What has Cyril Burt got to do with black boys?

Est. read time: 22 min

“I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts.”

Eysenck. H – Rebel with a Cause (Transaction Publishers, 1997, ISBN 1-56000-938-1)

At the beginning of December 2014, two world renowned centres of academic excellence merged. The Institute of Education and University College London became one. Professor Chris Husbands, IoE director and Professor Michael Arthur, president and provost of UCL said of the merger:

There are several factors that we consider essential to make this merger one of the most successful that has ever occurred in UK higher education. The first is that UCL and IOE share similar values, with the principle of social justice, openness and a tendency to opt for the critical and radical approach, underpinning both organisations. The second is that it is a merger of two institutions that share similar levels of global ambition and that hold academic excellence, and the organisational autonomy necessary to create it, in very high esteem. The final factor is that we fully recognise that as we merge, the hard work is only just beginning.

Image of Cyril Burt from his archive in the University of Liverpool.

Image of Cyril Burt from his archive in the University of Liverpool.

As the hard work begins, the merged institution has the opportunity to examine its individual and joint history in order to determine what its role as a global institution should be in racialised Britain in the twenty first century, having played a pivotal role in shaping British schooling and education in the twentieth century. One influential academic who was part of the history of both the IoE and UCL was Cyril Burt.

Professor Sir Cyril Burt was a renowned British scientist and a pillar of the British establishment who did much more to shape schooling and education in the UK than any other academic in the last century. And what a job he made of it.

Burt is acknowledged as a pioneer of hereditary intelligence, quantitative intelligence testing, psychometrics and eugenics. He embraced the school of eugenics under the tutelage of Francis Galton, William McDougall, Charles Spearman and Karl Pearson. In turn, he influenced the work of Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen and Philippe Rushton, among others. Burt’s influence on the development of schooling and education in Britain cannot be underestimated.

Burt was born in 1883 when Francis Galton was already 60, Spearman in 1863 and Pearson in 1857. He was born into a well off family, to a father who was a medical doctor, one of whose patients was Darwin Galton, elder brother of Francis. Burt made weekly visits with his father to the Galton estate, near their home in Warwickshire, and over time immersed himself in the ideas of Francis. The young Burt was exposed not just to ideas and to literature, but to wealthy living. The trade in enslaved Africans was still winding down then, even though the Act abolishing the trade was passed in Britain in 1834 and in the USA finally in 1867.

Francis Galton’s father, Samuel Tertius Galton had inherited a £300,000 estate from his father, Samuel John Galton. Since the early 1700s, the Galton family had run a lucrative business in iron mongering, gun manufacturing and banking. Among their large extended family of Quakers were the Barclays and the Darwins. Francis Galton’s grandmother was Lucy Barclay and Charles Darwin was Francis’ cousin. The Galton’s were much involved in servicing the trade in enslaved Africans, a trade which enabled them to amass great wealth.

‘The history of the Galton family shows one way Birmingham became involved in profiting from transatlantic trade. Samuel Galton Snr went into business with James Farmer, taking control of the Birmingham branch of the gun making business on Steelhouse Lane. ‘The Slave Trade’ (1997) by Hugh Thomas suggests that in 1765 ‘150,000 guns had been sent to Africa from Birmingham alone’. A gun would often get traded along with some other pieces of hardware, metal or cloth as the price for a ‘slave’.

[“I have another favour to begg but would not have it divulged that is that you would procure me an abstract for a cargo for the Windward or Gold Coast for a vesel that caries about 250 slaves, some particular persons desir’d me to gett it whom I expect to serve with the cargo: observe to add a few more guns’ of Arabia.”

Letter from James Farmer to his brother Joseph,1743 [MS3101/C/C/2/1/5]

Samuel Galton (the elder) was brother-in-law to James Farmer and the Farmers and Galtons ran the ironmonger and gun manufacturing business until they bought out the Farmers in about 1755. Samuel Galton’s grandfather joined the business that year and in 25 years grew the business from £10,000 in 1755 to £140,000 by 1800. Francis Galton’s father, Samuel Tertius, joined his father’s gun business and the family diversified into banking in 1804. In 1815, he took the Galton family out of the gun business altogether, eventually retiring on the proceeds of his father’s £300,000 pounds estate. Samuel Tertius Galton died in 1844.

