more impressive because most did so during the Great Depression. The Termites also swarmed to graduate school. “There were 97 PhDs, 57 MDs and, sadly enough, 92 lawyers,” Hastorf says. The women in the group, who reached adulthood in the 1920s and ’30s, foreshadowed later trends. They had fewer children than others of their generation and bore them later in life. More of them went to college and graduate school, more had careers and more remained unmarried.
But of course, everybody at Stanford now knows that intelligence testing is completely discredited. That’s why Stanford admits its freshman class by random lottery.
It does, doesn’t it?
Oh, wait, apparently it turns out that Stanford today runs its admissions system pretty much exactly the way Lewis Terman would have recommended 100 years ago.