The baseball historian Bill James once wrote that there was something other than speed that came into play both for offense and defense. It was hard to quantify, not because it would show up only in certain situations, but because it showed up in all situations; it was almost too near to get a view of. That was intelligence. He said he wasn’t referring to raw brain power, but to baseball smarts, the touch, the habits so long practiced they become instinctive, the guesswork, the ability to engage in misdirection when needed. Much of this intelligence is all the harder to see because, though it often makes good things happen, it also often keeps bad things from happening, or even from being possible to happen. The recently retired catcher for the Saint Louis Cardinals, Yadier Molina, had a cannon for an arm but also a calculator for a brain, so that he didn’t just throw out a large percentage of runners who tried to steal a base. He kept them from attempting it in the first place. His defensive influence on the game showed up either in what didn’t happen—his pitchers threw very few wild pitches, not because they were more accurate than pitchers for other teams, but because Molina’s reactions kept the pitches from getting past him—or in what he caused to happen to other people’s statistics. Pitchers were better at what they did when he was in the game. Pitchers became better at what they did when they joined his team, even when he was not in the game.

I hope the reader will forgive my foray into the national pastime, but I wish to make what ought to be a couple of obvious points. The first is that an employer should be permitted to hire, ad libitum, people with brains, without having to prove to a court that he is correct in his assessment, or that the intelligence he measures or he observes or he guesses at is applicable in any specific and easily described way to the requirements of the job. And yet, since Griggs vs. Duke Power (1971), it has been illegal—or the threat of an expensive and embarrassing lawsuit makes it effectively impossible—to use an intelligence test as a sifting tool for employment, unless the test is tailored to some specific feature of the job, and unless there is no difference in performance among various groups of candidates.

The history of Duke Power was not an edifying one, to be sure. The company’s Dan River Station had restricted African Americans to the labor division, with the lowest-paying jobs. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, Duke Power immediately added some requirements for employment: a high school diploma or its equivalent and two intelligence tests, one for mechanical skills and one for general cognitive ability. These would hurt blacks more than whites. The court then ruled that even where there is no intent to discriminate, the use of such tests violated Congress’s intent in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Of course, intelligence tests in general have been under fire, and, ironically enough, one of the two most common arguments against them that I have heard of actually demolishes the other. For it is said that the tests do not focus on the specific job to be accomplished; and then it is said that they do not measure such things as “social skills,” which will come into play, for example, whenever the employee faces a new situation and must explain it to his fellow workers. But “social skills,” whatever they are, are impossible to test for; any decent sociopath can mouth all the right answers, and most sociopaths do just that, as they are excellent manipulators. And more—the putative “social skills” are just a different kind of general intelligence, with no specific relation to any specific task. So it is that on Monday you denounce tests for cognitive ability on the grounds that they are too general for the job, and on Tuesday you denounce them because they do not capture some other feature, ill-defined, which you demand precisely because of its generality. Gladhanders may get in; semi-autistic geniuses like Thomas Edison are out.

It has been a half a century since Griggs vs. Duke Power, and from this vantage we can see why courts should be shy of stepping beyond their juridical functions, even when social evils cry out for redress. The justices are to be experts in law not in social policy. That is not just because they are unelected and so unaccountable to the public. It is because a good legislature functions as an intelligence-gathering body, seeking insights from a wide variety of persons with a wide variety of experiences, areas of expertise, knowledge of human affairs, and so forth. The justices of the Burger Court did not foresee what an intelligent observer outside of the confines of jurisprudence might have predicted. For one, suits against employers continue, as they must, since there is no test you can devise and no requirement you can demand that will not favor one group of human persons over another.

