The Artifice of Intelligence

canstockphoto8101605In 1983, Howard Gardner proposed the idea of multiple intelligences, which had been traditionally called aptitudes. He divided intelligence into 9 categories: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and later, he tacked on existential. He was widely criticized for creating subjective categories, but it opened up discussion about the narrow definition of intelligence used by science and culture up to that point.

I’ve spent a lifetime concerned about sounding, looking and being stupid. The definition of stupid means something different to practically everyone. We teach youngsters not to use the word, since, if you’re 5, it gets used to describe everything. To me, as an adult, calling anything stupid smacks of arrogance and simplistic thinking. Please, explain. What is it about the situation that defies intelligence? What is it about that person that suggests they know nothing? Use your words. There is a tinge of political correctness in all of this, since so often “stupid” was used to describe people with neurological and biochemical challenges.

If the popularity of “The Big Bang Theory” is any indicator, being smart comes with unintended side effects – which, in many cases, lands almost all of these characters on the Autism spectrum. I have friends who are diehard fans of the show, but I find stereotypes unappealing. I know traditionally smart people – scientists, computer programmers, mathematicians. They’re also great friends, parents, writers, volunteers – warm and socially engaging people. When I hear the tired nerd, geek and Trekkie jokes, I cringe.

I’m a relatively intelligent person, but I’m not a genius in any sense of the word. I’ve done well in school, but I was an awful student. I have classroom narcolepsy, procrastination of any kind of test prep and a patent disinterest in getting academic information from other humans. I retain what I read, so if I see something written, I can generally recall it. Tell me your name at a party, I’ll forget it two minutes later. Wear a name tag and I’ll know you for life. Except now, as middle age is creeping in, my skills are getting fuzzier. Maybe my brain has figured out that there’s no point in retaining information I’m unlikely to use again (a child’s justification for not doing algebra – I’m so mature!).

School is one of our first personal indicators of intelligence. Grades, stickers, praise or the red pen. We start forming ideas about whether we are smart. At home, depending on what our parents or guardians value, we get messages that we might be a little genius or the dullest knife in the drawer. Intelligence gets cited more often if we show up, participate, turn in our work on time and don’t try to shove our pencils in little Billy’s ear.

I grew up believing I was smart, because I was an early reader. Reading is highly valued in my family.  It protected me for awhile from social interaction, which I found quite painful. In 4th grade, I was sent to a speech therapist, because I did not speak correctly – likely from not speaking much at all. Even as an adult, I’ve pronounced words incorrectly because I’ve never heard some of them spoken – having only read them in books.

As I got older, reading intelligence was not enough. I longed for friends and to stop being picked last for the team. I longed not to be this four-eyed shadow in the corner hoping simultaneously to be noticed and ignored. I stepped out of the corner. I tried everything – especially things that terrified me.

If I were ever to use the word hate in real context, it is to say I hate fear. If I am afraid of doing something, I will find the most extreme example and make myself do it. Scared to talk to people? High school speech club. Scared of losing in front of people? Joined the track team (I am a sloooow runner!). Scared of heights? Rock climbing. I am not fearless – I’m chock full of fears, but I find pleasure in setting ’em up and knocking ’em down.

I joined the Army as a linguist, having tested very high on the basic entrance exam and the language aptitude tests. Relative intelligence. It’s ironic to be told you’re smart when you have very little in the way of life experience. I was SO smart that I became a binge drinker with a penchant for dating loose cannons. I made incredibly poor decisions in practically every area of my life, but I tested well as a linguist.

So when I consider my unscientific intelligence, I value what works for me, what has contributed to my survival and my growth. I’ll never be an Ivy Leaguer or cure cancer or write literature that will withstand the test of time. Statistically speaking, most of us won’t. I will address my daughter’s entire elementary school assembly while having an anxiety attack. I will write out loud and publicly. I will seize opportunities, talk to strangers, make commitments, learn new hobbies, challenge myself at every opportunity. I don’t plan on being comfortable…ever.

What about you? Did you grow up with one idea about your intelligence and discover something else entirely as an adult? What do you value in terms of intelligence and how have institutional definitions of intelligence affected your opinions of yourself?

