Assuming Equal Intelligence

It’s funny how everything comes back to philosophical questions. There can be an assumption, at times, that philosophy is only for the far off and unimportant nerds. Really, though, philosophy underlies everything we do. It is a description of who and what we are, why we function, why we exist. Here, specifically, I am going to explore how philosophy is relevant to human intelligence.

So, first, I begin with a question. Is everyone equal? Society tells us that. Our country says that. Religions say that. It is, ultimately, a true statement. But in what ways exactly are we equal? For example, are all humans equal in intelligence? Postmodern philosophy (or epistemology, if you like) suggests that everyone is equal as much as Christian philosophy and theology does, as much as common sense suggests as well. Postmoderns, though, explain human equality differently than other philosophies. More specifically, they react to the notion of equality in different ways than other philosophies.

More or less, Postmodern philosophy suggests that all humans are equal in value and that all humans, more or less, have the same abilities and rights. They attribute the wild diversity of specific people to a combination of nature and nurture. Certain biological factors and certain environmental factors collide to create the unique experience of any one human person. All people are alike at the most basic level of their humanity, but they are victims to a chaotic world that subjects them to a number of (mostly unwanted) experiences, forcing us to change and become more and more unique. For the Postmodern, life is violent and gloomy. When it comes to intelligence, specifically, Postmoderns would view all humans as being capable of the same level of intelligence, but would attribute the result state of intelligence to whatever worldly factors produced that person.

Now, keep in mind that intelligence here does not mean ‘knowledge,’ per se. Intelligence means, here, more of a notion of ‘ability to reason.’ You might not know the constructive details of a car, but you are really great at conflict resolution for your friends. You might not know how a rocket works, but you can describe the complex organic chemistry of an animal’s body and how to fix a broken organ.

The idea of viewing all people as being capable for the same intelligence but not being in a resultative state of that exact intelligence is a notion shared by Christians, as well. God made everyone equal in value and potentiality, but how we are actually manifestly present in ourselves makes us different from other people. But these two groups of people do not assume the same explanation for how people come to have different intelligences. In the Christian mindset there is an idea of free will, an idea that has plagued many modern philosophers (but not older ones, necessarily). Postmoderns view people as complete victims of their experiences, but Christians view people as reactive agents that have power to choose their own lives.

How do these differences matter? So what if there are different reasons behind the matter? They both agree that all people are equal in their capacity for intelligence!

The ends do not justify the means.

You see, let’s take this seemingly abstract philosophy to a real field of consequence: schools. How our administrations understand ideas of equality will wildly shape their implementation of school policies. What our government officials deem necessary for school will depend on these ideas, too.  Do we think children are complete victims of their experience or do we think that they are active agents and have a role in how they turn out as adults?

I would argue, currently, that much of school administration across the country assumes the prior, that children are essentially complete victims of their experiences. They see children as not having any control over what happens to them, and think about their own pasts as children as being controlled by external events that mattered to them. Part of our nation’s discussion around systemic racism is centered in the postmodern mindset, that African American children are entirely victims of their circumstances. The Postmodern reaction to the issues of systemic racism and systemic education is that we need to flood peoples’ lives with opportunities. If enough opportunities are provided then people who are disadvantaged will use those opportunities to pull themselves out of their situation. It’s just a matter of providing the overabundant amount of opportunities.

But here we must acknowledge, in Postmodern thought, a fallacy around free will. The fallacy is that ‘if opportunity is provided to subject y, then subject y will be super grateful and seize that opportunity. But this fallacy, this assumption about the human experience, is false. A person’s desire to seize an opportunity is anything but guaranteed. And here what might change is not just a matter of circumstances, but the simple desire on the part of the person to either seize or not to seize.

So what does this have to do with intelligence? Well first, let’s begin with the idea that everyone is equal in their capacity for intelligence.  Generally everyone agrees with this statement. There are some obvious exceptions, like biological and mental impairments, where the rule of capacity is ruled out, but, more or less, people are capable. Intelligence is also not something that you are delivered on a silver platter when you’re a baby. Intelligence has to grow over time.

How, then, does intelligence grow over time? Like a plant? No, of course not. It grows through experiences of a person. As someone experiences and lives through reality, their intelligence can grow from those situations. But intelligence is not guaranteed. In all instances of an opportunity for intelligence to grow, people have to choose their reaction to whatever their situations are. If a person chooses, they can accept the education presented before them or they can reject it.

Over the course of time these choices (which might be something like 35,000 a day), affect the overall growth of intelligence. A fallacy that Postmoderns make, and therefore something like what our school systems make, is that choice is not important when it comes to understanding someone. When we think about students, for example, we do not as much consider what the role of willpower has when it comes to education.

Teacher: “Man, all my kids bombed the test.”

Admin: “Well how did you teach your lesson? Did you present the material in a fun and engaging enough way? Did you make sure that all 30 of your students were paying attention to you for 100% of your class?”

[uhm, hello, Atlas Complex anyone? My first year as  a college TA my supervisor taught us about the Atlas Complex, and about not giving ourselves the Atlas Complex, and here I find it’s about the only thing administration encourages in its teachers. In brief, student success = 100% teacher responsibility]

Let’s think about a situation. Let’s gather, in our minds, a large group of people (not necessarily students) who have the same level of intelligence. For the sake of a standardization element, even a terrible one, let’s use the notion of IQ. This large group of people, say 100, all have a high intelligence. They are all at home and they’re just living their lives. You present all 100 people with the option of: reading a philosophy book, reading a romance book, watching a movie, or taking a nap. Each of these things affects intelligence in a different way. Arguably a philosophy book (a good one, anyway) challenges the intellect the most and a nap most definitely does not (while maybe everything else lies somewhere in between). Are all 100 really intelligent people going to choose the thing that increases their intelligence the most? No! Why would they? Because they have a choice!

Even in a situation in the modern classroom we find this same struggle. I present a group of 30 students with a task, to work on vocabulary recognition with a technique called Columns (a modified version of flash cards). This opportunity presents students with a really great way to study class content. But there are a multiplicity of choices on the students’ part with how to react to the material. They can do it all the way, following all of my seemingly arbitrary guidelines, they can do part of it, they can do the bare minimum and do it totally against the rules, or they can just opt out (I’ve seen all of these reactions, if you can’t tell). The students choices on how to react to the assignment affect their intelligence and affect their education. I did my part as a teacher: it’s graded work, it’s relevant to what we’re learning, I gave them plenty of time in class, etc. But how they choose to react is on them.

If you wanted to chart a graph of human intelligence, based on capacity, it might look like a graph with a vertical line. Everyone is on the same level of intelligence. But if you instead make a graph with human intelligence, based on actual (current) intelligence, you would more likely see what is called a Standard Deviation curve.

It’s almost like we were already aware of these facts…

The Postmodern reaction is, essentiallly, to push aside this curve of standard deviation, and to forget the participation of the person on the opposite side of the opportunities. Again, you just have to get enough opportunities out there and then everyone will be taken care of. In fact, just as admin asks the teacher “Well what did you do so that everyone failed?” the assumption is that opportunities have to be forced on the disadvantaged.

When it comes to education, for example, we have to force students to take up the opportunity for education so that they can be raised to a relatively equal level of intelligence. Except by doing this they are inherently putting aside the extremely valuable notion of free will!

In St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s work Grammar of Assent, he expounds on the delectable saying:

“A man convinced against his will
Is of the same opinion still.”

His exposition around this saying relies on the fact that even though you could possibly provide the most convincing logical argument, or (in a school setting) set up the most materially motivating principles for completing study with integrity, you are not going to receive an organic and natural result. Your own results are an artifice for your own gain at the end of a short time (if even that), but not earning any long term benefit for anyone.

In short, it is well to assume equal capacity for intelligence. It’s never too late for someone to learn anything. But it is absolutely right to assume inequality of intelligence in a population, simply because human beings have free will. It is not right to assume which person has lower or higher intelligence just because you don’t like them, but it is absolutely true that people with lower and higher intellects exist. It is also entirely fair to expect that in a situation like a classroom, not all students are going to excel in education and be intelligent.

Instead of falsely pretending that all people will excel in education, let’s presume that some people just aren’t going to make it that far. Not everyone needs to get a full high school education. We can help people become fully productive members of society without that much education. But liberal education is also good, and those who can should go as far in their education as is possible. Access to apprenticeships should be way easier, and students should have access to starting them sooner. We also should learn, as a society, to be accommodating to such an idea as varied intellects. People who don’t get as much education as someone else shouldn’t make less money arbitrarily. Especially if they go through an apprenticeship and become really skilled at a certain task, but even if they aren’t necessarily skilled, a person shouldn’t have to worry about feeding their family. Inasmuch, they shouldn’t be shamed because of choosing a professional apprenticeship instead of carrying on with a high school or university education. They’re still people, and valuable people at that.

We are a singular race of people with the power of free will, of making choices, no matter how hard the consequences might be. I think we can act like it, too.

An Ode to Liberal Education

To thee that would bring us out,

To show us richer life;

Where we have wasted our brightest sprouts,

And only increased our strife,

Cultivate in spite of their pouts,

For the farmer is desperate for your scythe.

 

Alternate title: “WHY AM I EVEN SENDING THESE KIDS TO SCHOOL?”

I write this article in what I can perceive is only the beginning of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. Teaching in a public school has given me insight into education in ways that I never expected. I had of course attended a few public schools here and there (as well as private and online) but I was never attuned to my surroundings. When you’re a smart kid in school you know that other kids aren’t necessarily doing the same things as you, but you rarely pay them any heed. You put your head down, look at your own life and problems, and focus there.

The putting-my-head-down approach has probably bitten me in the butt at this point. Now I teach public high school and I wonder if all the things I’m seeing really popped up in the last seven years or if it was always this way and I just didn’t happen to see it. Our public education system is messy and gross – something I’m sure you’ve heard other people complain about before. But why be so cliché?

I couldn’t have articulated it myself until recently. By happenstance I recently was reading St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. You’ll remember this if you read my previous article “What does St. John Henry Newman say about Learning a Language?.” Previously I focused on how Newman might have answered the question of foreign language instruction, but now I’m turning my scopes towards a larger issue: American education.

Where do I have to start? Unfortunately it goes way back, back to the Roman Empire. From that time, we have teachers such as St. Augustine talking of these methods, and they were standard for the longest time. They contain the Trivium and the Quadrivium (three and four):

  1. Grammar
  2. Dialectic
  3. Rhetoric
    ↑Trivium – Quadrivium↓
  4. Arts & Music
  5. Empirics
  6. Mathematics
  7. Geometry

These seven areas constituted the liberal arts. What is the goal of such an education? The first impulse we have is to say “well, it’s to know the content from these subject areas.” But that isn’t what our western predecessors say about it. St. Augustine says in his De Ordine that the Liberal Arts are meant to free us from materialistic thinking. The word ‘educate’ comes from two Latin words: ex– [out] and ducare [to lead]. To educate someone means to lead them out…from where? From materialistic thinking. Through what? Through the artes liberales. The free arts, the arts that free us.   In other words, it elevates the mind beyond simple matters of the material and brings it into the realm of the immaterial, as well. I would like to take particular note of what Newman thought a liberal education was:

“Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is will to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University…Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence” (Newman, pg. 120-121, The Idea of a University)

Go back and read what Newman considers it ‘well’ to be. Do any of those things seem practical to you? Absolutely not! A delicate taste most certainly does not itself put food on the table. Newman talks in his book about the notion that knowledge should be sought for knowledge’s own sake. We ought to know simply to know. That knowing and increase in the intellect creates someone with a gentleman’s sort of quality, but they result from seeking knowledge with no ulterior motive.

How appalling to the modern mind! Why would we seek out something if we are not to use it to increase our material gain? Newman wrote in the middle of the 19th century and is still quite relevant in his critiques of those who would only educate for economic principles. The truth is, liberal education was the standard for education for the longest time. This idea of going to school to know things simply to know them was the expectation for education going all the way back to the time of the Romans…but that doesn’t seem to be what we have now, right?

Correct. In the early 20th century educators considered this inefficient and wasteful. Someone should walk away from an education with the ability to do things and to learn with more skill-based focuses. So expectations changed. But only ever so much. You see, when someone comes up with an idea, it usually comes about from a previous way of thinking and is only modified to accommodate a new level of expectation. What I mean to say is that even with the significant changes in education beginning in the 20th century, our model of education is still that of the Liberal Arts. Things are made out to be a bit more practical nowadays, but the notion that one should be learning about more of their native tongue and how to master it as much as math and arts or other extracurriculars is still the fundamental approach to how educators build our educational systems.

Except not.

Capitalist thinking, and especially modern and post-modern capitalist thinking, views units in an economy as agents interacting with supply and demand. Everyone, from the multi-national corporation to the individual, operates life under the assumption that he will buy what he needs to survive and thrive and sell what he has (or can do) for other people to buy from them. This interaction of selling and buying is foundational thought.

“Hey son, do this chore.”

“Sure dad, what do I get when I finish?”

The absolute worst part about this materialist thinking is that it has infected our systems of public education.

“All children must get an education.”

“Sure, government. What do my kids/me get when they finish?”

The answer ‘well they know things now’ isn’t an answer that will fly, exactly. The standard modern answer (in my opinion)?

