Jim Porter (Uppsala University): Under The Cloak Of The Expert: Public Education, The Science Of “Intelligence,” And Policy Making Behind The Scenes In The 1950s United States

Jim Porter is a researcher at the Hugo Valentin Centre in the Department of History at Uppsala University.   His work has appeared in Isis, History of Science and Multiethnica and his current research project is funded by the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation.  Dr. Porter is interested in social and scientific constructions of “intelligence” and how such beliefs and theories were put to work in educational policy in the interwar and post-WWII United States.     

This talk will take up a relatively brief period in US history that spans the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954) through the end of the decade, including the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958.  While this is a narrow slice of time to investigate closely, it is a period dense with events that rapidly transformed the landscape of US public education.  This was a moment as well, I argue, that saw educational policy reshaped decisively around standardized testing and the science of “intelligence.”  This result was achieved thanks in large part to NDEA funding mandates and to scientist-expert James Bryant Conant’s The American High School Today, his widely popularized set of recommendations for testing, grouping and curricular stratification by measured “ability.”  Both the NDEA and The American High School Today have been widely historicized as independent efforts at science education reform in this Cold War moment.  Yet, in fact, there are very good reasons for examining how they worked together in a coordinated fashion to implement policy that might otherwise have been highly controversial, and evocative of the discredited race science and eugenics of the interwar era.  Network and discourse analysis suggest this joint effort of the 1950s was not just a response to Cold War concerns, but also to white anxieties about, and resistance to, the racial integration of public schools following Brown v. Board decision.  The account presented in this talk has important implications for how we think about policy-making in democracies (or in societies that claim or aspire to be democratic), and the role of expertise in that policy-making process.

Published Mar. 6, 2020 5:58 PM - Last modified Aug. 27, 2020 1:02 PM