Why I Stopped Teaching The Bell Curve

To the Editor:

As we try to understand protests to Charles Murray’s speaking engagements, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my experiences trying to teach The Bell Curve. When I was a professor at Middlebury College, I included sections of Murray’s Bell Curve and critiques of it in the Introduction to Psychology course. After several years, however, I removed it. Looking back now, I ask myself if it was right to try to cover The Bell Curve and should others do so? Or was it right to stop doing so? What best serves the greater good?

I originally thought it worthwhile for students to read and discuss the “racial differences in intelligence” controversy. In contrast to comments that many of the protesters have never read the Bell Curve, no one could the say that my students had not. Moreover, as others have written, in their liberal arts education students should be exposed to positions different from their own that might make them uncomfortable. My students read material that could be seen as incendiary, such as: “…the average white person tests higher than about 84 percent of the population of blacks and …the average black person tests higher than about 16 percent of the population of whites” and the section on “Genetics, IQ, and Race.” Before the reading and discussions, I explained the possible lack of validity of IQ tests and introduced the nature/nurture issue. I therefore hoped students would be prepared to read, understand, and discuss this hot-button issue.

Nevertheless, as we discussed and debated, students’ reactions concerned me. The topic was contentious. Many took it personally. The rational discussion I hoped for was often not based on evidence and sometimes sunk into ad hominem arguments. I added the following to the discussion guidelines: “… Don’t make personal, ad hominem attacks on people. Critique the ideas presented, not the person presenting them. Be respectful and considerate of your classmates.” I thought it was important to say this, especially in a course taken mostly by first-year students. As Charles Murray himself wrote, “A faculty that is overwhelmingly on the side of free intellectual exchange, stipulating only that it be conducted with logic, evidence, and civility, can easily lead each new freshman class to understand that’s how academia operates.”

However, I learned that it’s not that easy. The discussions of The Bell Curve continued to be combative and ill-willed. I had a hard time “controlling” the class. Students began to look at one another and me differently, more suspiciously. To be honest, based on many students’ reactions to the material and comments that they found it racist and offensive, I worried that including it would negatively affect my reputation and course evaluations. After several years, I replaced The Bell Curve controversy with another that was less contentious and more positive.

With hindsight, was my decision to drop this material a mistake? In this era of fake news and alternative facts, it seems vitally important that citizens have informed, rational, civil discussions. Colleges and universities should be places where they practice doing so. Yet, it is not easy. Mutual respect and valuing diversity are core values for many colleges and universities. Does it foster or hinder these core values to entertain the beliefs that blacks’ intelligence is on average less than whites’ and this difference is partially genetic?

Marc Riess
Former Professor of Psychology
Middlebury College

Return to Top