Saturday, April 9, 2011

On Intelligence

Reading over at David Thompson’s place I find another article by someone who believes that everyone is equally intelligent. This is an idea I come across quite often, and it is worth addressing.

There are many things wrong with the idea, the first being that no one involved in the discussion, and certainly not Nina Power*, the woman who seems to have started David off, takes the trouble to explain what they mean by intelligence. It seems to mean whatever she wants it to mean. Joseph Kugelmass talks about how people (what people?) “reify” IQ tests, which is not even a straw man, but he doesn’t offer a definition himself. He offers instead a blustering, don’t worry your inferior little heads about it, line: “We’ll have to start out by getting a bit technical. The adjectival form, “intelligent” (or “brilliant” or “smart” or etc.), has its uses. Intelligence, as we use the word, refers to the ability to do a good job at complex tasks that require a high degree of abstraction. Thus, a given piece of work can be intelligent if it successfully addresses a complex problem.”

Defensive and confused, and intended to be shot down. He does at least mention abstraction, which is more than the others do. Intelligence, to me, is the ability to reason in the abstract.

I’ve known a few socialists who genuinely believe that the young mind is a tabula rasa waiting for the state’s education agents to write on it, and that it’s somehow the fault of capitalists/private schools/the Conservative party that some children turn out better than others. But the people in question were not academics pretending to be experts, and they were prepared to listen when I explained that it was rather more complex (nuanced?) than that.

The remarks and opinions of Nina Power, Lana Guinier and Joseph Kugelmass are politically derived, they are not part of a search for truth, and in the case of the first two particularly, they are culpably, deliberately ignorant. Things are not so simply because one wants them to be, and saying something doesn’t make it true. It is almost unbelievable that there are people in academic positions at prestigious institutions who need to have this explained to them.

There is a continuum of intellectual ability. Having spent 20 years teaching children, teenagers and young adults of all ages and abilities I can state this categorically, as can many others who have done the same. And 20 years of daily experience are more than anecdote, but see below.

There are not two groups, the normal who are all the same, and the subnormal who have degrees of not being like the rest of us. The Powers of this world would, I imagine, recognise that some people are so limited in their intellectual ability that they cannot understand the simplest ideas and cannot function in the world without a great deal of help. Do they think that the subnormal are damaged in some way that the normal are not, and that’s why they show variation in intelligence? Possibly they do. I will say it again: there is a continuum of intellectual ability, as there is in just about every quality associated with man. And you don’t have to take my word for it.

It will come as a surprise to the levellers but there are scientists whose research consists of more than just spouting dogma; they actually study the development of the brain in the foetus and the very young child, observing how the formation of connections among the neural pathways and synapses is related to genetic and environment factors, the nutritional and cultural context of early life, and, of course, the later ability to perform a range of mental tasks. Guess what they have found. Go on, guess. Very good, well done. The people who spend their lives studying these matters know more about them than Power and co, and Power and co are demonstrably wrong. Stimulus may well be important in the early development of the child’s brain, just as good diet can increase height, and training makes you a better footballer, but we do not all start from the same place.

This may be unfair, for some sense of fair; it may well bring about problems for the less able which others should, from common humanity, help to solve, but it’s still true.

Dr. Konczak, could, for all I know, be a socialist, desperate to  believe the same as Nina Power; he could be a racist or a crashing snob who in private life believes in the innate superiority of whites, men, or ‘people like him’ in general; he could have a child who is not up to his own intellectual level and would lie to be sure that it isn’t his fault, but none of this has influenced his work or his conclusions. It’s quite simple once you understand the principle of it.

The original thrust of David Thompson’s post was directed at the particularly ludicrous remark that Nina Power borrowed approvingly from Peter Hallward- “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation. On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation… ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”

Superior knowledge is an essential quality in a teacher, as is the ability to share that knowledge. Teaching is not some arcane art, open only to the enlightened and omniscient- I have often argued that it is a very practical business, all too easily ruined by an excess of theory- but you do have to know how to do it, and you have to possess the knowledge you are trying to impart. I imagine she is thinking of a very particular kind of ‘teaching’, which is not teaching at all, but more a kind of brainstorming. Useful at times in certain circumstances, but not to be confused with the real thing.

