The Artifice of Intelligence
In 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?