Thoughts on Intelligence


Obligatory picture from that day that has nothing to do with the topic of this post. You're welcome.

Is intelligence the king of all abilities?  Should I rejoice if my children have it, should I weep if my children don’t?

The Underbelly of a Well-Intended Compliment

I took the kids to the Exploratorium in the city this week.  It is a wonderland of gadgets and doohickeys and thingamabobs.  The girls loved it.  They ran around testing this, spinning that, dropping the other.  I dutifully followed with LP riding in his sling, while he tried to pick my nose and graced my ears with his sweet baby yells babbles.

There was a woman there with her two year-old grandson watching us.  After she listened to me and Mouse talk a little bit about one of the thingamabobs, she made a big deal of telling Mouse she’s smart.  She tapped her forehead and claimed “it’s what is up here that counts.”

I listened to this woman tell me how wonderfully smart she thought my daughter was and looked down at my son who has an intellectual disability, trying to hide a cringe.  I know she meant it kindly and I think to counter how much little girls get praised for their physical appearance over all else.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if I accept that what sits in your brain counts the most in life, then what is LP?  Besides the fact that appraising intelligence in a three minute interaction seems clumsy at best, I’ve never really warmed to the idea that “being smart” should be such a great compliment at all.

Intelligence, Lacking, and Questions of Import

What is intelligence?  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations.”  There are lots of competing theories out there, some more inclusive than others, but here I’m talking about conventional ways of seeing intelligence.  Raw processing power, IQ score, school grades and testing ability.

I recognize that there is some plasticity in the whole nature vs. nurture discussion, but for the most part, with regards to intelligence, I think people just have what they have.  A person can gain wisdom throughout life, but it isn’t the same as intelligence.

It bothers me that intelligence is the holy grail of modern society.  Calling someone smart is a sure fire compliment, but why?  A person can’t earn intelligence.  It says nothing of one’s character.  On the flip side, calling someone stupid is one of the worst insults possible (one that gets bandied about far too often, I believe).

I’m even appalled at some of the things I’ve seen between the physical and intellectually disabled communities.  Some clearly believe that no matter the state of one’s body, as long as the mind (i.e. intelligence) is “normal”, then they are equal to all able-bodied people.  Even among those considered intellectually disabled, I’ve read many autistic advocates or those with other learning disabilities insist that they are not “stupid” but rather just different. In an effort to cast off ignorant judgments from themselves, they denigrate another group.

No one wants to be stupid, right?  For me, the use of “stupid” feels uncomfortably similar to the r-word.  They’re both dirty words, after all.  No one ever called someone else stupid out of kindness or respect. Whenever I hear outrage over the use of the r-word, it seems inevitable that someone labels the person using the r-word as stupid (or lame, idiotic, moronic, dumb—all refer to disabilities in the past or present usage).  Isn’t that the same meaning of the r-word—a pejorative way to call someone unintelligent?  More often than not, the situation doesn’t even have to do with the topic of intelligence, but rather of values, education, politics, or something else entirely.  

How important is intelligence?  How much do we need to be intelligent?  Must we all be so desirous of being intelligent?  Must we mourn ourselves if a certain degree of intelligence is never ours to claim or taken away by accident, illness, or time?  Is lacking intelligence actually bad?  Is having intelligence really the holy grail of our society?

The Long Arc of Human Existence

Humans have been roaming the earth for an estimated 200,000 years.  In just a wee blink of Mother Earth’s eye, we’ve spread ourselves into every little corner of the world.  We have, arguably, gotten smarter.  What has it gotten us?

Each major advance owes itself quite a large part to human intelligence, but each advance is either misused or exacts a terrible price.  Nuclear energy gives way to atomic bombs.  The combustion engine gives way to environmental degradation.  Antibiotic medicine gives way to MRSA bacteria.  Prenatal testing gives way to needless abortions (I’m pro-choice, by the way).  Modern farming practices give us incredible yields but deplete our land.  Some even argue that our move from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to an agrarian one bought more food and stability with poorer health.

I think at heart, we are the same people who were roaming the earth all those years ago.  People who struggle with life, death, love and acceptance.  Does intelligence change the outcome?  I couldn’t dispute that human intelligence had a large hand on our proliferation all over this planet.  We’re beyond struggling for basic subsistence, however.  Those that do struggle for basic needs do so because others have denied them.

I’d like to think that more answers would come to us if we set our sights beyond intelligence. I daresay there enough to go around.  So maybe we could focus a little less on intelligence, be less worried about any lack of it, and focus on what actually makes our lives better—ethical living, compassion, and love. A person doesn’t need to be conventionally smart to aspire to these things and contribute to the world.

