Literary Culture, Meritocracy, and the Assessment of Intelligence, 1880 to 1920

Michael CollinsMCRh

Drs. Sara Lyons, Natasha Periyan (University of Kent), and Michael Collins (KCL) recently completed work on an AHRC early career grant project (2016 -19). The object of the research was to investigate how British and American novelists understood, represented, and problematised the concept of human intelligence between 1880 and 1920.

These forty years saw intense scientific debates about the mechanisms underlying biological heredity as well as the establishment of mass compulsory education systems in both Britain and America. The convergence of these developments galvanised a new drive to establish the fundamentally innate and measurable nature of mental ability.

The rise of intelligence testing and the associated concept of IQ was highly controversial, but it nonetheless achieved a considerable scientific and cultural legitimacy in both countries, and encouraged a tendency to conceptualise intelligence in statistical terms, as a phenomenon that distributes itself predictably around a norm in a population.

This project compared how British and American novelists used the bildungsroman form – the novel of education and personal development – to grapple with the implications of the new drive to render intelligence an objectively knowable phenomenon.

Key questions included:

  • What did it mean, and how did it feel, to be classified as being above, below, or of average intelligence, at a moment when such judgments began to lay claim to scientific authority?
  • To what extent did novelists in the period endorse or contest the IQ model of intelligence, and what alternative ideas about the evaluation of intelligence can be discovered in the bildungsroman, a form with roots in Romantic theories of education?
  • What is the relationship between new efforts to conceive of intelligence as a testable and unitary entity in the brain and the shift toward more experimental modes of literary representation in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries?
  • What impact did the rise of the notion of IQ have upon modern ideas of talent, creativity, and aesthetic value?
  • How does literary culture in this period both clarify and enrich our contemporary debates about competitive examinations, meritocracy, and genetic determinism.

In this session Sara Lyons, Natasha Periyan, and Michael Collins will offer 20 minute research papers on a number of the writers covered by the project that they will situate in the context of the larger project. The initial panel roundtable will run for 60 mins before moving to a Q&A and audience responses.

D.H. Lawrence and Women in Love: the intellect and the senses (Dr Natasha Periyan)

Natasha Periyan’s research examines the relationship between modernist-era literature and educational debates. She has worked as a Research Associate at the University of Kent on the AHRC-funded project ‘Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence in Britain and America, 1880 – 1920’ and held teaching positions at Goldsmiths, Falmouth, Royal Holloway and is currently teaching Northeastern University students at the New College of the Humanities. She has published articles and book chapters on writers including Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and D.H. Lawrence. Her book, The Politics of 1930s British Literature: Education, Gender, Class (Bloomsbury 2018) won the 2018 ISCHE First Book Award.

This paper analyses D.H. Lawrence's novel Women in Love in the context of his teaching practice and training. On a plot level, Women in Love rejects the conformity of the classroom and the narrowness of intellectual knowledge, celebrating instead the realm of instincts and the senses. Like its teacher-author, though, the novel retains a pedagogic design; to lead the reader through the experience of the text’s narrative confusions into an epistemological critique of the rationalised intellect and the male teachers who embody it. The poems and textbooks Lawrence was reading during the novel’s gestation suggest that Lawrence’s modernist style was an alternative form of teaching ‘sense’ to his readers, in line with his wider conception of the educational qualities of art.

“Breeding Stupid Lads and ‘Cute Wenches”: Heredity and Intelligence in The Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860) (Dr. Sara Lyons)

Sara Lyons is a Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Kent. Her first book, Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater: Victorian Aestheticism, Doubt, and Secularisation was published by Legenda in 2015. She is currently at work on a book which explores how Victorian novelists understood and represented human intelligence, particularly in relation to concepts of meritocracy and inequality.

As the science writer Carl Zimmer has recently observed, it is extremely difficult to calculate the influence of environment upon a person’s IQ score because such influences cannot be ‘snapped apart into distinct chunks the way genetic variants can. They ramify into each other, forming the mycelium of experience’ The ‘mycelium of experience’ is a phrase that George Eliot surely would have appreciated: she famously reaches for web metaphors when trying to capture the intricate interrelatedness of social life and individual development. This paper will suggest that turning to Victorian novels, and in particular to Eliot’s 1860 bildungsroman, The Mill on the Floss, can help to renew the stale modern debate about intelligence and heredity. The long-running controversy over the extent to which differences in IQ scores are attributable to genes or environment, nature or nurture, has its roots in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Mid-Victorian scientists and psychologists – most notably Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton – began to conceptualise intelligence as a biological trait, shaped by evolution and largely determined by heredity. Intelligence was thus disentangled, at least in theory, from personality and moral character, and open to objective measurement, just like any other physical attribute. In the same period, intelligence came to be understood not in terms of specific skills or talents but as general ability – the Victorian antecedent to the concept of g, or general intelligence, the quality that IQ tests purport to measure.

