A Book for The Holidays

John CarsonI have run across a fine book on a popular aspect of the history of psychology that might be of interest as we head into the holiday season. It is The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2007). It was written by John Carson of U. Michigan, a well-known figure around Cheiron meetings and History of Science Society conferences. Carson attacks the interesting issue of why intelligence tests found their greatest success in the US even though the basic methodology used to construct them to this day was invented and first used in France. He finds the answer in differences between the characters of French and American societies. According to the book’s blurb:

How have modern democracies squared their commitment to equality with their fear that disparities in talent and intelligence might be natural, persistent, and consequential? In this wide-ranging account of American and French understandings of merit, talent, and intelligence over the past two centuries, John Carson tells the fascinating story of how two nations wrestled scientifically with human inequalities and their social and political implications.

Surveying a broad array of political tracts, philosophical treatises, scientific works, and journalistic writings, Carson chronicles the gradual embrace of the IQ version of intelligence in the United States, while in France, the birthplace of the modern intelligence test, expert judgment was consistently prized above such quantitative measures. He also reveals the crucial role that determinations of, and contests over, merit have played in both societies–they have helped to organize educational systems, justify racial hierarchies, classify army recruits, and direct individuals onto particular educational and career paths.

A contribution to both the history of science and intellectual history, The Measure of Merit illuminates the shadow languages of inequality that have haunted the American and French republics since their inceptions.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.