Social Mobility, Education and Intelligence: The Emperor’s Old Underpants

by C.F. Goodey

The loudest noises about freedom always come from those trying to suppress it, said Gerrard Winstanley, as he watched Oliver Cromwell’s freedom-loving army torch his Digger commune. The same could be said of the current noises about social mobility and education. 

Our policy-makers and opinion-formers – the Goves and Letwins, Adonises and Lampls, The Times Higher Education, the broadsheet journalists whose children just happen to be approaching secondary school age – are relentless in their concern for the underprivileged but intellectually able. The surprise in that “but” says it all. Chavs with brains? Amazing! Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor with IQs of 150 and let’s find a way of pulling them up the ladder (just before we kick it away). The tacit note of self-reassurance – “don’t worry, there can’t be that many of them” – is almost audible.

In a meritocracy, ability alone deserves promotion to elite status. But what is intellectual ability? We assume it to be a real category, a psychological object, a fact of nature that transcends history. As a historian, my job is to be suspicious about grand claims. And this fixation of ours with intellectual ability stands up no better than past claims of elites about the basis of their superiority – ones that we now regard as archaic. History shows that they all (a) have similar characteristics and (b) will end up in its dustbin.  

Arbitrary distinctions through the centuries

Four hundred years ago, for example, religious elites saw themselves as superior because they possessed “grace.” This was an inner ability that God had predetermined in a small, distinct group. It was fixed in your nature, “seminally” (i.e. before birth or even conception) – with a passing nod to the idea that some people – Bunyan’s Pilgrim, for example – might also need to work at it. “Election” to grace guaranteed your elite status in this life and salvation in the next. It separated you from the herd of hell-bound reprobates around you. It entitled you to membership of a “rule of the saints” and to lay down the law on other people’s behaviour, for their own good.

Grace was a real category. Proof of this was that it could be measured in the human individual. The elect, as Calvinist theologian Dudley Fenner wrote in 1585, “are a determinate number that can be neither increased nor diminished”.[1] The medieval philosopher William of Ockham claimed that the amount of grace each person possesses could be quantified. Elect individuals could therefore be ranked on a hierarchical scale: Bishop Lancelot Andrewes cited a strictly numerical “order of the just, with 1.2.3.4.5.” Moreover, you could assume that elect status was inherited by your children: this was the grounds on which the dying Cromwell justified handing his (republican) rule on to his own son. 

Secular elites, on the other hand, were superior because they possessed “honour.” This too was a predetermined psychological ability. It was fixed not by God but by the quality of certain natural particles in your blood – with a passing nod to the idea that the odd commoner might gradually cultivate enough “virtue” to earn himself a title, as long as he topped the virtue up with services to the state, or flat cash. Honour was the sign of your gentle status, guaranteeing your biological separation from the plebeian rabble. Being a gentleman entitled you to rule as part of the magistracy; in your group privilege lay the good of the commonwealth as a whole. 

Honour, like grace, was a real category. Once again, proof came from its being measurable. It had its own specific science to do the measuring. The science of “Blazon” was “the most refined part of natural philosophy,” according to its Stuart experts: as exact as geometry. It ranked you and your family’s place in the social order, by a hierarchy of heraldic symbols that justified passing your title, as a “hereditament of the blood,” to your children.

“Intelligence” is social status

Modern meritocratic elites, meanwhile, are superior because they possess “intelligence.” This again is a predetermined psychological ability. It is fixed by your genetic nature – with a passing nod to nurture and personal effort, as even the most defensive geneticist will hasten to add. Intelligence gives you social status, separating your DNA from the common herd who don’t make the grade and are thus not naturally equipped for social mobility in the first place. It entitles you, as a somebody with more of it, to talk first (and down) to the ordinary nobody with less or none of it. And who would dare challenge the general consensus that the requirement of intellectual ability from the people who run things is for the good of society?

Intelligence is a real category because, again, it is measurable. Psychometrics underwrites its existence with scientific evidence; this then feeds into lay presuppositions of a more general kind about an intellectual hierarchy among human beings. Mere knowledge that there is a discipline out there calling itself “cognitive genetics,” as hard-edged as physics or chemistry, helps settle your conscience as you go about reserving its supposed privileges for your own child.

The Calvinist church has now been succeeded at the head of the queue of the elect by the Russell Group. Blazon has been replaced by exam grades. Pseudo-scientific GQ and HQ have given way to the honed and tested, chi-squared truths of IQ and thus of intellectual ability (and disability) more generally.

But this triumphant march of a scientific psychology is undermined by close historical examination. History shows that the claim to natural intellectual ability and the claim to social status are identical. It’s not that a claim to social superiority can be used to support a spurious claim to intellectual superiority, or vice-versa. A claim to one just is a claim to the other. Modern, intelligence-based meritocracy is merely a passing contortion in the spectacular historical circus of posturings about status. 

“Intelligence” is simply an unstable consensus among psychologists, and hence the laity, as to what specific items should come under this label: unstable, because the consensus is historically provisional with, ultimately, no lowest common denominator. In the words of the Monty Python song, “anything goes in, anything goes out” (just to remind ourselves: “fish, bananas, old pyjamas,” etc.). As quaint in its way as grace and honour, the thing we call intelligence is a self-referential bid for status and nothing else. 

On a long historical view, intellectual ability in general is no more a biological or “natural kind” (and cognitive psychology no less a pseudo-science) than grace or honour. The three of them have much in common. The difference between past elites and today’s rule by exam-passers is not between less and more social mobility, rooted in natural and thus justifiable distinctions, but between alternative expressions of a single purpose: closing off privilege. 

And if today’s meritocrat is the new aristocrat, yesterday’s aristocrat was the old meritocrat. Tudor gentry, heraldically assessed and certified, were still anxious to cultivate book learning as well, if only because most of them could not trace their bloodline back more than a few decades; they embarked upon these intellectual virtues only when they started to be alarmed by the sudden spike in social mobility around them. Too many “new men” (the dismissive phrase of the period) were being granted coats of arms by his/her gracious majesty, in return for professional assistance or the usual bung. 

As for the religious elite, endowed with grace, that phrase “new man” had an entirely different connotation: it meant being born again. But this too carried a threat of being swamped. The Book of Revelation’s estimate of 144,000 saved could not accommodate the aspirational influx of those who, thrust upwards by the rapid spread of literate Bible study, began to suspect that they too were in grace. 

Among meritocratic elites, the equivalent threat is “grade inflation” and “soft” subjects. They have fulfilled their obligation to encourage the ordinary to aspire, only to find that there are now too many of the blighters. Status holders will chop off the fingers of anyone grasping at the raft that might ensure rescue from a sea of reprobate, vulgar or dim-witted nonentity. Even those academics whose very business is scepticism still need to “maintain standards.” Intellectual ability has to be something real – how else will the children of academics, let alone the wealthy, receive their entitlement to a quiet, unhoodied school classroom in which it can be nurtured? 

Yet what they get out of it is something else. The privately schooled student’s class of degree tends to be (evidence is marginal either way) no higher than that of the comprehensive-school arriviste with inferior A-levels. The in-group entitlement is not, therefore, to fulfillment of some nebulous “ability” but rather to the airs (and graces) that private education seems to supply and that will ease them disproportionately thereafter, along with their social connections, into honourable professions such as politics, the law and journalism. 

So much for meritocracy, and indeed for intellectual ability. Our presuppositions about an intelligence hierarchy stem directly from the zealous divisiveness of early modern conduct manuals and religious tracts: this is the root of the mind-set that expresses concern about social mobility while blocking access. 

This talk about grace and honour is not just some playful analogy with an obsolete past. Modern secular intelligence grew directly out of them, as those nervous dalliances of the honour elite with book learning suggest. Boyd Hilton has described how the seventeenth-century mob, the Tudors’ “hydra-headed monster,” gradually became the Victorian citizenry, respectable and educable.[2] State schooling, meanwhile, owes its origins to parish schools where the church catechism – originally designed to prepare the elect for glory – acquired a second function as a teaching framework that proved adaptable to an increasingly secular curriculum. The concrete steps that lead from catechical practices to school exams and the IQ test itself, from the local clergyman hearing children recite to the educational psychologist running a baseline assessment, can be precisely traced in history’s primary sources. 

When Cyril Burt justified grammar schools by their election of a few intelligent (and on the whole questionably) working-class children to their proper social station – precisely the agenda of our concerned policy-makers and opinion-formers – he was one link in this seamless historical tradition derived from concepts of honour and grace. It is true that “wit” had been going strong for centuries, but in the middle ages this was still a mundane concept, inappropriate for making status bids. Only in its modern, sanctified form of “intelligence” would it become capable of competing with grace and honour, and eventually of swallowing them up.

Let’s not forget, finally, the hard core of people now described as “intellectually disabled.” Modern psychology could not have established this specific in-group, the intelligent, without first specifying an out-group of the entirely non-intelligent. Without reprobates to admonish, you could not be elect; without the vulgar to be admired by, you could not be honourable; and so, without the “disabled” to pathologise and segregate, you cannot be intelligent. 

In fact, the history of “fools” reveals that the intellectually disabled are not a biological natural kind either: this is not a category that transcends eras. The medieval fool may have had outlandish characteristics, but his description bears no resemblance at all to any modern psychological diagnosis. As Dutch psychologist and historian Inge Mans writes of this period, “Once upon a time there were no mentally retarded people”[3]

The evolution and reduction of the word “idiot” – from its sixteenth-century meaning of any lay or non-honourable person to that of the present pathological minority – illustrates her point. And if the bioethicists (like Peter Singer) maintain that there is a minority whose lack of genetically determined cognitive skills means their human status is questionable and euthanasia justifiable, that is because the theologians once maintained that there are reprobate “monsters” whose “seminally” determined lack of a rational religion meant that they were not in grace and (in Bunyan’s words) “must perish for their unreasonableness.” It is not the odd natural fool with strange behaviour but the great mass of the vulgar and the damned who are the precursors of modern “intellectually disabled” people.

The example of disability is especially instructive. Whether the bid for status comes through grace, honour or intelligence, it has as its core ideal to be well born and well bred: eugenics. Successful bidders project a pathological phobia of contamination on to certain of their fellow human beings, whom they then exclude, segregate and (at the extreme) eliminate, on “natural” grounds. Codifying and updating status differentials into the relevant scientific format of the day is a way of building protective barriers against a swamp of social dirt and spiritual death. Mobility tests the porousness of the barriers. 

“Mobility” as a test of mechanisms of exclusion

If social mobility is a move to somewhere, to a higher, cleaner caste, it is also a move away from somewhere. Does it mean people can permeate the barriers from anywhere? For children, this would require the abolition of private, selective, and segregated (special needs) schools. In universities, it would mean opening the life of the mind to those without prior qualifications or not seeking a degree. It would mean a single accreditation system, for those skills where accreditation seems necessary, that covers the apprentice plumber along with the rocket scientist. And it would mean having people with learning disabilities around, of whatever level of “severity,” since they must be assumed to have the same aspiration to learn as anyone else. 

None of these ideas is new, as any reader of Winstanley’s educational writings or Thomas Hardy’s novels, and anyone acquainted with tiny pockets of existing practice, will already know. But if you are not up for such ideas, you must follow up with the consequence: that social exclusion is education’s primary function, and talk of mobility merely the hissing of a safety valve. It is only a radical undermining of the very concept of intellectual ability that can point towards solving problems of disadvantage. 

What are the prospects? It’s a big ask. The Emperor’s tailor had forewarned him that his fine new clothes would indeed be invisible, but only to one sort of people: the stupid, and especially those whose stupidity belied their superior social or professional standing. That was how the scam worked. They couldn’t see the Emperor’s underpants because no one of any intelligence would seek to undermine their own status.

C.F.Goodey is a historian, who also works as a consultant on learning disability services for local government and voluntary organisations.


[1] C.F.Goodey, A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”: the Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

[2] Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846, Oxford 2006

[3] Inge Mans, Zin der Zotheid [with English summary], Amsterdam 1998

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First published: 15 August, 2012

Category: Education, History, Inequality

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17 Comments on "Social Mobility, Education and Intelligence: The Emperor’s Old Underpants"

By Dan Goodman, on 15 August 2012 - 14:54 |

I tried to email this to the author, but the only address I could find didn’t work so here it is a comment instead, hopefully the author will see it.

Hello,

I recently read your article “Social Mobility, Education and Intelligence: The Emperor’s Old Underpants” on the New Left Project website. I didn’t know about the ‘grace’ and ‘honour’ concepts you describe as fulfilling a similar role to intelligence now (seems some people were taking Plato a bit too seriously), but I found putting ‘intelligence’ in this historical context very useful.