As a polymathic thinker and deep reader in contemporary science and psychology, Eliot was unusually well-attuned to the implications of the new biologisation of the intellect. Most clearly, The Mill on the Foss is a critical response to the fact that mid-Victorian scientists and psychologists dwelled with particular intensity on the supposed innate differences between male and female minds. Beyond this, the novel’s representation of the educations of Maggie and Tom Tulliver is a subtle polemic about the inescapably social and emotional nature of intelligence. In this, Eliot used the resources of the novel form to substantiate the same argument that her common-law husband, George Henry Lewes, would later make in his Problems of Life and Mind (1877): ‘All cognition is primarily emotion. We only see what interests us. No phenomenon is interesting until it is illuminated by emotion, and we see, or foresee, its connection with our feelings’.

Dr. Mike Collins

After completing a Ph.D at The University of Nottingham with a thesis on the 19th Century US Short Story and Theatre, Dr. Collins held a Leverhulme postdoc there to work on the relationship between class politics and anthropology in 19th -and 20th- century US literature and culture (forthcoming from EUP under the title The Making of U.S. Modernism: Class, Culture, Aesthetics). He then took a up post as Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Kent, before coming to King’s College in Sept. 2018. Most recently, he has been working on a cultural history of intelligence testing in the U.S. “Progressive Era” as part of an AHRC Early Career project entitled, “Literary Culture, Meritocracy and the Assessment of Intelligence, 1880- 1920”, and is working with Prof. Gavin Jones (Stanford) on developing new critical approaches to the American Short Story.

What is the right mood in which to approach the essential, but often remarkably frustrating, task of shaping and cultivating other minds? Popular culture abounds with images of inspirational teachers motivated by the apparent value of knowledge itself to propel themselves unguardedly and without reservation into educating others. Yet, under the conditions of capitalism the profession itself is one commonly marked by the economic precarity and cultural liminality of its practitioners. In this condition, the demands that we display unflappable enthusiasm seem like an example of what the historian of affect Lauren Berlant has called “Cruel Optimism” – an emotional stance in relation to pervasive inequality that in seeking to present the world as otherwise brutalises the subject. Arguably, no teacher historically (save, perhaps, Socrates or depending on your stance Christ) has been the subject of such hagiographic descriptions as Anne Sullivan, the “Miracle Worker” who in the words of her charge the deaf and blind Helen Keller bestowed upon her “the key to all language” (Living My Life, 25) and put her on the path to her world-changing career. Yet the Boston-Irish Sullivan commented frequently upon her ill-preparation for the task, her anger, resentment and disappointment at having to do it, and the “ugly feelings” (Ngai) of envy and contempt she periodically felt for her disabled, aristocratic, Southern pupil in the wildly unequal U.S. Progressive Era.

In this paper, using a methodology informed by the work of Sianne Ngai on “ugly feelings”, Lauren Berlant on “cruel optimism”, Sara Ahmed on race inequality, and Jacques Rancière on radical enlightenment, I read Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller’s pedagogical interactions as a means of exploring the emotional states attendant upon educating another when one feels utterly unable to do so. This article extends Jacques Rancière’s vision of “the ignorant schoolmaster” as an ideal condition in which to approach democratic forms of pedagogy (wherein one does not impart wisdom so much as through their own ignorance of the topic at hand engender a habit of inquiry in one’s students) to consider the affects of the teacher-subject placed in that role. In doing so, I theorise the “indignant schoolmaster” as a consciously Nietzschean, “suspicious”, reading of the potentially damaging effect of certain versions of capitalist optimism for teachers. I demonstrate the manner by which a stance of positivity may be called upon to de-professionalise the work of teachers and enable the forms of casualisation, precarity, and inequality frequently desired by their managers and institutions.

Fri 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm