A Few Thoughts on Intelligence and Education

  • by Gitabushi
woman in black long sleeved shirt reading a yellow covered book
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Okay, setting aside false modesty for a moment, I’m a smart guy. I qualify for the Triple 9 Society. If there were a Quadruple 9 Society, I might qualify for that as well, but it’s a little more iffy.  I’ve never bothered to join, cuz I can’t think of a worse place to be than hanging out with a bunch of people who place such a high value just on being smart.

What *is* intelligence?  I saw a tweet where someone insisted that some events were occurring according to a person’s plan, and that person must therefore have stratospheric intelligence.  My response, in disregard as to whether things are actually proceeding according to someone’s plan or not, is that a well-laid and well-executed plan doesn’t require stratospheric intelligence, it just takes time and coordination.

Aside #1: One motivation, I think, for claiming that someone else must have stratospheric intelligence to come up with a plan is that the person telling you thins must also be exceedingly smart to be able to recognize the plan and tell you about it. No?

So after many years, I have decided that what intelligence is, is the ability to see connections between different information, and then successfully combine those different elements into valid conclusions…along with the ability to do it quickly.

There is nothing that someone brilliant can think of that someone “stupid” can’t also think of…eventually.

The reason smart people think of things regular people cannot, is that speed element.  Someone smart can notice the connection and draw the valid conclusion within, say, minutes, and then move on to the next problem.  The “stupid” person would need, say, three or four hours of pondering to see those same connections and then another hour or two to reason through to the conclusion.  And who has the kind of time and discipline to think through a problem for half the day?

Well, patent clerks, apparently.

See, I don’t think Albert Einstein was necessarily brilliant.  He clearly wasn’t anything close to stupid, and clearly was more intelligent than average.  But his concepts weren’t that difficult for moderately smart people to understand. The implications are obvious to anyone with scientific training, and many scientists have gone way beyond Einstein in thinking through those implications…to the point of conditionally negating some aspects of Einstein’s theories.

However, if Einstein hadn’t developed his theories, someone else would have.  Einstein was smart, and it is possible he was also truly brilliant.  But he is

famous because he did the *work* of thinking, and considering, and testing his thoughts, until he came up with a theory that answered all the issues he could connect.

Now, that’s just a broad definition of intelligence.

Aside #2: Back in High School, a girl that I liked and respected claimed she wasn’t smart enough to keep up with me.  At that time, I knew I was good in school and testing, but my struggles to understand people, and my subconscious sense that I lacked necessary knowledge for a successful life, led me to insist that I wasn’t too smart for her.  In a flash of insight, I pointed out that there are plenty of types of intelligence, and came up with seven off the top of my head.  Let’s see if I can recreate them:

  1. Deductive Intelligence: the ability to see all the facts, and come to the correct conclusion
  2. Inductive Intelligence: the ability to see the way things are, and be able to deduce the elements that led to it.
  3. Communicative Intelligence: the ability to explain and teach what you understand to others.  Some people are just brilliant orators, and I think you can’t be stupid to do that.
  4. Creative Intelligence: the ability to write music, draw beautiful art, etc.
  5. Physical Intelligence: the ability to do something physically without much thought. Some people can pick up a basketball and dribble and shoot fluidly almost immediately. I had to think my way through it, and took triple or more the time to just gain a modicum of fluidity.
  6. Humor: It’s really difficult for dumb people to be funny.  Aside #3: Humor is the ability to see an unexpected connection, and laughter is the surprise when you see that connection the first time.  That’s why jokes you’ve heard before aren’t funny. That’s why running gags can be funny: putting that old gag into a new situation can be an unexpected connection.
  7. Memory: Being able to recall the answer rapidly, to answer the teacher’s question or provide the correct answer on a test.

Okay, I almost forgot #7.  The point I made to the girl was that all I really had was #7, and it made everyone think I was smart.  I was good at tests, but feared I wasn’t good at anything else.  Except that even at the time, I was proud of my music ability (creative & communicative intelligence), and coming up with the list was an act of Inductive Intelligence. I probably would choose a different way to organize and explain different intelligences today.

