23 February 2007

Somehow, I've always known I'm not too smart

Yesterday, I was chatting with my nephew Jovin and he happened to lead me to an essay by Isaac Asimov titled What Is Intelligence?. Here it is:

What Is Intelligence, Anyway?
Isaac Asimov

What is intelligence, anyway? When I was in the army, I received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two hours they made a big fuss over me. (It didn't mean anything. The next day I was still a buck private with KP - kitchen police - as my highest duty.)

All my life I've been registering scores like that, so that I have the complacent feeling that I'm highly intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too. Actually, though, don't such scores simply mean that I am very good at answering the type of academic questions that are considered worthy of answers by people who make up the intelligence tests - people with intellectual bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for granted that I was far more intelligent than he was. Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though they were divine oracles - and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions for an intelligence test. Or suppose a carpenter did, or a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician. By every one of those tests, I'd prove myself a moron, and I'd be a moron, too. In a world where I could not use my academic training and my verbal talents but had to do something intricate or hard, working with my hands, I would do poorly. My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again. He had a habit of telling me jokes whenever he saw me. One time he raised his head from under the automobile hood to say: "Doc, a deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter and made hammering motions with the other hand. The clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted, and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he asked for them?"

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring motions with my first two fingers. Whereupon my auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, "Why, you dumb jerk, He used his voice and asked for them." Then he said smugly, "I've been trying that on all my customers today." "Did you catch many?" I asked. "Quite a few," he said, "but I knew for sure I'd catch you." "Why is that?" I asked. "Because you're so goddamned educated, doc, I knew you couldn't be very smart."

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.

This is a very interesting and very humbling essay. It got me thinking back to those IQ tests that I had to take before. I never really felt confident taking those tests. In the back of my mind, I always thought I'd never do good on them. Well, I guess I passed a number of them since I somehow made it through college. I never really took the time to find out about scores and such though so that I don't know really what my IQ is...I had never been interested to find out, I guess.

I cringe at times when I here some people make fun of others because they are supposed to be dumb or didn't go to school or they're not academically-minded. And to be honest, I too have been guilty of doing that at some point, and regretted it afterwards. These days, I'm careful to make such pronouncements.

Like Asimov said in his essay, in a world where I cannot use what I know, I'd be a complete moron. The farmer who never stepped into a school knows far more than me about soil and what to do to make them productive; the mechanic who fixes my car knows far more about how to make the blasted thing run and what to do when it doesn't (unlike me who I'm sure will raise my hands and kick the wheel if ever I get stuck somewhere with a car who won't move), the dressmaker who never fails to amaze me with what she can do with a piece of cloth will always be more creative than me. There are so many of them out there who are smarter than me.

The joke the mechanic told Asimov is something familiar. I've gotten similar jokes in the past. Perhaps it is a measure of my "intelligence" that like Asimov, I always give the wrong answer. Those trick questions...my answers are always wrong.


At 27/2/07 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cringe at times when I here some people make fun of others because they are supposed to be dumb or didn't go to school or they're not academically-minded.

You have some typo hear . . . :)

At 27/2/07 10:52 AM, Blogger isa said...

i guess that just proves it then :)


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