Intelligence is more than literacy and numeracy

Whether nature or nurture is largely responsible for the outcomes on IQ tests is an ongoing debate (“James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race,” The New York Times, Jan. 1).  James Watson, who shared a 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, still maintains that “all the testing” shows that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Watson bases his view about intelligence on tests that assess only literacy and numeracy.  Of course, they are important, but they are not the only kind of intelligence.  In 1983, Howard Gardner (no relation) identified multiple intelligences.  During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw the truth of his contribution.

I had students who could barely write a one-paragraph essay and yet played various musical instruments.  I also had students who struggled to spell but were expert in diagnosing and repairing a car engine problem.  Critics will argue that such skills are evidence merely of talent but do not constitute intelligence.  I disagree.  I don’t know where they developed such abilities, but they certainly were not from my English class.

If Watson took the time to investigate other areas of human ability, I think he would see that blacks on average are no less intelligent than whites.

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4 Replies to “Intelligence is more than literacy and numeracy”

  1. Of course, this largely begs the nature/nurture questions. Perhaps blacks, on average, have less language or math intelligence than whites. Perhaps blacks, on average, have more music intelligence than whites. Perhaps Asians, on average, have more math intelligence than whites or blacks. Or, perhaps none of these statements are true and the racial differences we perceive are the result of blacks, whites and Asians having, on average, different inputs from birth through adulthood that impact — for better or worse — their different types of intelligence.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I wish this country would stop focusing on racial-group outcomes and instead focus on individual outcomes. No race is a monolith, but we are obsessed with trying to engineer similar outcomes. When we don’t, we assume it’s because of bias. I say it’s because people from all races are unique. They make choices and have to assume the consequences. It’s educational romanticism to believe otherwise.


  3. Self Esteem was a central tenet of educational philosophy in the ‘80s and 90s, especially in California, backed by Governor Brown and the Legislature, incorporated into teacher training and professional development. In support of this idea, a Harvard Professor, the gold standard for Veritas, asserted that everybody had special gifts, ranging from Calculus to Kickball. We have since enjoyed the era of Participation Certificates and Teammate Trophies, Social Promotion and Achievement Gaps.

    What’s always been true, and evident to teachers, is that individuals have strengths and weaknesses that affect their academic performance, and to the extent practical, instruction should be individualized, but the overall standards maintained for all. Hence, massive budget cut-outs for Special Education and English Learners. More recently, instructional computer programs adapt on the fly to each individual’s rate of progress.

    It took time, but Multiple Intelligences was gradually, reluctantly, discredited as a quasi-scientific theory and abandoned by the educational establishment.

    Not that anything improved. Now universities actively enforce rules against accusations of Racism, Cisgenderism, Patriarchal Oppression, and Hate Speech. Students and faculty understand the consequences for blasphemy, and whole-heartedly support the new regime.

    James Watson’s revolutionary research earned him the Nobel Prize and membership in the ultra-prestigious Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, along with Newton, Watt, Audubon, Darwin, Bohr, Einstein, Turing, Hawking. He wrote one of the all-time great science books, The Double Helix. He built up and managed one of the world’s pre-eminent research institutions, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, for 35 years. He was a transformative professor of Biology at Harvard for 20 years. He was Head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health.

    But despite all of that, he was banished from all of his scientific associations, fired from his income-generating positions, and shunned by the scientific community as well as by the rest of proper society, because of an offhand remark in which he expressed the widely-held and evidence-supported understanding that there are measureable differences in the average cognitive abilities of different races. He violated a taboo.

    Even if he was wrong in this belief, his treatment for a casual remark at age 79, after a lifetime of service to the world, is despicable and deeply troubling to any reasonable and grateful person.

    Even if he was wrong.

    He was not wrong.

    There is no need to re-argue the case for the Bell Curve here, for the benefit of Ed Hed’s single apparent reader. Labor Lawyer represents the vaguely ambivalent middle ground: perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, or perhaps none of the above. And perhaps birth-to-Kindergarten government intervention will make genetic variability a non-issue. Such is the hope of California Governor Newsom, who promises to devote billions of dollars for decades to implement such a massive program. Perhaps in 18 years we will all look back at this moment in history, when good intentions overcame hard science, and we will celebrate the final and permanent closing of the academic Achievement Gap.

    By then, James Watson’s banishment will be complete and his name erased from textbooks and all official government records.


  4. Lancer to Bruin: I think you misunderstand what I wrote. Literacy and numeracy are indeed important, but to assume that they alone are evidence of intelligence overlooks the accomplishments of those who have made a valuable contribution to society and live a gratifying life. For example, musicians and artists. Howard Gardner remains a controversial figure, but I believe he has expanded our understanding of intelligence.


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