32 thoughts on “The Artifice of Intelligence

  1. Getting good grades and being “smart” was the Holy Grail in my family. I was always the kid who read the most books over summer vacation. So when ECT gave me permanent brain damage and a reading disorder, my self worth underwent serious revision.
    There are many kinds of intelligences.


    1. I think intelligence comes in many forms and you make a point that is worthy of a post all its own. When we become accustomed to seeing ourselves a certain way and that changes, how do we go about rebuilding our sense of self?

      Most of my time growing up, while being smart was valued, being “too smart” was mocked. I always had my face in a book. If I knew anything, I kept it to myself.


  2. What am AMAZINGLY insightful article!!!! I grew up excelling at school and judging myself as having lots of “book smarts” but being “stupid” where other aspects of life are concerned. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that isn’t true. I’m learning to appreciate my strengths for what they are and to accept my weaknesses, because like everyone else, I’m not perfect. And that’s ok.


  3. I enjoyed this a lot! Both my parents are professors, and they personally enjoy focusing on the multitude of learning styles/methods/goals. Not everyone learns the same and the school system isn’t really set up that way. We all get categorized as “smart kids” or “dumb kids”, “popular kids” or “losers”, but there’s so much more to everyone than that. The ability to pass a written test doesn’t make you smart, and the inability to participate in the necessary social programs doesn’t make you a loser. Intelligence is far more complex than that.

    When I met my husband, I was surprised during some sort of party game to find out he thought he was of below average intelligence because of his struggles with spelling and his low high school GPA. I was gobsmacked! This is a man who I saw assemble a working radio from a pile of parts that neither of us could recognize, and someone who I had seen make wise decisions and institute creative solutions. Spelling– bah, that’s such a little thing.

    I guess my long rambly point is that I agree with you– there isn’t a quick litmus to measure intelligence, you have to look at the big picture. 🙂


    1. I think science is now trying to catch up to what is essentially an intuitive approach to intelligence. I enjoy reading about all the different ways in which people absorb information and with all the variations, it’s no wonder that school systems are challenged. For many years, too, things like dyslexia or autism were not diagnosed, so many people still live with the idea that they lack intelligence when that may not be true at all.

      One issue with Mr. Gardner’s approach is that he failed to show how interconnected the parsed out intelligences are. Rarely are we one kind or the other and how each of those areas affects another is still part of ongoing research. As you say, intelligence is far more complicated than a mere written test.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


  4. I thought I was the only person who said words ‘wrong’ because I have only ever read them! My mum taught me to read very early, before Is started school and reading was really valued in my family too.

    This was a really insightful post. I think there are so many different kinds of intelligences and there’s definitely no one kind of ‘smart.’


    1. I have embarrassed myself on numerous occasions pronouncing words incorrectly. I love that I can now look up words online and also have the audio pronunciation. Pronunciation marks serve this purpose in the dictionary as well, but it’s better to hear it.

      Thinking about different kinds of intelligence prompts me to look at and listen to people differently. I find myself wondering where their strengths are and how they implement them in their lives. Humans are, when we’re not busy irritating each other, quite fascinating!


      1. I’m with you both on the knowing how spell words, but not how to say them. To this day, there are certain words I’m hesitant to say out loud to other adults!


  5. Academic intelligence, physical prowess, creativity, emotionally intelligence – there are so many ways in which we feel the need to rate ourselves and others as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I guess some of that is the inherently competitive nature of humans – we feel good about being good at something or about being better than someone else at X, Y or Z.

    I’m what most people would call ‘smart’, insofar that I am a quick thinker with a talent for solving problems and a sprinkling of creative flair – and yet others might look at down on me because I have a poor memory (except for trivia!), can’t draw for toffee and have always been shy and awkward in social situations. It’s taken me a long time to accept that there are some things – many of them things I was teased about at school – that I will never be good at and to worry less about them than celebrating the fact that there are things I can do that few others can.