“They need a high school diploma to get a job.”

The most basic notion of education is that it is a certificate for someone to say “ah, you’re grown up now. You’re now capable of fully and autonomously participating in real life.”

This contractual notion of exchange permeates education on every level. If you don’t believe me, just go read my article “I Need That Grade.”

Right now, more than ever, I believe this underlying thinking is being exposed. Kids aren’t coming physically to school because of COVID-19. If they have access to technology they are likely participating in distance learning with their school. Their teacher is working to come up with lessons to send through technology and then grade the work in return (get it?). And this contractual exchange is being exposed and ridiculed by parents. Kids, already exacerbated by a flawed system, are forced to try and fit the mold from an even more difficult position. Parents are tired of it. They didn’t sign up to educate their child! (They did, but they don’t believe they did). The exhausting effort to make sure their kids still get good grades is paramount. But, again, I already wrote about the grade part. Go read the other article if you aren’t following.

What this situation ultimately exposes is that not many people understand the why of education. They have grown up being taught that it is necessary, and that properly functioning members of society need it, but who the heck knows why we do it? Certainly we know that doctors and lawyers need to get advanced degrees that specify in knowing lots of detailed skills, but plumbers don’t need even a bachelor’s degree and they know lots of detailed skills? I don’t know, quit asking me. Sometimes I wonder if even the people in charge of our public education understand the ‘why’ of education. In a recent email I was encouraged to be lax with students, to give them ‘just what the students need to know and be able to do’ to get by the rest of the academic year. What even constitutes the body of knowledge that one “needs” to know?

In this delicate situation of trying to educate from home, parents are saying ‘this is enough. This is too much to handle from home. Just stop for now, pick it up again next year.’ I even had a parent email me (and all the rest of her son’s teachers) and ask

“What standards [state mandated learning goals for students] are you teaching through the rest of the school year? I just want to make sure my son is being taught what he needs to move on and that he’s not just being given busy work.”

In America in the 21st century, you don’t go to school just to go to school and to learn things. That’s dumb. There needs to be a product. Education means you need to acquire a skill, to acquire useful information. It’s either to get on to the next course or it’s to use it for some skill. Skill-based education is not inherently negative, but a skill-based education is not liberal. It is not freeing of the mind, it only ensnares it further in the materialistic thinking of the world. Most unfortunately that product of modern public education, in this case a high school diploma, requires grades. When you’re focused on perfecting your grades, what aren’t you focusing on?

Probably not cultivating your intellect.

Probably not a delicate taste.

Probably not a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind.

Probably not a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.

In short, we are not focusing on becoming gentlemen and ladies. I know…it sounds archaic. Who wants to be a gentleman anymore? Who talks of becoming a lady? It sounds pretty useless. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to earn me anymore money. But ladies and gentlemen (if you consider yourself to be in this category) we must put aside these talks of money, and products, and contractual exchanges. If we have a liberal education, then let us have a liberal education. Let us disavow of grades as we have them. If a society is lacking in its number of gentlemen and ladies than it is worser for it. By all means should we teach and offer skill-based instruction and education for our students. We need technicians, plumbers, farmers, and soldiers; but these deserve and need to become gentlemen as much as the lawyers and doctors. Instead of teaching our children to skate by with as little ‘education’ as possible, let us encourage them to engage in it as much as possible.

Not because good grades are what matter the most. Not because it is a burdensome requirement to participate in society.

But because knowing knowledge is good for its own sake.

“Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is will to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University…Surely it is very intelligible to say, and that is what I say here, that Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence” (Newman, pg. 120-121, The Idea of a University)

I Need That Grade

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”

Before engaging with another person, there are a set of precepts that we all have that dictate exactly what the parameters of a discussion are. We know that certain signs will indicate favor with the other person, others disfavor. Some signs will indicate confusion, others comprehension. Most importantly some signs will indicate whether one’s behavior or conversation topic are appropriate for the situation at hand. Similarly for most anything within the realm of human function we find precepts that are parameters, guiding where something can and should go. These precepts are not always ones of which we are conscientious, but usually we have some sense of them.

The epicenter of my thought today is around education and the precepts that we teach our students. Education is never plain cut around the categories under which we achieve it. The subject of my classroom is the language of Spanish, but that is not just what I am teaching my students. I educate them around behavior, etiquette, ethics, and culture as well. Sometimes I even engage and teach about other subject areas like history and literacy. But by the time that students come to me (since I teach high school or advanced middle school), students usually already have a set of precepts around education.

