Psychometrics and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Analyzing Debates about Intelligence and Educational Opportunity in the Post-WWII United States from 1945-1975
Jim Porter

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Michigan State University

Primary Discipline

This dissertation is an historical analysis of how beliefs about individual differences in “intelligence” were constructed and redefined in the Cold War/Civil Rights era in response to a shifting complex of social and scientific pressures. Further, I am interested in how these evolving constructions of intelligence functioned to regulate both an individual’s educational opportunity and arrange and enforce larger disciplinary hierarchies. Thus my analysis addresses: 1) the theorization of intelligence within psychology, 2) continuities between psychological theory, federal-level legislation, and school-place testing and ability grouping, and 3) the influence of broader Cold War/Civil Rights-era cultural contexts on all these developments. I have conducted extensive discourse analyses of congressional records for the National Defense Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Project Head Start. I have also analyzed period publications, and the unpublished archival materials of key historical actors in these debates.My analysis presumes that whatever “intelligence” is, it is not an ahistorical or organically determined given, but rather a nexus of assumptions, practices and performances that shape-shift over time in response to cultural exigencies. Taking this analytical position de-naturalizes intelligence and makes visible instead how ideas about these sorts of perceived individual and disciplinary differences serve as powerful but under-examined regulators of status and opportunity in our culture. “Intelligence”—its theorization and application–was a praxis with immediate implications for the post-Brown v. Board/Civil Rights era social order. It both drew together and at the same time masked some of the thorniest and most deeply held notions about race, class, gender and educational opportunity. In this time period, more than ever before, measured “intelligence”–a set of numbers one bore through one’s school years like both a prophecy and a kind of personal essence–asserted itself as an explicit marker of worth.
About Jim Porter
Jim is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Michigan State University. He studies 20th century history of science with an emphasis on the histories of biology, psychology and education in post WWII US. He is the recent recipient of a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, and his book chapter, “The Problem of Mind in Experimental Psychology: 1875-1950” will appear in the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the History of American Science. Jim holds a BA in biology, an MS in elementary education and an MFA in creative writing. He has taught 5th grade homeroom, high school English and biology, and undergraduate creative writing.

Pin It on Pinterest