Intelligence : Oded Zipory

While this assumption was already embodied both in evolutionary theory and in the Binet-Simon scale, the rhetoric of the eugenics movement spotlighted the inherited and collective aspects of intelligence. The hierarchic difference in intelligence had now more than simply pedagogical significance; it now had social and national implications as well. Low IQ was regarded as a kind of hereditary “disease” that should be fought by birth control and severe restrictions on immigration.

With the decline of the eugenics movement, the inclination to see intelligence as inherited and racial ceased to be explicit, and even Brigham himself later washed his hands of his own racist conclusions. These ideas were not totally eliminated however; they still appear in scientific and political discussions about intelligence. More important, however, than this contested ideological change is, I believe, the fact that the framework of the tests that were conducted by the U.S. Army (i.e., the same ones that had been the focus of extensive academic criticism), were the same as the one Brigham developed in order to generate the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that is still common today.18

The controversy caused by Brigham’s book shows the difficulty of defining intelligence and of attributing meaning to intellectual differences between individuals and groups. The American Psychological Association has issued a definition for intelligence that, to my mind, is an attempt to define intelligence in a way that tries to steer clear from its weighty racial or political consequences:

Individuals differ from one another in their ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought . . . Concepts of “intelligence” are attempts to clarify and organize this complex set of phenomena. Although considerable clarity has been achieved in some areas, no such conceptualization has yet answered all the important questions, and none commands universal assent. Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen, somewhat different, definitions.19

The lack of a universal agreement on the meaning of the concept enables us to attribute to “intelligence” all sorts of meanings that can exist under the limits of the prevalent discourse. It enables us, thus, to link it–in addition to recognizable cognitive abilities–to values like diligence, high motivation, good character, wisdom, and successfulness.

Even more important than the disagreement about the exact definition is the indication of the connection between the ability to understand and differences in this ability. That is, intelligence is directly related to the differences between humans and to the inequality between them. Accordingly, the phenomenon under study is not human thought at all, but rather the differences between individuals. In other words, modern concepts of intelligence without the implication of a hierarchy of differences are incomprehensible.

In conclusion, intelligence based on evolutionary theories, examined with the successful new methods that were developed by Binet and his successors and founded upon hierarchical differences between individuals and groups became in the twentieth century a concept whose paramount meaning and consequence is an essentialist and deterministic inequality.

Both within the context of academic research and within the educational context, it seems that the concept of intelligence cannot shake off its close relationship with hierarchical differentiation and inequality. The critical sociologist and common psychologist, blimpish as he may be, will agree that individual intelligence has a role in creating inequality, whether as a reflection and reproduction of existing social gaps or as its innate mental cause. They may quarrel about the neutrality of the test, about the role of cultural capital, and about inequality as the result of biology or of social structures; but that should not blot out that the debate is already made from the same basic assumption. It turns out that the progressive and egalitarian efforts to deal with the deterministic inequality, which is inherent in the concept of intelligence, were inept and left much to be desired. Can there be a concept of intelligence that realizes equality?

18. Nichilas Lemann, Secrets of The SAT, Frontline.

19. Ulric Neisser et. al., “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns,” American Psychologist 51:2 (1996): 77.

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