    Having kids has layered on a whole new layer of meaning for me. My oldest, Isaac (aged five) has a phenomenal memory and eye for detail, is as bright as a button and makes friends easily, but he is also physically uncoordinated and has an unfortunate habit of making intense friendships but then quickly discarding them for the next one. My other son Toby has good physical coordination and is clearly ‘intelligent’ in some areas, less so in others. The challenge for me as a father is to appreciate and encourage their strengths without placing any personal bias on them – each of their skills are equal, and not worth more or less depending on whether they align with my own. Everyone is different, after all …


    1. I learned so much about learning from having my daughter and being around kids in the classroom while volunteering. It is amazing the variety of ways that the human brain works and how early on personalities/interests are established. The challenge for me, with my child, is that she is a communicator – she interprets the world and learns through interaction and verbal exchange. This is, as you can imagine, a challenge for someone who prefers to learn silently, on my own, from a book.

      I assumed a lot of things about myself in a vacuum or with the unkind help of others. Despite this fact, I’ve pushed myself as an adult to do things I thought I couldn’t, only to pleasantly discover either a)I was wrong about my abilities or b) I still sucked at whatever I was doing, but that failure wasn’t as catastrophic as I imagined it to be and I had fun. It’s okay that I’ll never be an Olympic athlete or cabaret singer (lady wants to sing the blues) or standup comic. I think, too, there are many lessons to be learned in NOT being good at something and doing it just for sheer pleasure.


  6. I do the same! I say words wrong, as I’ve never heard them spoken. For a long time I thought horIzon was hor-ih-zon. Relative was re-late-ive. Most recently synopsis was sign-opsis and vehemently was veHemently. My mother usually corrects me but my girlfriend and several people at the opera – the opera no less – thought the synopsis/signopsis mistake was quite entertaining.
    I was an early reader, I don’t really remember ever not reading. Same for my mother. But I’m slightly more scientific, luckily, doing a science degree haha. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly smart, but I like to learn. And I love Star Trek 😀


    1. I got mocked for superlative and a few others in the past. Somehow I always manage to make these mistakes in front of people I don’t know very well!
      For a short time, I really wished I had more scientific/mathematical aptitude, but I’ve always been drawn to communication and language. I learned early on that one can be interested in everything, even those things that one is not particularly adept at. I think the desire to learn is one of those invaluable lifelong skills.

      I’m more a Firefly/ Stargate fan, but maybe I just like my fight scenes a little messier!


  7. I hate to sound like my parents (but we all eventually do wind up sounding like them), but experience outside the classroom taught me much more about “intelligence,” and being the smartest person in the room isn’t always an advantage (which is not what my experience in school taught me).

    Both my husband and I did well in school, always, yet we seem to have produced at least one child who is less concerned about spelling tests than chatting with the person sitting at the desk next to her. She gets in trouble all the time for talking in class and for scoring a 70% on that spelling test. Considering how my husband and I did in school, I really have to wonder if we brought the right baby home from the hospital . . .

    But there’s a lot of value in social intelligence, and I can’t be too upset with that 70% in spelling. Being able to get along with the person sitting next to you is a skill that will benefit her for the rest of her life (and not something I learned until much later in my own life) and there’s always spellcheck.


    1. Social intelligence is a huge component to being successful in life. Academics have become like sports – people are pressuring their kids earlier and earlier for fear of not getting into the right school or on the right career track. It really has become nuts. Being able to effectively deal with failure, learning to lose and not be defeated – these skills make for resilient, happy people.

      My idea of what success and intelligence means has changed significantly. We’re not strict about academics (except to emphasize doing your best), but we are rigorous about giving our child new experiences outside of school, fostering interest in everything and teaching critical thinking skills. At some point, we’ll stop leading and she’ll decide the direction she’d like to go in, but we’re all learning a lot in the process.


  8. All throughout my classroom years, I was taught that getting a good grade on a test meant that you were smart. I spent far too much time worrying and worrying about maximizing my points on tests and homework.

    There really are multiple forms of intelligence. I wish some were emphasized more in schools. For instance, creativity is such an important factor in many fields, yet thinking very differently from the rest of the world is often times not rewarded in school.


