Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Brilliant and Bright, Dull and Dimwitted

When I was traveling last month, I came across this advertisement in the terminal at JFK and I snapped this picture because, well, lately I've been thinking a lot about intelligence and stupidity. About how utterly ironic it is that people race out to buy Baby Einstein products to help foster their kids' intelligence, but if they actually had a late-talking kid like Einstein they'd think him in need of early intervention and special education.

My rumination about intelligence and stupidity started a couple of months back when our education attorney told us that Sweet M's completely average IQ is too low for her to be considered for a state-funded special education school that has been recommended to us. The school, we're told by several reliable sources, is only interested in kids on the spectrum if their full-scale IQs are topping 125. Seems you've gotta have a near-genius level IQ to qualify for special education resources these days.

And then there was the fact that I had to get Sweet M retested since her last neuro-psychiatric evaluation was deemed "worthless" by our education attorney. So we took little M off to a well-regarded child psychologist and, low and behold, her non-verbal IQ jumped by nearly ten points from her last test, done only 18 months ago. How could this supposedly stable score be so remarkably labile? I guess Heisenberg's Principle regarding the impact of the observer on the testing outcome must have been at play.

As a former smarty chauvinist (someone for whom standardized tests were easy and for whom the tedium of traditional schooling was almost bearable) I grew up in a family where the worst insults were those regarding one's intelligence. The most stinging perjoratives were retard (accent on first syllable as in RE-tard) stupid, idiotic, cretin, moronic, imbecilic, and more rarely, ignoramus, which was reserved for the most notable moments of supposed idiocy. For fun and sport we played around with euphemisms for intellectual impairment. You know the sort of sayings I mean . . .

Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Not the brightest light in the chandelier.
A couple of beers short of a six-pack.
The lights are on, but nobody's home.

Apparently others shared my family of origin's pasttime, as there are several sites online that chronicle figures of speech for intellectual impairment and difference. There's a whole list of them on one minister's site. So much for being charitable.

On the other hand, we aren't exactly charitable to anyone who shows up at the other end of the IQ scale. On that side we've got "egghead," "bookworm," and, for the gals among us, "bluestocking." These have fallen out of use, but been replaced with nerd, geek, dweeb.

But the terms for those deemed unintelligent still outnumber those who are supposedly gifted by many columns in any thesaurus. Like the Eskimos, with their dozens of words for "snow," we modern Westerners seem to have some sort of preoccupation with stupidity. Perhaps our Enlightenment inheritance of believing in reason — the idea that being reasonable and thinking intelligently was a way to trump God — has gotten us so preoccupied with intelligence.

What is this thing called "intelligence" and its inverse, stupidity? All sorts of people have written about this, some parsing intelligence into types (for example, Howard Gardner with his theories of multiple intelligence), but one book I've been reading this month helps explain so much about intelligence and why we all seem to be so stupid about it.

That book is Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality. As the book's subtitle suggests, its authors Elizabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen look at various ways in which pseudoscience and art have been used to justify social inequality. Physiognomy and phrenology, IQ tests and their use by eugenicists all fall under the thoughtful scrutiny of Ewen & Ewen.

For me personally, and apropos of our lives over here at Autism's Edges, Typecasting helps me understand how Sweet M's current school could have been so "wrong" in their decision (their assessment now) to have admitted her in the first place.

Four years ago when she met with the admission's counselor, her IQ testing was average, low-average, just as it is now, but she had the physiognomy that we in the West associate with intelligence: symmetrical features, high cheekbones, a strong highbrow and chin, clear blue eyes. How could someone look like she looks and not be bright? She looks bright. As Ewen & Ewen uncover, there is a long and sordid history to these judgments based on first impressions.

Over the next weeks I'm going to be thinking more about intelligence and stupidity. Why do we associate intelligence with speed and light? What are the implications of assuming that speed and intelligence are equivalent, or the intelligence might be measured much as candle-watts are? Perhaps Einstein's genius has become so iconic because he was factoring the speed of light?

But for the moment I must sign off and find that little girl in the other room, that one who will always be the brightest light in our chandelier.

7 comments:

mcewen said...

I think it's connected with the phases of human development. Currently we have more 'free' time in the Western world where we have the freedom to intellectual and examine our souls etc. If we were still in caves it would be a different set of criteria with no 'free time' for self examination unless you wanted to starve.
Best wishes and I hope you manage to rattle the School District's cage.

MothersVox said...

That makes sense . . . time to parse our differences and make hierarchies based upon those differences . . . Thanks for your support vis-a-vis the school search . . . Our fingers are crossed.

a mommy said...

