When I was in my early twenties, just for fun one day I took the entrance exam for Mensa, the high I.Q. group. To my surprise, I found the test engaging but not terribly difficult – their test asked the kinds of conceptual questions that I was generally good at getting right. When I received word that I had passed and was eligible for membership, I was both surprised and ambivalent. Then, after a year of receiving their mailings and going to local meet-ups, I decided to stop being involved. I didn’t like the feeling of elitism, exclusivity and separateness that the organization engendered. It became clear to me that measuring this thing called I.Q. and organizing groups of people around it was a woefully inadequate way to connect with others in any kind of meaningful way. Nor did Mensa provide the healing integration I didn’t realize I was looking for at the time.
As might be expected, this alienation and disaffection had roots planted much earlier. Based on I.Q. measures alone, I was tracked into middle school classes with kids I didn’t much resonate with either socially or emotionally. They were the white collar sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers. They had full sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and wore clean pressed shirts and new shoes to school, while I was a lone voice for early Grunge, twenty years before it became acceptable. Essentially, I ended up being a blue collar stranger in a white collar land, with no Robin Williams to take me Good Will Hunting. I was the only kid in a class of twenty or so who didn’t apply to any college, and by senior year everyone knew not to ask me where I’d been accepted.
Emotional and Social Disconnect
The unfortunate part of this experience is that the emotional and social disconnect had significant negative neurological consequences. According to Emotional Intelligence expert Jeanne Segal it is close relationships throughout our early years that shape the mental circuits responsible for memory, emotion and self-awareness. Positive brain-altering communication is activated on a regular basis by such connections to peers. It’s good to have close friends. But, Dr. Segal further adds:
And, because the brain remains flexible throughout life, it remains capable of continually changing. Such changes are brought about through nonverbal communication with people with whom we are emotionally attached. Research (psychiatrist) Allen N. Schore also draws this conclusion when he describes “self-organization” as a “dyadic process” or two-person communication, based on play and emotional understanding…. As we grow older, we continue this dependence on one another for changing the way our brains function.
So, much that may have been delayed for me during those years, thankfully turned out not to be lost forever.
The Inadequacy of I. Q Measures
Recently, a smart guy who can accurately recite the mathematical constant, Pi to 22,514 decimal places, offered just how inadequate this numerical measure of intelligence actually is. Daniel Tammet, savant author of Born on a Blue Day, points out that two thirds of the people on planet earth, roughly four and a half billion people, have I.Q. measures ranging from 85 to 115. But what those numbers and the ones on either side of their distribution fail to measure are diverse talents, capacities and interests that are unique to each of us. Also, intelligence is not a fixed entity. It’s often situational, and has a high social-emotional component to it. When I’m around and connected and resonating with smart people, I end up being a smarter person myself, but only if my resonance circuits are connected and operational! This is one principle that Jeff Bezos founded his company, Amazon.com on. Apparently aware of the principle that “it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain,” Bezos initially refused to hire anyone whom he didn’t feel was smarter than he was.
But Tammet and I are not the only ones who believe in the error of I.Q. testing. In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould, another smart guy, argues that I.Q. tests are based on any number of faulty assumptions. He also claims their use as a basis for scientific racism. Gould writes:
…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, (produces a number used) to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups-races, classes, or sexes-are innately inferior and deserve their status. (pp. 24-25)
Gould neglected to mention children and other living creatures in those oppressed and disadvantaged groups. Considering these elements of intelligence, what I.Q. number and degree of worthiness should be assigned to Jasmine as she does her Mother Teresa imitation?
A Betrayal of Children
I love the assessment template that Alice Walker offered years ago, and I’ve mentioned it several times in this column. (I even went so far as to have bumper stickers made that I gave away to friends). Alice asks us, when making any decision, to simply consider: “Is it best for the children.” I would argue that SAT, and GRE and I.Q. tests are not best for the children. How are children really served by being tested and compared with one another? Rather, I think we betray children by testing them in this manner. Invariably, on these measures, some children are destined to show up as “less than.” Wouldn’t they be better served by peers and parents and teachers reflecting back children’s strengths and gifts and joys and encouraging the expansion and development of those areas? Of what real value is identifying and emphasizing areas where children may fall short based on some global standard defined by other people?