One of the most important of these precepts is the North American grade. I think grading students is a good practice. It helps communicate to the student a teacher’s perception of their education and whether there needs to be any change in regard to how a student interacts with their teacher, or it informs the student where they stand with regards the comprehension or learning of new content material. It also provides a measure of accountability. No one likes to see themselves as being worth less than they feel, and when a grade starts to dip past where a student sees themselves it offers motivation to improve themselves. It also offers others from the outside a look at the way a student is in class. Do they do the work? Do they perform well? Do they do homework assigned to them?

The North American grade, however, has become something more than that. It has become the focus point of a cultural shift, one that deserves a bit of attention. Grades are a tool, serving an end outside of themselves. Just like any other tool from our past, mankind has learned to warp it to serve themselves regardless of the circumstances, moral or otherwise.

Because of the potential cause that grades can serve, a lot of people have come to view grades as an authoritative step in making other decisions and answering key questions:

Can this student play sports?

Can this student play video games?

Can this student see his friends?

Can this student go to college?

Can this student be trusted with responsibility at work?

Can this student receive financial aid for current or further education?

And at first these seem like reasonable questions to answer with educational grades, because the effort and application required to earn good grades in school translates into other situations and can be used as a measure of a stranger’s confidence in a student.

Here’s the kick, though. Our society is losing a sense of morality. Students, parents, everyone. Yeah, sure, be nice to everyone, but life is about what you make it. Follow your dreams. Everyone else doesn’t necessarily matter. Do what makes you happy because no one else will. Authority figures aren’t to be trusted because they don’t know you as an individual. Make your own way.

So when students come into school and they are confronted with educational material, they balk at it. What does learning Spanish have to do with following your dreams to become a football player or a hairdresser? Math class doesn’t make me happy, and no one else you talk to (except your math teacher) goes on about how it makes them happy, so why should you care about it? Authority figures are always misleading, so what point is there to believe that your teacher is actually doing something for your own good? Best to not worry about it. Just make your own way. Survive high school and then you can do what you want.

Except that doesn’t work. Because grades are attached to their behavior at school. Behavior not even meaning dramatic misbehavior, but typical day to day actions. Complete the work? Get the grade. Don’t complete the work? Don’t get the grade (or get half credit). Grades are how you survive high school so that you can finally get on to doing what you want afterwards. High school (and college) are seen as “barriers to entry” for whatever thing it is that students would rather be doing with their lives (or what they think they would rather be doing). Since grades are a “barrier to entry” for getting past high school and into these other things, then we start to revisit those questions from earlier with a bit of a different perspective. When students see grades they don’t see a reflection of their education or their effort towards school work. They see:

I can’t play sports.

I can’t play video games.

I can’t see my friends.

I can’t go to college.

I can’t get a job.

I can’t receive financial aid.

And so I get comments like:

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.”

Instead of these excess questions that people use to evaluate a student’s potential being in excess, they become necessary and are usually the only things relevant to a student. Whether they are actually learning or progressing in the class? Not important. Whether the grade from that class is allowing or preventing them access to other diversions and goods? Totally important. Instead of these questions of access being secondary, as originally designed, they become primary.

THIS IS TERRIBLE.

As our society loses a focus on the value of morals, it loses a focus on the value of things that only exist in the abstract. If it isn’t visible and if it doesn’t produce a tangible effect that brings goodness and happiness to me, then it doesn’t have value.

Our current educational system is based on the notion of a Liberal Education. Before any cranky conservative goes spouting off about how liberal snowflakes are destroying children, let me liberate them from that thinking. A liberal education is that which liberates the soul from materialist thinking (St. Augustine, De Ordine). St. John Henry Newman articulates it in a slightly different fashion in his book The Idea of a University:

“Liberal Education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”

Can we measure a cultivated intellect? Can we measure the degree to which a soul is liberated from materialist thinking?

Probably not.

Grades are a good start, because they have some measure over the engagement of a student with a task or the degree of intellectual excellence that a student can demonstrate, but grades aren’t the end of that image. When material goods are seen as the end of good grades, or when material goods are seen as the end of education, teachers and parents have failed. Right now, in this cultural setting, grades have failed. Students no longer have sight of what an actual liberal education is. They have no precepts for how to engage with it in an actually liberating way. But it doesn’t start with them, it begins with the people administering it. It begins with parents, administrators, and teachers, and those are the people that have the power to remedy this malady.

“Mr. Skipper, you don’t understand. I need that grade.

Far from it. I do understand. You’re telling me exactly what you’ve been taught.