Sick? Or Slow? A History of Early Intelligence Testing in Intelligence

In a recently released, open access article in Intelligence Serge Nicolas, Bernard Andrieu, Jean-Claude Croizet, Rasyid B. Sanitioso, and Jeremy Trevelyan Burman discuss the early history of intelligence testing as it developed in France. In “Sick? Or slow? On the Origins of Intelligence as a Psychological Object” Nicolas and colleagues describe how psychologist Alfred Binet (left) fought to establish authority in the realm of children’s educational assessment. Binet challenged psychiatrists, including rival Désiré-Magloire Bourneville (top), for primacy in this field, arguing that children who fell behind in school should be kept within the school rather than removed to “asylums.” For Binet, such children were slow, but not sick. To identify these children, Binet and his collaborators developed the Binet-Simon test, the direct precursor of the extremely successful American Stanford-Binet test. The article’s abstract reads,

This paper examines the first moments of the emergence of “psychometrics” as a discipline, using a history of the Binet–Simon test (precursor to the Stanford–Binet) to engage the question of how intelligence became a “psychological object.” To begin to answer this, we used a previously-unexamined set of French texts to highlight the negotiations and collaborations that led Alfred Binet (1857–1911) to identify “mental testing” as a research area worth pursuing. This included a long-standing rivalry with Désiré-Magloire Bourneville (1840–1909), who argued for decades that psychiatrists ought to be the professional arbiters of which children would be removed from the standard curriculum and referred to special education classes in asylums. In contrast, Binet sought to keep children in schools and conceived of a way for psychologists to do this. Supported by the Société libre de l’étude psychologique de l’enfant [Free society for the psychological study of the child], and by a number of collaborators and friends, he thus undertook to create a “metric” scale of intelligence—and the associated testing apparatus—to legitimize the role of psychologists in a to-that-point psychiatric domain: identifying and treating “the abnormal”. The result was a change in the earlier law requiring all healthy French children to attend school, between the ages of 6 and 13, to recognize instead that otherwise normal children sometimes need special help: they are “slow” (arriéré), but not “sick.” This conceptualization of intelligence was then carried forward, through the test’s influence on Lewis Terman (1877–1956) and Lightner Witmer (1867–1956), to shape virtually all subsequent thinking about intelligence testing and its role in society.

The full article is currently open access and can be downloaded free of charge here.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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