Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections on the subject of IQ

The most important thing in life is to be smart.
The worst thing in life is to be average -- or downright dumb.
These are the absolute truths I grew up with. The trouble is I could never figure out quite where I stood.

I grew up in the Unitarian denomination where the average IQ is probably around 140 (and that could be a low estimate). In Sunday School I said a lot of dumb things. I could tell that my Sunday School teachers were swallowing verbal expressions of profound disappointment. I was, after all, the daughter of a celebrated Unitarian minister whose IQ was clearly off the charts.

In elementary school I easily mastered reading but the simplest math problem made my brain go numb. I also had trouble distinguishing right from left. I was late learning to tell time and was almost ten before I could tie my own shoelaces.

On the other hand, I was endowed with certain gifts:  I could act in plays; I was pretty good at learning a foreign language, and I excelled in creative writing.

In high school, my English teachers thought I was brilliant while my math teachers wondered if I might be borderline mentally retarded.

Was I stupid or was I smart?  I still don't know.

What is intelligence really?  Is it something you're born with? Something shaped primarily by your environment? Or something complicated and mysterious that can't be quantified?

My friends, over the years, have come from many different backgrounds and have demonstrated a wide variety of abilities and talents. One of my co-workers who grew up in "the projects" possessed extraordinary common sense. From me, she learned to increase her vocabulary; from her, I learned to think in a less fanciful and more practical vein.

My very best friend for a number of years was a daycare provider who had pretty much shrugged off the benefits of formal education. Yet, her interactions with children (especially emotionally, mentally or physically-challenged children) were a product of her innate genius. For example, an autistic boy who was virtually mute at school spoke to her (albeit in a high-pitched, mechanical tone), coming out with words and phrases his teachers never thought he knew.

In fact, and on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that good teaching has little to do with being exceptionally smart. A stupid teacher, to my way of thinking, is one who can't imagine what might be going on inside a student's brain, someone who doesn't take the trouble to find out what a child actually knows so as to be able to attach new knowledge to old. A stupid teacher usually lacks passion, empathy and -- above all -- a sense of humor.

Some people trip over their own sentences yet can design and build the perfect home. Or compose and perform the perfect song. Or soothe and tame a wild animal. Or play soccer with cunning and agility.

To some extent, it's possible to increase one's intelligence. One does this by studying hard, listening closely to what others have to say, and carrying in one's head a model for excellence. I did these things in college and everyone thought I was incredibly smart.

Probably there is a difference between being smart and being able to think. Some people in America appear to have given up thinking altogether. These are the people who equate Obama's health care program with the Third Reich agenda. They carry signs that say, "Government out of my Medicare." They believe it is possible to live the good life without paying any taxes. They think the Bible (despite its many contradictions) overrides scientific data when it comes to issues like the theory of evolution or global warming.

These people believe whatever provides them with emotional satisfaction. In a morally complex world, they have a passion for absolute certainty.
Smart people do not seem to know how to communicate with these people who have given up thinking. Smart people think they can convince the ignorant by coming up with a plan, trotting out scientific data, or by coining weak slogans. This approach lacks the passion and moral indignation that hooks the unthinking.

Worst of all, smart people persist in letting everyone know they are smart. My father once commented that the hatred of the poor for the rich was as nothing compared with the hatred of the ignorant toward the knowledgeable.

If smart people want to change the world, maybe they ought to bear that in mind.

Can the unthinking population actually be converted? Can the willfully ignorant be made smart?

I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that intelligence is far more complicated, subtle and, yes -- unquantifiable -- than most people seem to believe.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bad Times Pass Good Times Come Again

The aging mind appears to forget things quickly. For instance, I have a vague memory of living in a wind-swept, dessicated inferno called Los Alamos and longing with all my heart to return to Marin County where the green and gentle hills were festooned with wild flowers and the air was sweet with rain.

Then the monsoon season arrived and so did the flowers -- so many varieties, most quite new to me. Small streams bubbled up from the ground. The marauding winds were gone and the wildfires mostly contained. Now it was beautiful in Los Alamos, the morning sun so dazzling in the oxygen-thin air, I sometimes felt as if I'd taken some mind-altering drug which made the world seem more sharply-defined.

