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Social Justice and Intelligence Testing

Today's New York Times questions whether standardized, intelligence tests should be relied upon so heavily for admission to universities. In my training as a clinical psychologist in the 1980s, I wrestled with this question as it applied to the use of IQ tests to label children for special education. In my new book From Mindfulness to Heartfulness I tell the story of a transformative experience that opened my eyes to the reality of the injustices in standardized testing.


A heartful story I remember comes from my days at Harvard when I was a student training to be a clinical psychologist. A group of us were hired by the Savannah Georgia school system to randomly test the children in the city. We learned later that the superintendent of schools wanted to prove that the children, mostly African American, were of average intelligence. He hoped that this would motivate the mostly white teachers to raise their standards, expectations, and the performance of the children. An article in the Savannah newspaper some months later declared: "Harvard shows Savannah children of average IQ."

I was administering an IQ test one day to a 12 years old boy named Jerome. We were in the Vocabulary section. The word was justice. Jerome didn't answer so I repeated: "Justice." A smirk came on his face but he still didn't answer, so I gave him a third chance: "What's justice mean Jerome." As I was about to move on to the next item, he blurted out, "Can't get none of it!"

His answer stunned me. I looked at him, he smiled mischievously and I moved on to the next item to cover my discomfort.

Later that evening when I was scoring his test, I saw that the scoring guideline did not contain the example, "Can't get none of it." It wasn't a two point answer; it wasn't a one point answer, so it was a zero point answer. Jerome would get zero for a question to which he obviously knew the answer. And I kept asking myself, Where is the justice in this system?' Who makes the questions and answers? Whose children score well on this test? Who doesn't score well and gets placed in special education or just labeled as unintelligent? Who had ever seen the intelligence in Jerome?

I believe that through this story I remember how much I had been enlivened by the realities of diversity and social justice. Heartfulness for me involves a concern for those left out, the marginalized, those denied equal rights and fair treatment. My public emergence in the field of mindfulness relatively late in my career has required overcoming the barrier to what I perceived as an exclusive space of color blindness. I am heartened by a movement to be more inclusive, and by connecting with others who are actively asserting themselves. Inclusion involves self reflection on how the belief of having transcended certain worldly concerns leads to dismissing issues of dire importance for some people.

These leaders of diversity are realizing that while things like race don't matter in a sense of their ultimate meaning, they do matter a great deal in the daily lives of many people, for whom they may even be life or death issues. Heartfulness is a way to deepen awareness and understanding of human diversity. Those whose personal and professional lives have focused on this, can play a role in encouraging mindfulness communities to embrace diversity and promote inclusion.

A popular image of mindfulness is self-centered, but we can reframe our inner work as a collective, communal, and connected way of being. In the movement from "me" to "we" our concern for others continues to develop into wider and wider circles of inclusion. Mindfulness promotes personal growth but can be stymied unless the space and place is provided for further development. The work of transforming society begins by transforming ourselves, making peace in ourselves and in the world. A heartful vision and practice of living extends to compassion by focusing on our interconnectedness, uniting compassion with responsibility, by acting to relieve suffering in the world. This story has nourished my lifelong activism in issues of social justice and diversity, connecting me to the expression of love in action.

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