The young Burt was able to experience life on an estate and no doubt able to form views about social class and the relationship between economy, class and culture. He had started life at a ‘Board school’ in London, attended King’s School, Warwick, when his father moved there to establish his practice, at the age of 12 won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital school, London, and went to Jesus College, Oxford in 1902, aged 19, to read philosophy and psychology. Steering him through his psychology studies was William MCDougall.

There does not appear to be very much in the literature about what, if anything, Francis Galton told Burt about the trade in enslaved Africans, let alone about his family’s part in it. The Quakers had challenged his father about it, latterly at least. For example, we are told that in 1795.

Birmingham Quakers criticised his family involvement in supplying destructive weapons. Galton defended himself, stating:

“Now, those who use the produce of the labor of Slaves, as Tobacco, Rum, Sugar, Rice, Indigo, and Cotton, are more intimately, and directly the Promoters of the Slave Trade, than the Vender of Arms is the Promoter of War;—because the Consumption of these Articles, is the very Ground and Cause of Slavery;—”

One of Galton Jnr’s daughters, Mary Anne Schimmelpennick, later became part of the abolitionist movement. Her memoirs of 1856 reconsider Britain’s participation in slavery.

He came under the influence of Mc Dougall at Oxford just a couple of years after the first Pan-African Conference was held in the UK. The black population in Britain was then between 15,000 and 20,000. The world of the likes of Galton, McDougall, Spearman and other privileged whites could hardly have been further apart from that of the majority of those black people.

Henry Sylvester Williams, a London based barrister from Trinidad, established the African Association in September 1897. By March 1898, in response to the 1884-5 Congress of Berlin at which European countries divided up Africa, laying claim to people, land and sea, the Association sent out a call to a Pan-African Conference to examine the implications of European colonisation of Africa and to ‘influence public opinion on existing proceedings and conditions affecting the welfare of the natives in various parts of Africa, the West Indies and the United States.’ In his opening address, the Chairman Bishop Alexander Walters stated that:

“…..for the first time in history black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.”

Among the issues addressed at the conference were:

“Conditions Favouring a High Standard of African Humanity” (C. W. French of St. Kitts), “The Preservation of Racial Equality” (Anna H. Jones, from Kansas), “The Negro Problem in America” (Anna J. Cooper, from Washington), “The Progress of our People” (John E. Quinlan of St. Lucia)  Other topics included an attack by William Meyer, a medical student at Edinburgh University, on pseudo-scientific racism. Discussions followed the presentation of the papers, and on the last day George James Christian, a law student from Dominica, led a discussion on the subject “Organized Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race Their Battlefield”, saying that in the past “Africans had been kidnapped from their land, and in South Africa and Rhodesia slavery was being revived in the form of forced labour.”

Booker T. Washington, who had been travelling in the UK in the summer of 1899, sent a letter to the African-American Press stating that:

‘In connection with the assembling of so many Negroes in London from different parts of the world, a very important movement has just been put upon foot. It is known as the Pan-African Conference. Representatives from Africa, the West Indian Islands and other parts of the world, asked me to meet them a few days ago with a view to making a preliminary program for this conference, and we had a most interesting meeting. It is surprising to see the strong intellectual mould which many of these Africans and West Indians possess’. (my emphasis)

All of this was happening at a time when Galton and other proponents of eugenics and of the innate inferiority of the ‘savage races’ were conducting research and promoting their theories in a Britain that had long justified the trade in enslaved Africans as legitimate and morally sound on account of the lesser, i.e, ‘subhuman’ status of Africans. The discourse about the genetically inferior intelligence of Africans as compared to Europeans, matched by the manner in which Britain regarded and controlled the countries to which that human cargo was forcibly transported, was given academic credibility through the work of these eminent white men who purported to provide the world with what Eysenck called ‘the truth’, or ‘facts’.

Contrast, therefore, the observations of Booker T Washington and the confident assertion of Burt’s white supremacist, Oxford don, William McDougall. As far as McDougall was concerned, negroes could be distinguished and show leadership only if they have some element of white ancestry:

“…; the few distinguished Negroes, so called, of America – such as (Frederick) Douglass, Booker Washington, Du Bois – have been, I believe, in all cases mulattoes or had some proportion of white blood. We may fairly ascribe the incapacity of the Negro race to form a nation to the lack of men endowed with the qualities of great leaders, even more than to the lower level of average capacity” [McDougall, William., The Group Mind, p.187, Arno Press, 1973; Copyright, 1920 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons].

More recently, many of those in the United States who subscribe to McDougall’s position have claimed that it is on account of his ‘proportion of white blood’ that Barack Obama got to be in the White House.

