This post appeared in The Answer Sheet column in The Washington Post on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google reader through the "Share" function located at the top left-hand corner of the blog.
In my last blog post, I examined Newt Gingrich’s now widely circulated comments about abolishing child labor laws. In the last few weeks as he’s surged ahead in the polls, we’ve heard more and more in the media about his intelligence, about him being a large thinker, the big idea guy in the GOP. This standard description of him has gotten me to think about intelligence, particularly about the ways we commonly ascribe intelligence to others.
I remember as a young man watching William F. Buckley on television and being fascinated by the way his eyes would flash and his tongue flick across his lips when he made a point – and the words! The big words. And that accent, that intonation. I didn’t know anyone who sounded like that. Clearly, this guy was smart.
Since those days, I’ve taught a lot of people – which enables you to observe thinking in detail – and have studied intelligence, and I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life in a university, the epicenter of smarts. And one thing I’ve learned is how strongly our perception of intelligence in others is shaped by their verbal performance, how they talk, the cadence and tempo, the dialect or accent, the flash of what they say and how they say it. As a result, I’ve learned to be skeptical of that flash, for while it certainly is evidence of linguistic and rhetorical ability, it can also mask the weakness of someone’s thinking and the poverty of substance in ideas. We have more than our fair share of verbal dazzle at the university – what I call the smartest-kid-in-the-class display – but it doesn’t always reveal anything substantial. (My UCLA colleague Alexander Astin wrote an insightful opinion piece a while back in which he suggested that, in fact, the obsession with appearing smart contributes to a lot of bad behavior and bad decisions in the academy. “Our Obsession With Being ‘Smart’ Is Distorting Intellectual Life,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/26/97.)
In one of the many commentaries on Gingrich that have aired in the last few weeks, a former staffer of the speaker joked, not without affection, that the filing cabinets in Gingrich’s office were labeled “ideas” and “bad ideas.” Abolishing child labor laws – or Gingrich’s latest bold idea to impeach and even have federal marshals remove “activist” judges – would fall under the category of a bad idea. A lot of the flashy ideas that catch our attention – from high brow to popular culture – are bad ideas, they’re shallow in analysis and bereft of thoughtfulness and wisdom. Anyone can generate a bad idea.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about our tendency to identify verbal dazzle with intelligence is the converse tendency to assume that its absence signals a lack of intelligence. I’ve seen this play out so often: people who are quiet, shy, don’t feel comfortable holding forth, or who don’t easily find the right word are sometimes thought to be not very bright. This equating of intelligence with verbal fluency can have awful consequences in school, in the workplace, and in the public sphere.
Let me copy here a passage from The Mind At Work on intelligence.
“Intelligence is a much-debated concept. To get us started, I’ll use a composite of the most familiar Western definitions of intelligence: it is the ability to learn and act on the environment, to apply knowledge to new situations, to reason, plan, and solve problems. We need to keep in mind, though, that there are aspects of human mental activity that are not captured in the standard definitions of intelligence.
The way we think about intelligence in the United States has been shaped over the last century by the psychometric tradition, mental measurement, known to most of us through an intelligence test taken in school or in the military. This tradition has contributed – sometimes through misinterpretation – to a number of interconnected popular beliefs about intelligence: that it is a single and unitary quality (so if you’re smart, you’re smart across the board); that it’s fixed, constant (and this plays into further beliefs about the degree to which intelligence is inherited); that it can be accurately measured with an instrument like an intelligence test and represented numerically, typically through an I.Q. score; and that people’s success in life, or more broadly, their place in the social order, is a reflection of their intelligence.
But within the West there are powerful research traditions that yield other conceptions of intelligence and other means to assess it. These traditions posit that there are multiple components to intelligence, or even multiple intelligences; that intelligence is variable and dynamic; that social context is crucial to its emergence and display; that creativity, emotion, aesthetic response, and the use of the body – removed from traditional psychometric definitions and tests of intelligence – must be considered as aspects of intelligent behavior. And, finally, it is very important to note that any discussion of intelligence is culture-bound. Some aspects of what we consider intelligence might well overlap with definitions from other cultures, but many cultures posit a range of further or different attributes to intelligence, for example, the ability to live in harmony with others. ”
There is a lot more to intelligence than our typical definition allows. We misjudge people who don’t easily fit the mold, and we attribute intelligence readily to others because they’re assured or bold or sound a certain way. There’s no doubt that Newt Gingrich is a smart and calculating guy and a savvy politician. But it distorts our collective sense of intelligence, of keen analysis, and certainly of wisdom when the media casually and automatically defines him – and public figures like him – as a grand thinker, a person of big ideas.