I am reminded here of a lawsuit several women once brought against the city of Cranston, Rhode Island. The fire department required applicants for jobs on the engines to drag a 90-pound sandbag across a smooth floor. The women failed at it, but they claimed that that did not mean they lacked the strength to do most of the things firemen do. Now, physical strength for a fireman—or for construction workers, soldiers, many factory workers, lumbermen, and mechanics—really is like intelligence in the sense that it shows up not here or there but potentially anywhere and everywhere. The point is that we want strong people with some weight behind them to do the countless things, often unpredictable, that face the fireman in a crisis. Anybody can hammer a straight nail from above into a board. But can you hammer a crooked nail into it from the side or from below? It is one thing to hack away at a wall with an ax when you have room to swing your arms. It is another when you have only elbow-space to do it in. It is one thing to carry a body when your hands are free. It is another to carry it when only one hand is free, or when the person is soaking wet, or when you are half-choked with fumes. Yesterday I was working in the basement of my house and had to tear out a stud by twisting it with my hands and wrenching it by main force—hammer and pry-bar were not available. An employer should be permitted to look at someone and say, “Sorry, you’re not fit for this,” without having to name the unnamable, that is, all the things that slightness in the frame will make it impossible or awkward or needlessly dangerous for you to do.

The second result of the effective abrogation of the intelligence test has made for a lot of inefficiency and unnecessary expense, and has, perversely, hurt the very people the Burger court wished to promote. For employers soon turned to colleges to do their credentialing for them, with the same justifications. That is, if you graduate with a bachelor’s degree, it is presumed you have some brains, you can learn, and—in our time—you are at least modestly sociable, showing up on time, not irritating your boss, and getting along with classmates in group projects. Nothing you actually are presumed to have learned in college need be specifically directed toward the job you are applying for. The college degree is your ticket, punched by what has become a vast government-enhanced shakedown racket. Since African Americans graduate from college at lower rates than do Asian Americans and whites, what has been accomplished by making a college diploma the ticket for full participation in the economy?

It would be appealing to suppose that we could easily return to freedom of association, permitting employers to hire whomever they pleased for whatever reason, thus cutting out the college middleman insofar, again, as colleges function as general credentialing agencies rather than as instructors in specific fields of knowledge. It should be enough to suppose that a high school diploma is a guarantee of both brains and a general knowledge of the world around you. But when the colleges took up, perhaps unwittingly, the task of the old high school, the high schools themselves lost the sense of urgency, the sense that their graduates ought to be prepared right away for good work, well remunerated. What does a high school diploma now signify? The shabby and unjust treatment that blacks received from whites in America meant that their schools were often poorly funded and staffed; that was the basis for the Court’s overturning of racial segregation of school children, in Brown vs. Topeka (1954). It might be depressing indeed to ask what the black students in Topeka’s high schools learned in 1954, and to compare that with what all students are learning or not learning there today, or to ask what jobs at Duke Power are open to those now with only a high school diploma.

For the aim is to get young people, of all backgrounds and races, on their feet with as little fuss and expense as we can, regardless of whether their families can afford the usurious colleges, and by doing so, to empower families that are richer in brains and in common moral virtues than in money or power. Subsidiary to that aim is to rethink what we do in our grade schools and high schools, but also to be humble about it, because even very good schools will often miss the brightest, precisely because a school will put premiums on habits that reward the middling and the bureaucratic. We have a lot of work to do. Perhaps a good start would be to allow those who can do some of this work a free hand to get it done, presuming no invidious motives from the outset, and letting their practical intelligence guide their way.

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  1. Thanks, Anthony. Good overview of the conundrum of fairness, with a nod to the “intangible” in terms of job skills. Longevity/seniority is another factor.

    “The fire department required applicants for jobs on the engines to drag a 90-pound sandbag across a smooth floor.”

    This reminded me of when I applied for some state university jobs in California around the turn of the century. One question was something like “Can you crawl” a specified distance. I felt like answering, “Only when asking for a job.”

    Women have advantages in some aspects of work related to construction. For example, when I worked in a furniture factory, those who sanded the furniture were mostly women. They had a better ability to detect slight roughness and inconsistency in the surface.

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