McDougall encouraged Burt to make psychometrics his major focus of study and guided him as he developed work on mental testing and on measuring intelligence. Following his graduation in 1906, Burt was invited to work with McDougall on ‘a nation-wide survey of physical and mental characteristics of the British people, proposed by Francis Galton’, in which he was to work on the standardization of psychological tests. This work brought Burt into contact with eugenicsCharles Spearman, and Karl Pearson’.

The intersection of Francis Galton’s interests and beliefs and those of McDougall pointed Burt in a very predictable direction. Psychometric testing and the measurement of intelligence became a process by which ‘intelligence’ was reified to the extent that a constant theme in Burt’s research was intelligence as genetically determined as opposed to intelligence as influenced by environmental factors.

What should you expect when you test the intelligence of a child in a workhouse and that of a child of the same age in a prep school, or being taught by nannies in a palace? If you predetermine that ‘the savage races’ are genetically inferior in intelligence unless blessed by a mix of white blood, what tests can you devise to guarantee that you are providing them and the wider world with ‘facts’ about intelligence?

If tests are devised by predominantly ‘left brain’ psychologists for use in ‘left brain’ environments, on what basis could they be seen as providing reliable assessments of intelligence when applied to ‘right brain’ cultures and environments? When do poverty, malnutrition and conditions that impact upon the chemicals of the brain, or socialisation in an environment that demands a completely different set of motor and problem solving skills cease to have an impact on ‘innate’ intelligence?

If measuring instruments are created within a particular context and framed within a range of assumptions and beliefs that do not hold good in a culture vastly different to that of the instrument makers, how ‘objective’ and context free can those instruments be?

All those questions, as well as other concerns about the reification of intelligence become highly relevant when we consider Burt’s lengthy career in psychology, especially as an educational psychologist. He held a position of unsurpassed influence as social psychologist with the London County Council (LCC) between 1913 and 1932, initially concerned mainly with ‘backward, maladjusted and delinquent children’.

The question the LCC wanted answered, in summary, was whether children were backward, maladjusted and delinquent on account of their social class and the environmental factors associated with that, or whether it was on account of their intelligence or lack of it. If the latter, was that deficiency a result of environmental factors rather than being genetically determined? This, after all, was in an age when it was commonplace to refer to some children as ‘maladjusted’, ‘dunce’, ‘mentally retarded’, ‘dim witted’… and more.

Burt appears to apply a highly deterministic approach to ‘hereditary intelligence’, an approach which is consistent with the eugenics of Galton and McDougall:

That children of better social status succeed better with the Binet- Simon scale is not necessarily an objection to that scale; nor is it necessarily a ground for constructing separate norms: for, by birth as well as by home training, children who are superior in social status may be equally superior in general ability. Conversely, if a child proves defective according to a scale that is otherwise authentic, the mere fact that his family is poor and his dwelling a hovel does not of itself condone his deficiency. His parents’ home may be mean precisely because their hereditary intelligence is mean. Whether poverty and its accompaniments affect the child’s performances in any direct fashion-whether, for example, in the Binet-Simon tests a child that inherits an abundance of natural ability may be handicapped through a lack of cultural opportunities-is a further and a separate issue (Burt, 1922, p. 192).

Between 1924 and 1932, Burt also worked as a part-time professor of educational psychology at the London Day Training Centre (for teachers), the predecessor of the Institute of Education. It means, therefore, that Burt was influencing both the policies and practices of the LCC as a major provider of schooling and education and the training of those who would end up teaching in the council’s schools and elsewhere.

Burt resigned from the LCC in 1932 and was appointed Charles Spearman Chair of Psychology, University College London (1932-1950). There he continued his research into hereditary intelligence and eugenics, and having a huge influence upon psychologists such as Hans Eysenck, Philippe Rushton and Arthur Jensen among others.

While with the LCC, Burt was responsible for a psychological testing programme that would help identify bright children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who could go to grammar schools and receive the same higher level education as those from privileged backgrounds. Thus was introduced the 11+ exam which effectively determined the life chances of those who passed and disastrously of those who failed. Those tests and other IQ tests were to influence teacher, student and parental expectations, pedagogy, curriculum and schooling outcomes for generations to come. They were especially toxic when used with children from the African Diaspora.

It was not surprising, therefore, that when Caribbean children came in increasing numbers to join parents who had migrated to Britain after the Second World War, the entire schooling establishment had the lowest expectations of them even before they were made to sit tests created by Cyril Burt and his protégés such as Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen. Those tests resulted in children failing the 11+ because their parents did not know that it was customary for middle class parents, with or without the guidance of schools, to groom their children for the 11+ exam, or because the children arrived in the country to near to the time for sitting the exam.

