New in Isis: Cybernetics and Chinese Linguistics; Constructing “Gifted” Students Post-Brown v. Board

The September 2017 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, is now online. Two articles in this issue may be of especial interest to AHP readers: one documenting the relationship between cybernetics and modern Chinese linguists and the other exploring the construction of “gifted” and “academically talented” students in the context of efforts to desegregate schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Full details follow below.

“From Modernizing the Chinese Language to Information Science: Chao Yuen Ren’s Route to Cybernetics,” by Chen-Pang Yeang. Abstract:

As one of the most famous Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Chao Yuen Ren is known primarily for his founding of modern Chinese linguistics. This essay examines a less familiar part of his career: cybernetics. When he taught at Berkeley in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s book manuscript and gravitated toward the subject. His participation in the 1953 Macy Conference marked the beginning of his decades-long work that used the concepts of feedback and information to understand language in general and Chinese in particular. This essay argues that Chao’s exploration of cybernetics was influenced not only by the rise of information science in the midcentury United States but also by the movement to modernize the Chinese language two decades earlier. His phonetic research for dialect surveys, involvement in language reform, and appropriation of structuralism when he worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s shaped his cybernetic interpretations of language in the 1950s and 1960s. This article enriches the current historiography of information science, which stresses disunity and internationalism, by showing how an East Asian context affected an aspect of the early development of cybernetics. It also demonstrates the value of an immigrant scientist’s intellectual biography for studies of transnational science.

“A “Precious Minority”: Constructing the “Gifted” and “Academically Talented” Student in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education and the National Defense Education Act,” by Jim Wynter Porter. Abstract:

This essay investigates the emergence of a profusion of lay and specialist literature in the late 1950s United States advocating on behalf of “gifted” and “academically talented” students. This call to reform schools around individual differences in “intelligence” was associated in its moment with the Sputnik crisis and the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). The essay demonstrates, however, that the emergence of intensified interest in education for the “academically talented” was actually closely coterminous with Brown v. Board of Education and should also be understood in the context of early efforts to desegregate the public schools. It holds that a closer look at the NDEA—and a supporting body of literature working in tandem with it—reveals continuities in psychometric conceptions of “intelligence” and testing from the interwar period into the post–World War II era. This essay thus makes contributions to the historiographies of the Cold War, civil rights, psychometrics, and education in the 1950s.

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.