These issues have long fascinated me. I was always that odd kid out - the one with the very high IQ. I used to think that was important to me, because I have always valued it so highly in others. My son's IQ comes in around 115. "Normal" by definition. Considering that the initial tests put him at a more borderline 70 (bad, bad tester), I consider that huge luck. I also think that, even the nonverbal tests appear to have a verbal bias (which is my theory for how our kids get so much intrinsically smarter over time). But honestly, he is perfection itself to me regardless of what the number says.

Isn't it odd how few would recognize Einstein as brilliant even now? His poor parents had a very tough time. And sometimes I see glimmers in William - and the testers did too, last time he was tested. He scores off the chart in a couple of odd areas (like so many autistic kids - crazy splinter skills). I sometimes wonder, if we could TAP those skills, what he could accomplish. I am sure Sweet M has the same thing. I just want them both to understand the joy that comes from using your talents, including your head, in the way they were intended to be used.

Karianna said...

Plus, there are different types of intelligence: kinetic, social, mathematical, liguistic, etc.

A "dumb jock" has a lot of kinetic intelligence, for example.

For those on the spectrum, it is so interesting to see how social intelligence can lack, but mathematical can soar. Or that sensory intelligence and perception can be so overwhelming that the child "shuts off" and/or "stims."

The ways in which we process our universe are all so varied, and usually our chosen method is that which we have the greatest deal of "intelligence." It is just that society has chosen which types are to be valued more than others.

Interesting stuff. I think I'll go get that book now...! :)

VAB said...

IQ tests are measures of specific performance in specific circumstances (for ASD kids, usually a high-social-intensity, one-to-one session in a psychologist's office). Psychologists, who rank up there with weather forecasters in terms of the accuracy of their predictive analysis, used these measurements to make general predictions about performance in very different situations. The best we can say about this kind of guess work is that it is at least an educated guess.
I've been thinking quite a bit about this since our guy bombed his last IQ test (dropped a whole standard deviation, when I would have expected it to have gone up, based on what we had been seeing at home). One thing that I have started to grasp is that, even if the tests were more accurate in predicting performance, it is very narrow minded of me to assume that the sort of performance that is being measured is the key to happiness.

After his last IQ test, the psychologist said that I better start planning for the high school, because trigonometry was going to be very tough for him. That may be so, but should I worry? When I look around me in society at large, and when I consider the sweep of history, I see very little correlation between the ability to do trigonometry and happiness. Just because my own self-definition, and consequently my happiness, has involved my ability to do those sorts of things, that does not mean that my son has to base his happiness on the same things.

We are all here, accidental visitors in a fundamentally absurd situation, processing and interacting as best we can. It is more than snobbish, it is just plain silly, to say that one type of processing and interaction is the right kind. At the end of the day, it is surely more useful to simply ask ourselves how we can use what we do to make ourselves as happy as possible on our ride around the sun.

a mommy said...

God, Vab, I'd go so far as to say your son (and mine) may be happier than we ever had a chance to be! I often wonder what craziness says I should socialize my son, when at present, he never sees how people look at him, or hears unkind things people say. He only even cares if a small number of people exist, and is completely unconcerned about pleasing others. WOW. While it makes it hard to teach him without the old pleasing principal as a motivator, what a huge freedom to have!

You are absolutely right. The test really does nothing but take a hugely environment-dependent snapshot. Who the tester is can be critical, and whether they are accustomed to dealing with nonverbal children in administering the test. What I've decided over the past few months to do is see what I can do with the STRENGTHS my son has, and work on bringing some of the extreme pits in his abilities up into line a little. I'm looking to just bring those deficiencies up to where they are not quite so limiting, and I'm going to work on what makes him happy otherwise. For now that is drum lessons. He's FIVE, and he asked me for them very specifically (he doesn't talk much, hardly ever thinks ahead). Wish me luck.

And trig? Use computers to show the graphs of the equations in question, he's going to ACE IT. It is a very concrete math! Use that.

MothersVox said...

It's very interesting when your kid's test scores drop despite the remarkable gains you've witnessed first-hand at home.

With Sweet M's scores, her reading scores dropped because the test from the previous neuropsysch person was the Woodcock-Johnson and the more recent tester was using the Weschler. When the more recent tester also used the Woodcock-Johnson, her scores showed she'd made a year's worth of gains in just a little over a year.

But, as you say, at the end of the day, the test scores matter much less than how we find a way to build on her strengths so that she'll have as much fun and satisfaction and self-esteem as the next person as we make these revolutions around the sun, as you've put it so nicely.

And I'm hoping the drumming lessons are fantastic for your little one, "a mommy." So great that he asked you!

I have an undiagnosed, but very likely Aspie computer genius friend, who spends a lot of his time drumming. It's very relaxing for him.