Intelligence is useful to a teacher, though it depends very much on the level. Training and experience are more important to a primary school teacher than intelligence, for example. At higher levels intelligence is necessary. Superior intelligence, fortunately, is not. There is no need for the teacher to be the most intelligent person in the class. If this were so, not only would I, and probably Nina Power, be out of a job, but it would be impossible for anyone to learn anything new.

 And a final note to Joseph Kugelmass and Nina Power: the Greeks did not quote Homer by heart, and Plato did not demonstrate that the uneducated could learn understand anything at all. (He found a clever slave who grasped the concept he explained. It’s called learning. We all started knowing nothing, and learnt what we were interested in or needed to know and were capable of understanding.) Educated Greeks did, at times, quote Homerjust as educated people today quote the writers they consider great, or apposite, but the mass of classical Athenians did not sit around a table of an evening with a cold beer in its hand reeling off great chunks of the Iliad. It’s dropping in stupid remarks like that without bothering about the truth, and expecting the reader to swallow them whole, as though they backed up the argument, which characterises the type of thinking criticised here. It is based on ignorance and falsehood. It is not a search for truth, it’s more a desire to convince oneself of something.

*She also believes in smashing up other people's property when she disagrees with them. You would never have imagined that, would you?


Vincent said...

I know I will stand accused of prejudice, but when I follow your link at the end and see that Nina Power writes for the Guardian, I immediately stop being interested in any statement or opinion of hers. In my own defence against the accusation, I argue that life is short and it’s a way of saving time.

Having said that, I rather like any idea which downplays the comparison of intelligence between one person and another. An IQ test measures nothing other than ability to attain a score on the test.

I can see that as a teacher you will have reason to compare children’s varying abilities to grasp and argue abstract ideas.

But (again despising the Guardianistas) I still feel that there is grave danger in venerating such abilities, as if they are of value in their own right.

Abstract ideas and arguments are the most dangerous ones, and the most likely to be false. That’s why lawyers, politicians and medical practitioners are at best a mixed blessing. Perhaps teachers too, I might add, if not for present company, whom I respect greatly.

Perry de Havilland said...

Nina Power's notion is so nonsensical I find it hard to believe she actually holds it to be true. Methinks I hear the sound of axes grinding.

CIngram said...

IQ tests do in fact measure something real, though not with any great precision, and they certainly don't predict success, or even competence, in any given field. It's possible that Power and the other's fear that anyone should have their worth judged by their intelligence is so great, and so revolting to their egalitarian principles, that they are prepared to talk obvious nonsense to protect themselves from such horrors.

Intelligence is not something to be venerated in itself, it is one more accident of birth, but it is a useful thing to have. I admit to a certain admiration for great intellect, but only when it's used well (the same applies to many other talents that I happen to value, like fast bowling). Clever is as clever does, as my grandmother would have said (and probably did).

The point of the post, just to make it clear, was not to fetishize intelligence in any way, but merely to note that it exists, and that it varies from person to person, and that this is well known, as are some of the biological mechanisms behind it. To pretend that it is otherwise is absurd.

Vincent, I'm not sure you've grasped what I mean by abstract here. It is the ability to reason abstractly which distinguishes is from our ancestors and cousins. Communication through language is entirely done through the manipulation of abstract symbols. We form an understanding of the world by constructing abstract entities in our heads, and relating them together. Because of the difficulty of this, and the fact that the ability to do it varies, it is fairly easy to fake such ideas, and persuade people that they are true. This, I imagine, is what you are referring to when you speak of politicians and lawyers. And writers for the Guardian, one mentally adds.

CIngram said...


Nina Power has a relaxed relationship with reason, logic and the truth. I don't think that absurdities and contradictions bother her too much as long as she can construct her 'narrative'. This is a style of thinking that is deliberately taught in arts and humanities faculties. Circular arguments are considered more feminine, for example. So she probably doesn't believe it, it's more an axiom, a starting point that takes her where she wants to go. This also explains why she can talk such breezy nonsense about Plato, who she must have studied, at least as an undergrad.

Btw, your QSL card is on its way.