The Purpose of Tenure

[Sidebar to  For Whom the Bell Tolls]

published October 24, 1994

Forbes v154 n10 p153(7).

“There`s a limit
to what you can say in a multicultural society.”

Richard J.
Herrnstein was cheerfully but mortally ill when FORBES
visited him at his home one hot day in August. Still,
when we reported that an eminent Harvard colleague had
offered the above excuse for ducking the IQ controversy,
his eyes widened in perceptible anger. With sudden quiet
intensity, he said: “That`s entirely contrary to
everything the Founding Fathers stood for.”

Herrnstein, who
died at 64, was the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants,
a New Yorker who never forgot his shock at the
segregated South he saw when hitchhiking to Florida in
the 1940s. He graduated from CCNY and then spent
essentially all his career at Harvard, where for several
years he served as chairman of the department of
psychology. He was even a student of the behaviorist
B.F. Skinner, a famous proponent of nurture over nature.

But simple impulse
of scientific curiosity seems to have led Herrnstein to
his final, perhaps unstereotypical, conclusions. While
coauthoring a history of psychology, he became aware, he
told FORBES, “that the reach of psychometrics in
psychology is largely unappreciated.”
The study of
measurement in turn led him to recognize that “the
genetic component has to be acknowledged…. It`s no
accident that cats don`t play the cello.”

And in 1966
Herrnstein experienced a “flashbulb moment”—the
term for key points in mental development invented by
his Harvard colleague Roger Brown—when he saw a
television news item about the

Coleman Report
. (Mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights
Act, the Coleman study found that variation in school
quality explained surprisingly little of the variation
in educational achievement.) “We had all assumed we
just needed to follow Brown [the 1954 Supreme Court
school desegregation decision] with amelioration [of
school conditions],”
he recalled. Now it was clear
that more was involved.

Which was why one
day in the early 1970s found himself hidden under a sink
in the University of Iowa faculty lounge (“having a
very pleasant chat with a graduate student”)
radical demonstrators bayed for his blood. He was
eventually rescued by armed guards. This was the
flower-child generation`s response to Herrnstein`s
September 1971 cover story in Atlantic Magazine
discussing intelligence and its social implications. For
a year every class he gave at Harvard was disrupted. The
Harvard administration waffled.

Things quieted down
thereafter. “There was an unspoken armistice,”
Herrnstein said, “as long as we remained in the
bowels of the technical literature.”
But even there,
discussion of race differences in particular became
“hard to find.”
No wonder. When the Boston Globe
editorialized against The Bell Curve this summer—sight
, because of the publisher`s tight
embargo—harassing calls forced the Herrnsteins to delist
their home phone. That the paper had reported Herrnstein
was dying did not soften the rage against him.

Herrnstein had
reason to believe that honesty was the best policy.
After he and James Q. Wilson co-authored

Crime and Human Nature

in 1985, he said, he was surprised and moved
to receive the thanks of many parents of adopted
children—its apparently dark message about the
hereditary basis of personality had helped relieve their
self-torment over children who went wrong.

It`s not clear, of
course, that Herrnstein`s Harvard colleague is mistaken.

against The Bell Curve is
likely to be vociferous and vicious.

“But Dick would
never have backed off an unpopular idea,”

says Charles Murray. “He thought that was

what tenure was for.”

Peter Brimelow, editor of

and author of the much-denounced

Alien Nation: Common Sense About America`s Immigration
(Random House –
1995) and

The Worm in the Apple
(HarperCollins – 2003)