I don’t know if Mouse is unusually smart.  That woman’s compliment was a nice one, but I’ve decided that I can’t get excited about it. All I care is that my children grow up to be good and kind.  Brave and compassionate.  Loving.  Hardworking and loyal.

So I won’t rejoice or weep if my children are intelligent or not, because I can’t control it, nor does it seem to change what really counts.  We all have the capacity to live and love.  We will all have an impact, no matter what lies in our brains.

16 Comments on “Thoughts on Intelligence”

  1. Lisa says:

    I agree very much. Intelligence, like physical beauty (or lack of), is not something that is earned, deserved, or even worked for. So to hold high intelligence in high esteem, and low intelligence in low esteem seems very arbitrary. And like you said, there are so many other qualities in a person that should matter, like character and integrity and compassion. We do, as a society, seem to value a lot of the wrong things.

    • jisun says:

      Definitely physical beauty. Mouse is already so aware of it, and I gave a hard time explaining to her that it doesn’t/shouldn’t matter, because so many other people act like it matters. I blame Disney. :/

  2. momshieb says:

    The thing is, it is ALL a continuum, and we are all on it. There is no one point where a person is “intelligent” or where a person is “kind” or “talented” or “normal”. We are all just a bit “more” or “less” than the person next to us.

    • jisun says:

      So true, and the problem with we humans feeling the drive to label every little thing. And the people drawing the lobe are usually the people who benefit from it, eh?

  3. Lori says:

    I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot since Katie was in utero. I don’t think society truly values intelligence, even though people say they do. They are as threatened by the extremely intelligent as they are by the intellectually challenged–people who don’t fit into a norm. (I just had lunch with someone whose son has Asperger’s, for example, and he has an IQ that’s off the charts but doesn’t do well with socializing.) Society certainly values people who are slightly more intelligent (a one-up, mostly) but still not someone who is unlike them. They value “normal” because it is easy to deal with. I’m grateful that most people don’t fall into the “normal” category.

    • jisun says:

      You’re right. The push to fall into whatever is normative is so strong and often really misguided, isn’t it? Not to mention, what is considered “normal” moves around so much and us very subjective…

  4. Miriam says:

    Love this. You write so compellingly, and I agree with everything you’ve said. I’m not sure that intelligence has much bearing on happiness or success- even success in a traditional sense. But I think it is definitely used by some people as leverage, a way to feel superior. I try to feel sorry for them, that they are so terribly insecure and/or arrogant that they would think it matters. Parents do it with their kids, for sure. I consciously avoid being around people like this and surround myself with people who don’t care, who value their children for who they are regardless of their looks or intelligence. Because really, all of our children are amazing and wonderfully made.

    I also agree with the idea that it is always on a continuum- there will always be someone smarter, someone better looking, someone with more of everything. How silly to try to compare.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if adults could just talk to kids without feeling like they have to praise them? Do we go around praising other adults in casual conversation? How weird would that be!

    • jisun says:

      The comparing wars, I hate those! I’ve thought a lot about the whole praise thing, I couldn’t agree with you more. Everything good has an intrinsic reward, we don’t always have to be praising everything and worrying about self esteem. Children who are loved and valued will get that no matter what. Totally laughed to think about us all going around telling each other “good job” for making it through regular daily tasks. Hahaha.

  5. This was a well thought-out piece. I like this one. Well done! :)

  6. Mardra says:

    “All I care is that my children grow up to be good and kind. Brave and compassionate. Loving. Hardworking and loyal.” Oh, well, if that’s all…
    hehehe ANYway – you’ve inspired me. it’s TRUE. I’ll be letting you know how my real reply works out. ;)

  7. Leah says:

    Really great thoughts. Well said.

  8. ajummama says:

    somehow missed this post so reading it now in the New Year, 1.4.14…after having written about something kinda similar – to stop comparing myself. and thanks for challenging me to go deeper. i knew it was an ego thang, feeling all puffed up when ppl say my kids are cute or smart, poppin’ my own collar, and i’d always check myself to make sure i wasn’t giving too much weight to those things…and coming from a culture that compares so much – just more to ponder on. sorry = it’s so very late here in nyc, i actually dunno what the hell i’m trying to say but still wanna post this comment before it gets away from me. goodnight!

  9. You say it so perfectly. The expectations of society can be so appalling and frustrating. Agreed- let our children be kind, loving and open-minded. That is my hope for my little one.

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