A toast to common genius

Although I appreciate being called “smart” (as Hugh MacCleod kindly does here), that adjective has always troubled me, no matter what, or to whom, it’s applied. Two reasons: 1) because I believe smartness is a far more common quality than our bell-curving institutions would have us believe;  and 2) because the label too often serves as a filter for skepticism.

Rather than make a long post about the topic, however, I’ve decided instead to quote a long post from a list I subscribe to. It’s in response to another post citing this Boston Globe piece on on “group IQ”:

It’s a good piece. I wonder if they also studied the collective intelligence of open source development communities, all of which by necessity require intelligent work by everybody involved.

That curiosity aside, my only problem with the piece is the same one I have with all stories of this kind, which is failing to challenge the belief that  individual intelligence — a quality even more kaleidoscopic than one’s own DNA chain — can be measured and expressed mathematically, as a “quotient.”

IQ testing — and the belief that each of us possesses a fixed quality called “IQ” — is a relic of eugenics: the long-discredited ideal of assisting human evolution through selective breeding. IQ testing was invented by Lewis Terman, a famous proponent of eugenics, early in the last century <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Terman>, and persists in spite of abundant sources of discredit to its base assumptions.

Let me tell you about somebody. His IQ score in kindergarten was high enough to put him in the “fast” group, where he remained until the 6th grade, at which point he so hated school that he barely participated. His IQ score had also declined over that same stretch — so far, in fact, that his teacher wanted to kick him out of the class for being too dumb, and insisted that the kid be re-tested. The kid did well enough on the test to stay in class, but tanked on all standardized tests, year after year… to the point where, at the end of the 9th grade, the school put him on a track toward a “vocational” high school to learn a “manual” skill or two.

The kid’s parents believed the kid was actually smart, however, and enrolled him in what might be called a “correctional” high school. Here the kid continued to do poorly, earning a diploma by the slimmest of margins. His SAT scores at best matched the national mean. So the family found a good-enough college in the South that was willing to take him. There he also got awful grades, advancing to his sophomore and junior years by earning the lowest possible grade point average, to a 1/100th of a point, each time.

Through all that schooling, only one teacher believed in the kid. That was his 11th grade English teacher, who said the kid had writing ability, and once read one of the kid’s humorous pieces aloud to the class. From that point forward the kid became more and more of a writer, so that when he moved to a major in philosophy, as a junior in college, he could finally put his original writing and thinking to work.

Not that his grades were great after that. He hit the dean’s list one semester, but that was it. He got out in four years and went on to many kinds of work after that, all involving writing, plus three other qualities his friends in school valued, even if the schools  themselves did not: insight, a skepticism toward prevailing beliefs, a a sense of humor. Those are what earned him a living for the next forty-plus years, by the end of which he had also earned fellowships with a couple of brand-name universities.

So let’s go back to the IQ part of this story. This kid’s mother happened to be a teacher in the same grade school system, and knew all his scores, including IQ tests. Turns out the kid’s known IQ scores had an eighty point range. They measured nothing other than success at solving a series of puzzles on a given day.

In case you hadn’t guessed by now, that kid was me. One of the things I learned back in those years of hating school (though still learning plenty) was that every human being is different, and that this difference is the most human of natures. I also learned that genius is common, and that all of us bring unique and valuable qualities to our collective tables.

It is these differences that matter most for groups as well as for individuals. And these differences, at their best, are beyond measure.


While we’re on the subject, a bonus link.

And Happy New Year. (Maybe I’ll run into one of ya’ll at FirstNight in Boston, where I’m headed right now.)

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7 Responses to A toast to common genius

  1. Judi says:

    Throughout our Industrial Age, we have become obsessed with single measurements: the GDP represents our national well-being, price of oil (or any other good) for prosperity, IQ for our personal abilities. Of course they all fall short: they are out of context.

    GDP measures the coins exchanged, not the coins available or the cost of those coins in a larger context. We’re not our income and expenses, we are a full life among many others.

    Our IQ does not touch our personal strength and can not help us find our (un)common genius. The schools that move this metric forward are no better at discovery of human potential than they are at teaching what really happened at any point in time.

    Such is the value of a metric: a single point in a 3d world.

  2. I tend toward radical over-simplification – it makes like so much easier:

    So I’ve always thought of ‘smart’ in association with ‘street’ – that is ‘street smart’ which is a wily kind of applied intelligence. Intelligence, on the other hand, is the heaven-sent ability to parse data (or information, if you please). It’s more like book-learning. Intelligent people frequently are not smart. Smart people sometimes aren’t intelligent.

    Most of us are a bit of both.

  3. The late, great Stephen Jay Gould’s wonderful book ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ should be required reading for anyone who talks about ‘IQ’ as if it meant anything – http://friendsofdarwin.com/books/gould-mismeasure/

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Richard. I just ordered it. Been meaning to for years.

  5. Luther Lore says:

    This is most certainly a different approach to the ‘IQ’ topic. It kind goes to show that testing is not always going to result in the correct results.

  6. Captain Obvious says:

    ( been a fan of yours since the Linux Journal replaced PC Techniques as the best geek mag around )

    “7 Kinds of Smart, 2nd edition” by Armstrong.

    Second-edition is 9 kinds of smart ( updating the title wasn’t one of ’em? ).

    Anyone who wants to be able to recognize smart, ought to first survey the kinds of smart.

    Did you know one of the intelligences known is “social intelligence”?

    the ability to solve efficiently & competently who’s friends with whom ( & why ), who’s associating with whom, whom you can’t mix, etc.

    NO male decided “intelligence quotient” will consider that valid, because we’re social-blockheads!

    Which just proves that chauvanism/abuse is worth more to our comfort than learning is…

    Read the book: it’s an eye-opener.

    Another equivalently eye-opening book is “Women’s Ways of Knowing” by 4 authors whom I can’t remember the names of ( 1 is easier to remember than 4: why couldn’t they have all changed their names to Michelle Baldwin Bruce / of Wallamaloo U? )

    What makes THAT book interesting, is that it makes understanding why undoing an abuse-drenched region takes 2+ generations of war, not 3-7 years…
    “battered women syndrome” can affect entire regions/populations, and it doesn’t come out of a person/generation it’s been beaten into, so, to undo it, one has to aim for removing it from the next ( or the 1 after ) generation….

    That book also makes understanding Japan easier: Japan’s in the We’re All Pouring Our Lives Into Our Belonging mode common among college women…

    Which explains the Nihonjin/Gaijin division that isn’t crossable.

    Understanding that these *modes* of mind work in both individuals & entire cultures/regions makes understanding our world more possible, and makes kaizen more possible, too.

    Anyways, thanks for years of smarts & useful knowledge, and know that all the photos you/anyone posts to Flickr are given away to Yahoo, and they & their partners can do anything they want with ’em:
    look for the Photo Business Forum, or something like that, and read some of the items he’s given the world.

    I’d never be able to work with him ( he’s too establishmentarian for me to tolerate, and I’m too FLOSS for him to tolerate ), but many of the informations he provides torpedo “common ‘knowledge'” quite well.


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