In the report of a study I conducted for the Runnymede Trust in Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1969-70, I quote one student thus:

‘I took my 11+ three months after I came to this country from Jamaica. I did well in everything else except history and so I failed. I tried learning up everything in history as quickly as I could before the exam, but I got all muddled up. I think it is unfair that a Jamaican should be expected to sit for such a history paper three months after leaving Jamaica and pass it. I would have loved to get into grammar school but I had to go to this lousy secondary modern. I don’t like it there. The teachers are stupid. I have wasted my time. I am doing my CSE next week. I don’t think I will stay to do GCE. I am leaving and doing a typing course instead’.

Augustine John (1970) Race in the Inner City, Runnymede Trust, London, p.16

Commenting on her experience, I noted that her ‘comment was most revealing in that it highlighted the unfairness of a selective educational system which apparently relegates all those who are not specially prepared for it to a second class status. The majority of English children suffer from such a system too, but it is easy to see how it bears especially hard on immigrant children’.

In his recent blog on ‘Selection at 11 – a very English debate’, Professor Chris Husbands makes the important points that:

The arguments for restoring grammar schools are couched in terms of opportunity and social mobility: Boris Johnson called them mobilisers of opportunity. But the evidence to support this is almost non-existent.

There remain 164 grammar schools in England, and their socio-economic make up does not support the proposition that they turbo-charge social mobility: in all areas where there are grammar schools, the proportion of pupils on free school meals (FSM) is significantly lower in the grammar schools than in the area as a whole.

There’s little evidence to suggest that grammar schools work in the way their proponents suggest: research by Professor Ruth Lupton found that grammar schools work well for those who attend them, but few FSM pupils succeed in doing so. Moreover, the OECD international evidence is clear that early selection is associated with lower performance, particularly from more deprived social groups. IoE

IQ tests also resulted in disproportionate numbers of Black Caribbean children being put in schools for the educationally subnormal, including a large number of residential schools for children with moderate and severe learning difficulties and at the extreme, for those presenting with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Bernard Coard in his seminal work: How the West Indian Child is Made educationally Subnormal in the British School System (1971, New Beacon Books, London), comments on the disproportionate number of West Indian children in ESN schools in the ILEA as follows:

An Inner London Education Authority report entitled The Education of Immigrant Pupils in Special Schools for Educationally Subnormal Children (ILEA 657) reveals that five of their secondary ESN schools had more than 30 per cent immigrant pupils at the time of their survey in 1967. By January 1968, one of the schools had 60 percent immigrant children! In the ILEA’s ESN (Special) Day Schools, over 28 percent of all the pupils are immigrant, compared with only 15 percent immigrants in the ordinary schools of the ILEA. This situation is particularly bad for West Indians, because three quarters of all the immigrant children in these Educationally Subnormal schools are West Indian, whereas West Indians are only half of the immigrant population in the ordinary schools. The 1970 figures are even more alarming, for even though immigrants comprise nearly 17 percent of the normal school population, nearly 34 percent of the ESN school population is immigrant. And four out of every five immigrant children in these ESN schools are West Indian.

Coard argues that headteachers and educational psychologists imposed three biases in their assessment of children: cultural bias, middle class bias and emotional-disturbance bias. Those biases were present not just in the tests themselves but in those administering them. They were especially oppressive, argued Coard, when applied to children who had recently arrived in the country to join parents from whom they had been separated for varying lengths of time.

American psychologist David Wechsler published his intelligence test , the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) in 1955. He was dissatisfied with the limitations of the Stanford-Binet test (and) believed that intelligence involved a number of different mental abilities, describing intelligence as, “the global capacity of a person to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment”‘.

The work of Burt, Eysenck, Jensen and later Herrnstein and Murray (1994) The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, has had a profound influence on the discourse in Britain on race and intelligence since the early 1970s. There remains a correlation between teacher expectations of African heritage children, boys especially, the aspirations they have for themselves, the quality of their schooling experience and their schooling outcomes. Schooling has become increasingly racialised, despite the fact that there are few newcomers among the Black school population, but rather 3rd and 4th generation Britishers, still racialised as ‘Black Caribbean’ and worse yet, ‘ethnic minorities’.