But the key point of all these is just: being able to grasp connections and (where applicable) draw valid conclusions more quickly.

One other way to grasp connections and draw valid conclusions more quickly?  Crowdsource a problem with like-minded individuals that have a minimum of differing agendas.

That’s how we got the US Constitution.  It wasn’t brilliance, it was just normal smart people working together on a common problem: how to craft a government structure that works to prevent the assembly/collection of power in one person, or even one institution.  When followed, it works wonderfully.

How this fits with education: I’ve noticed that education in the US has been pushing more and more math and science into the curriculum.  Part of this is simply that I went to small-town schools, whereas my children attended big city schools. They took algebra in Junior High, and had the opportunity to take Calculus II in high school, if they went math heavy.  Both of them were able to take AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus, which culminates in a test that gives college credit.

Nothing like that was available to me. Of course, the small school issue.  30 years ago, my class was one of the first allowed to take pre-Algebra in Junior High.  Before that time, you had to wait until High School.  So if you wanted to reach Calculus, you had to double up on math two years.  Having pre-Algebra in Junior High meant that I could take Algebra my freshman year, Algebra II and Geometry my sophomore year, Trigonometry my junior year, and Calculus as a senior.  Unfortunately, I moved to a small Texas town before my senior year, and the highest class they had was Trigonometry, so I spent the year teaching my fellow students Trig, because the teacher wasn’t very good.

So we’ve pushed more education on our kids.  Are kids smarter than before?

Maybe not.  Some people point to studies showing that IQ is rising over the years (the Flynn effect).  I’m not sure that’s true.  Some possible explanations here. My own view is that IQ was never that scientific to begin with, and once people began valuing it, they began gaming the system.  It’s difficult to judge how quickly someone consistently sees less-obvious connections and draws valid conclusions, and do it consistently, and then compare it to others. IQ testing is inherently cultural in nature, and the test-makers will skew it towards what they think measures the ability to think well. And while they try to minimize the impact of education, the simple fact is that you must be exposed to specific cultural knowledge to score well on IQ tests.  Do not put much faith in people trying to make arguments based on IQ scores.

That we can push more math and science on kids by accelerating the pace is simply because we can make people work harder.  They might be covering more ground in the lesson text, but are they learning more?

“Scores flat” is an evergreen headline. In response to declining SAT scores, they “recentered” the scoring system.

And when I was a military instructor, I heard them discussing revamping a course to make it easier.  Nothing was changed in the course, but the testing changed. Here’s how it works:

The easiest test is T/F.  Yeah, you can make T/F tests incredibly difficult if you use gray-area questions, but that’s not how the military works.  There are rules to avoid ambiguity. Slightly harder is Multiple Choice. Harder still is fill in the blank, then short answer, then long answer. The hardest would be an essay test.

I’m convinced that in school, the testing has been watered down to easier testing processes.  Kids are covering more ground, but learning it to a less-rigorous testing level. A smart kid will still learn beyond what the test can evaluate, but humans being humans, most will study to the test, and not demand greater depth of learning of themselves.

The reason this is an issue is Competence is dying in the US.  But that’s a topic for another day.

And now, the Big Conclusion that Wraps Everything Up Neatly:

I don’t have one.  I just wanted to make some points about intelligence and education to provide some baseline knowledge.  Your kids are probably not smarter than you.  They may end up more credentialed than you, but if they achieve more, it is likely because the threshold for achievement was lowered.

I used to feel confident my kids would eat the typical millennial’s lunch in the employment world, but I’ve come to realize even my kids haven’t been challenged by school to a level of attention to detail or diligence in work that they will need to truly succeed.  And Lectures from Dad can only go so far.  Hopefully, the seeds are planted, so that when watered with adversity, the plants of experience grow rapidly and bear lush fruits of success.

I hope you found something useful in this for raising your own kids, or for helping them understand themselves better if they are already grown.

Good luck.



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