Sunday, April 19, 2015

Intelligence

When I was growing up I was not particularly well adjusted academically. Unlike some of my friends, whose parents closely monitored their preparation for college and pushed them to get into the high school honors program or sent them to private schools, my parents had little awareness of the importance of academics. They didn't help us with our homework, barely looked at our report cards and were not involved with my college applications. Neither of them ever set foot on the campus of the college that I subsequently attended. There were few episodes at home of academic relevance that I can recall. My mother liked art and took us to the museums in Manhattan, and this instilled in me an early interest in paintings. She listened to classical music, which made it easier for me to appreciate later on. My father brought home a small telescope and gave me a microscope for my birthday, but we never discussed them and I never used them much. We had a lot of cats at the time, and I caught a flea, which I put on a slide for viewing under the microscope. Other than in science, in which I somehow managed to skip a grade, I think I was stunted academically, mainly because my parents never read to us or encouraged reading. It is also possible that I had inherently greater difficulty reading than my peers for other reasons. In any case, I read very little up until eleventh grade, when the assignments in English classes began to become more demanding.

In college I did better than most, but not exceptionally well. I gradually shifted from a slight academic inferiority complex to a feeling that I might actually be a good student. Most of the students at the small liberal arts college that I attended did not seem particularly intelligent to me. They were predominantly from the upper middle class and were conforming to parental and social pressures in an unimaginative way. Over a period of years I took an interest in the nature of intelligence and its relationship to academia. During my spare time while living in Dixon, Illinois in the late 1980's, before I began in earnest the project of reading literature, I set out to see whether I could qualify for membership to Mensa, which I soon did. I belonged to Mensa for a few years and found that the members seemed smart, but on the whole there wasn't much point to the organization and I quit.

My misunderstanding of how the academic system worked turned out to be a handicap. I didn't realize until it was too late that high performance in school is directly related to the amount of effort expended. This faulty interpretation arose in part from the fact that standardized tests were presented to us by the school as something for which you could not prepare, i.e., they reflect your innate IQ, which can't be changed. I eventually decided on my own that this was nonsense, and part of my motivation to join Mensa, which I would not have qualified to join when I was in high school, was to show that I could raise my IQ, and I succeeded.

During this period I was reading up on intelligence and came across a couple of books written by Robert Sternberg, who was then a psychology professor at Yale. While, like many psychologists (Freud, Jung, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, for example), Sternberg does not have a convincingly scientific approach, his triarchic theory of intelligence addressed some of the issues that I had been thinking about. In The Triarchic Mind, Sternberg sums up three different types of intelligence by describing three different kinds of graduate students. The first type is analytical, with high test scores and excellent capabilities with respect to academic skills. The second type has a spotty academic record and a lower IQ, but is creative and has a special ability to come up with novel ideas. The third type is neither analytical nor creative to the same degree as the others, but has a unique ability to focus on a situation and make practical decisions in order to get ahead. I had noticed these kinds of people myself and thought that Sternberg's model, though not particularly penetrating or profound, had some explanatory value.

After bouncing around this theory in my brain for many years and observing people, I tend to think that true intelligence involves each of the three aspects and a deficiency in one area can be a disadvantage. In particular, I believe that academia is fraught with problems because of its dominant population of analytical people who were good students but are uncreative and lacking in common sense. There are many academics who resemble George Eliot's Edward Casaubon: they persistently pursue ideas that have no basis in reality only because that is what they were taught. They spend years unimaginatively refining their work in what is often a complete waste of time. College campuses become alternate realities where students and faculty can feast on the delusional ideas of their choice. This can currently be seen in the campus hysteria about protecting women from rape, and is why political correctness seems to thrive at colleges and universities more than in other places. Contrary to conventional wisdom, these are not necessarily smart people, and those of them who venture out into the world often fail. Over the years I have read several journals that were written by and for academics, and I can never shake the feeling that they are engaging in a directionless, inexhaustible form of light amusement. As I have said, American intellectuals as a group have had little of value to contribute to the public good. They seem not to be there when, in theory, they are most needed.

Those who are creative but not analytical or practical may turn out to be starving artists, a group with which I have had little contact. Creativity alone does not offer much of a basis for a life, and I'm not sure it even makes sense to think of a person whose only characteristic is creativity. As a matter of preference, I'm a fan of divergent thinking, but in order to exercise that faculty one needs a minimal context. I like trying to think creatively about the world, whereas creativity is more readily associated with the arts. As I've said, creativity doesn't mix well with academia, which is better suited to formulas and canonical works.

Practical intelligence is what one encounters most often in the U.S., because it has melded so well with capitalism. Until recently you haven't needed to be analytical or creative to succeed here. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are two of the wealthiest men in the world, and though their analytical faculties are probably well developed, they are not intellectuals and certainly are not paragons of creativity. At the other end of the spectrum of practical people there is a full roster of unsavory characters who made out like bandits, often literally. I am reminded of the apocryphal answer by Willie Sutton to the question "Why do you rob banks?": "Because that's where the money is." This is the kind of thinking that has made America home to Jesse James, Charles Ponzi, Al Capone, John Dillinger, John Gotti, Enron and Bernie Madoff. In the more mundane business world that I experienced, the companies that I worked for did fine without much analysis or creativity, and the emphasis was usually on expediency. You can get by quite well in business without much intellect or imagination as long as you have a practical sense.

This emphasis on practicality, which led to the accommodation of commerce in the U.S., has had a positive impact with respect to economic development, but there has been a price paid for it. The cost is seen in what I have come to recognize as mediocrity in the arts, anti-intellectualism and a pervasive atmosphere of philistinism. The philistinism runs so deep that everyone now takes it for granted, and many do not even realize that there are better alternatives. No one is surprised when businessmen, politicians or professional athletes are exposed as crooks or cheats. A large number of people could reasonably conclude that their employers and political representatives don't care at all about their well-being. A cautious person might sensibly walk out of his front door every day prepared to confront an army of con men, liars and opportunists. Pollyannas, who are in denial of all this, can be just as dangerous these days. True human intelligence, I think, entails understanding this morass and coming up with a strategy for dealing with it effectively. Artificial intelligence may be a different story.

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