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.