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.

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