    1. I think this is what many of us have been taught which means good test takers assume they’re smart and bad test takers assume they are not. None of it accounts for different styles of learning and information that can’t be traditionally measured.
      This is a difficult problem with education and one that a lot of experienced educators continue to work on. As parents, it just means we have to provide a wide range of opportunities outside of the classroom and outside the boundaries of test taking.


  9. I didn’t have a lot of parental involvement when I was in school, so I just figured things out on my own – so I guess I’m a problem solver. I solve problems and figure things out in my work as well. I don’t see a task and think that it is too hard, there is alway a solution. I remember my mother talking a lot about how high my brother’s IQ was, she never mentioned mine, so I assumed it wasn’t anything impressive. All in all, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was truly stupid. I think we all have enough intelligence to get things done.


  10. I must have grown up in a naive bubble of my own, because I always just assumed people were pretty much all the same in terms of intelligence. I assumed people could think & reason the same, learn the same… pretty much do anything anyone else could do (apart from some things that require a special talent, like painting for example) anyway… it wasn’t until I started teaching that I realised people really don’t think in the same ways or learn in the same ways… I started to feel there were truly people more intelligent than others. Then I saw students who one day simply could not grasp a mathematical/logical concept, but the next day could stand in front of the school and play a musical instrument so beautifully you could cry… or give a speech with so much more confidence than I could ever muster. I think it was then I realised that we are all so complex and ‘layered’ that intelligence (in the traditional sense) is only one facet, and really, is it more important than any other?


    1. I absolutely agree with you. We are complex creatures and in education, or any other area of life, trying to quantify that ultimately diminishes us. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet reached the point where people or students can be so individually evaluated except in broad terms. I wonder if the world would be different if it were simply assumed each of us was born with gifts and that it was our job and those around us to foster them.


  11. Great post. It’s funny how similar we are in some regards while being quite opposite in others. I wondered if my ears should be burning just a little.

    This is a topic over which I’ve struggled a very long time (decades). It has so many facets. I have a very high IQ, but life has proven that my “EQ” (“emotional intelligence” as they call it) may be quite low. Or perhaps my upbringing just didn’t include certain important life skills. Or maybe I’m just wired to find information and ideas more interesting than people and things.

    I’ve always known I was “book smart” … that “Poindexter” type of intelligent. (And, of course, suffered for it, because people hate that sort of thing.) I’ve also always had some sense that that kind of smart was “optional” somehow. It wasn’t expected of people; it was more like my hobby. Some got good at sports or dancing; I got good at ideas. I always viewed it as a kind of choice. More to the point, I’ve never looked down on anyone for lacking education or that kind of smarts. There’s no shame in not knowing something.

    But to me there is shame in being willfully ignorant. There is shame in insisting on your own facts about life. And there is shame is being so mentally lazy that you are unable to figure things out for yourself. This is the territory where I find it very difficult to avoid the word “stupid.”

    It is a lack of reasoning ability that offends me.

    I do think it’s sad if someone doesn’t have a rudimentary Liberal Arts education, because having one provides such a great foundation for figuring out life. Without that foundation, even clever people have to do all the work themselves. The starting point of hundreds of years of human experience, culture, art and science makes for a pretty awesome toolkit.


    1. I think that “stupid” used to be part of my vernacular, but as I get older, I realize how complicated people are. I think one of the things that really impacts one’s intelligence is that critical thinking isn’t taught until later years, if at all. I’ve always felt it was one of the more important things to teach a child. If you are unable to nurture healthy skepticism and curiosity about multiple sides of any issue, then you just become a mouthpiece for whatever you hear around you, whether it is in the home or from the media outlets.

      When it comes to recognizing that someone is intransigent and unwilling to examine their views, I think “leading by example” is the only route to go. That’s on a good day. On a bad day, I’d like to crescent kick them in the head. Maybe something will shake loose.

      I’m a firm believer in the Renaissance education – everything from home arts to science. Learning how everything is interconnected leads to bigger thinking and curiosity takes a person off on so many interesting tangents. I can’t imagine a life where I thought I’d learned all I needed to know – what would be the point?


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