We seem to be having, now, a sort of extended summer with temperatures reaching into the sixties. It is October 19th and one can see great swatches of gold amidst the green on the slopes of the Jemez Mountains. The peaks of the distant Sangre de Christo Mountains are already dusted with snow. Outside my apartment building, the locust trees are bright yellow with branches covered in dark, curling seed pods. Pyrocantha bushes are heavy with crimson berries. Some flowers are dying but others, like the sprays of purple aster and roadside samplings of morning glories, live on. People are putting their gardens to bed; young heads bend over homework assignments; the soccer season is in full swing.

I know it gets very cold here, colder than I've experienced in a long, long time. Back in Marin County, we complained if the temperature plunged into the forties. Usually, the winter temperatures ranged between fifty and sixty during the day. Will I become accustomed to avoiding patches of ice set like cunning traps waiting to break my brittle bones? Will I learn to stumble bravely through snow and sludge? Will I be better prepared when the fierce winds come again?

Will my aging mind remember the floral grandeur of late summer? The many-splendored majesty of fall? Here's hoping that I will.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Roaming the Neighborhoods

Some experts have recently concluded that today's children are being micromanaged to a fault and, as a result, are growing up without the ability to think and act creatively and independently.

My two oldest grandsons are pretty much tied to a schedule during the school year, though not so much during summer vacation. My youngest grandson, who is in first grade, appears to have more free time which he uses mainly to exercise his powerful imagination.

My daughter reports that it is difficult sometimes to weigh the advantages of learning a new skill against the advantages of unstructured play. Some of the mothers she knows worry about safety and are loathe to let their children out of their sight.
Is the world really less safe that it was?
Or are fears of lurking kidnappers, dope dealers and pedophiles exacerbated by media hype?
Is learning to ice skate, playing soccer and practicing the piano more important than playing Hide and Seek with the neighborhood kids?

I can't answer those questions, of course. I am not an expert.

Though I didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, have a perfect childhood, I did have more freedom than most middle class children have today.

Back in the fifties there was no such thing as a play date.
After briefly informing my mother of my plans, I would dash over to a friend's house five or six blocks away. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were large with many rooms and the rooms had many cupboards and closets. There was also a lot of free-standing, bulky furniture -- in other words, a perfect environment for playing Sardines or Hide and Seek.

I loved the exotic tension of holding my breath as the designated seeker came near my hiding place and the suppressed giggles when several of us were jammed into a closet attempting to remain hidden for just a while longer.

Often a group of us would ride our bikes up and down the maple-lined streets in search of adventure. One day we found a lost dog and returned him to his owner.  Another time we discovered a fire in someone's yard and proceeded to stomp out the flames until the fire department came and chased us away. (We left knowing in our hearts that we were the real heroes of the day.)

We climbed the stone wall by the Methodist Church and dared each other to jump down. We rode our bikes like fury downhill taking our hands off the handlebars and waving them triumphantly over our heads. We rode with the wind in our hair since no one, in those days, wore a helmet.

We ran from bullies and laughed at the crazy old lady on the corner who claimed she talked to ghosts.

We made up plays and performed them, with or without an audience.

We built snow forts and tree forts. We jumped into huge pile of carefully-raked autumn leaves.

We played Jump Rope, Red Rover and Mother, May I.

When I look back on these exploits, I don't remember a single adult intervening except showing up briefly to scold us, warn us, or chase us away. If one of us acquired a lump on the head or a skinned knee, we usually took care of it ourselves, at least over the age of eight or nine. After all, we knew where the band-aids were kept and how to make an ice pack.

Many aspects go into what constitutes a happy childhood. Unscheduled, adult-free time is perhaps one of them. On the other hand, acquiring skills is important, too, and I often wished I had learned to do more things like ice skate or play the piano.

I know I would have hated being watched over all the time. I was, in many ways, a timid child and I credit what bravery I acquired to the dares and taunts of my peers and to my desire to live up to their expectations.

Ironically, my mother thought of me as rather fragile and worried that I would never live to grow up. The fact that I was allowed to roam freely in the company of my peers was due mainly to 1950s society's view on childhood and not to my mother's temperamental inclinations. Also, my mother was British and the British attitude toward children has frequently been described as one of "benign neglect."

A teacher I used to work with often said of his students, "They learn in spite of us."
This is perhaps the best description of how children survive the interventions (or lack thereof) of well-meaning adults.

As human beings, we are paragons of imperfection. In general, I think we do the best we can while the absolute knowledge of right and wrong remains forever hidden.  This seems particularly true in regard to parenting.