They continue to be defined as ‘other’, not quite belonging, troublesome, unsettled and unsettling. As such, they are disproportionately represented in school exclusion statistics, youth offending statistics, children and adolescent mental health statistics and unemployment statistics. Despite all that, there is among them a higher rate of participation in further and higher education than their white counterparts, albeit they are underrepresented in Russell Group universities and among first class and upper second degree holders.

Black Caribbean boys continue to underperform in GCSE exams, despite the overall improvement in exam results across the piece. They remain four times more likely to be excluded from school than any other ethnic group and they are over-represented among young offenders. As early as 2001, the then Director General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey stated:

The 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time later down the line.

Of 400 young people in a Young Offender Institution, 200 had been excluded from school.

A report, by the Youth Justice Board and the Chief Inspector of Prisoners, shows that the proportion of black and other minority ethnic young men in young offender institutions (YOIs) rose from 23% in 2006 and 33% in 2009/10 to 39% in 2011/12. That report noted that:

‘The over-representation of young black men in youth jails comes despite a sharp fall in the number of children and young people in custody that has already led to the closure of five YOIs, including a specialist unit for young women’.

Young black men now account for nearly 40% of the population of youth jails in England and Wales, according to a report by the chief inspector of prisons. At Feltham Remand Centre, 75% of all detainees are from BME groups.

The total population of the youth justice “secure estate”, which includes eight male YOIs and three specialist units for girls and young women, continued to fall from 1,977 in March 2010 to 1,822 this March, before this summer’s riots. Hardwick says, however, that the number of black and minority ethnic children in custody has not fallen at the same rate as the number of white children being locked up.

“Between 2007 and 2011 there was a 37% reduction in white children in custody, compared with a 16% reduction in black and ethnic minority children,” says the report.      The report does not discuss the reasons why young black people make up an ever greater proportion of the shrinking youth jail population. But Hardwick does note that an increasing number – 53% now, compared with 39% last year – of young men are being sent to prison for the first time.

So, how far does Burt’s tentacles reach into the experience of the present generation? There can be little doubt that even before the First World War, let alone after the Second, the British state needed to put deracialising Britain and casting off the vestiges of Empire high up on its political agenda, defining in the process exactly what the role of schooling and education was in enabling the society to make that transition.

That project would have required attention to teacher training and capacity building for school leaders and managers, to curriculum and pedagogy, to the quality and purpose of school/home/community partnership working, to strategies for enabling student voices to be heard and included in education reform initiatives, to media conversion away from xenophobic, othering and essentialising discourses, to the uncoupling of race and immigration and to sound measures for holding schools and local authorities to account.

In the absence of any of that, the nation appears to have preoccupied itself with finding an identity after the loss of Empire and making sure that it did not allow itself to be changed by the presence of former colonial subjects with all their inferiority, backwardness and the minority and alien status that ‘we’ impose upon ‘them’. The likes of Burt, Eysenck ‘et al’ were poised to fill that vacuum and to give the nation some direction so that it did not afford these aliens of inferior capacity any opportunity to take the nation backwards and to see themselves as equals.

That is how and why the legacy of Burt lives on and gains expression in ways that are ever so benign and seemingly unobjectionable. That is why, without rewriting history, UCL must understand that legacy, assist the current generation in placing the Galton Institute, Charles Spearman and Cyril Burt in proper historical context and as an academy show itself to be truly ‘world class’ by taking the lead, structurally and strategically, to right racial wrongs.

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2 Comments on "What has Cyril Burt got to do with black boys?"

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Very informative, particularly for a child born (in the UK) in the 1950s to Jamaican parents, who sat the 11+ exams and failed. My saving grace was that my father had the good sense to ensure I could read and write well and complete basic maths exercises BEFORE I started school. When I failed the 11+ he said “that is because no one taught you what was in the exam, if they had you would have passed”. My parent’s always made me feel clever and gave me the belief I had the capacity to learn anything. I narrowly avoided the… Read more »
Toyin Agbetu

Thank you for composing such an informative and authoritative piece on the topic of racialist education systems. You captured the nuances of how inherited systems of discriminatory testing and curriculum still have remnants in todays system. The collective failure of British society to dismantle the odious elements of Galton, Spearman and Burt’s legacy lives on. Thankfully academics such as Prof Gus John, Dr Ama Biney, Prof Hakim Adi, Dr Victoria Showunmi, Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame and Dr Nathaniel Tobias (Coleman) with his innovative project at http://www.dtmh.ucl.ac.uk/ offer hope that things can and will change.


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