The reason I’m writing is just to point out what seems to be a minor inaccuracy. You say “On a long historical view, intellectual ability in general is no more a biological or “natural kind” (and cognitive psychology no less a pseudo-science) than grace or honour.” The only thing I take issue with here is the use of “cognitive psychology”. My understanding of cognitive psychology is that it is the study of cognitive processes (sensory perception, planning, etc.). Some people in this field probably do think of themselves as studying ‘intelligence’, but more in terms of ‘how is it possible to be intelligent?’ and not ‘who is more intelligent than whom?’. Perhaps the IQ people think of themselves as cognitive psychologists, but most (although sadly not all) cognitive psychologists I know are extremely dubious about the claims of IQ. (It does, unfortunately, seem to be having a bit of a mini-revival at the moment.) Anyway, I just thought I should point that out because in attacking cognitive psychology you might potentially alienate an audience who could argue very persuasively on your side.

That said, although there is much skepticism about IQ, it unfortunately doesn’t really extend to skepticism about the concept of intelligence and the ability to measure it by exams, etc. This to the extent that of all the many times I have suggested ideas like assigning university places or academic funding by a lottery, it has maybe only once or twice been taken seriously, despite the hard evidence showing that the existing means of assigning places/funding seem to be no better than chance (and much more biased).

Thanks for an extremely interesting article!

Dan

By David Towell, on 16 August 2012 - 10:58 |

I think that this is a great article too! However I don’t want to entirely throw out the concept of intelligence with the elitist bath water. For example, I think it is useful to be able to ask a question like ‘Would it be intelligent for humankind to so damage its own habitat that it won’t be fit for our children and grand-children?’ In this context, acting intelligently would be highly desirable! But of course what is desirable is now just a question of intelligence but also a question of values, or put more strongly, of moral purpose.

Second, as these questions suggest, we might want to think of intelligence as a collective asset. A famous psychologist Belbin came up with the the aphorism that ‘no-one is perfect but a group can be’. There is a hint of exaggeration here but the idea that working cooperatively we can achieve more than the sum of the parts is a useful one.

Chris is interested in inclusive education so will know that yet other psychologists (e.g. Howard Gardner) have come up with a theory of multiple intelligences. I think at the last count there were eight of these, including linguistic, musical, interpersonal and naturalist etc. As Gary Bunch puts this, writing in an educational context ‘the question no longer is ‘‘How smart is the student?’’ but rather ‘‘how is the student smart?’’ ‘

So Chris’s illuminating historical analysis could lead us to advancing an alternative, egalitarian philosophy which sees that the challenges we face, not least to ensure the survival of our planet and its diverse species, requires the cooperative exercise of intelligences in which we all have something to bring to the party.

By Chris Goodey, on 16 August 2012 - 11:51 |

Hi Dan,

It is a reasonable question to ask. Constrained by the word limit, I have had to make the phrase “cognitive psychology” do too much work: in fact any of the psychology subdisciplines that rely heavily on notions of intelligence and intellectual ability will do here - developmental, educational, clinical, plus “cognitive genetics.”  Nevertheless, you have partly answered the question yourself, in your last paragraph, where you note how important it is to note that the problem is not just IQ and psychometrics, but the broader concepts of intelligence and intellectual ability. Referring back now to your earlier point - that cognitive psychology’s question is “How is it possible to be intelligent?” rather than “Who is more intelligent than whom?” - it seems to me that the first question is no less flimsily based than the second, since tit likewise takes the definition of intelligence as read. CP and its forebears have taken the main constituents of intelligence to be information-processing, logical reasoning and abstraction, but these too are relatively modern and historically contingent. As descriptions of what goes on the mind, they can be summed up colloquially as a sort of “mental filing” - their conception dates back only to late medieval Europe It looks suspiciously like the kind of skills that would have been needed for the massive expansion of social administration at the onset of modern capitalism, and for the expanding clerical caste that went with it. In other words, they are tied to time and place. Unlike, say, gravity for the physicist.  In fact psychology reaches such definitions by consensus. This is certainly true of intellectual disabilities such as ADHD or autism (they exist because the list of items that consitute them is voted on, e.g. by the APA). We can imagine a world where these are not descriptors of how human minds work, because there once was one. There might therefore be one in the future - hence there is a liberatory aspect to what I have said, particularly about so-called “intellectual disability,” which is the field where I work.

On this latter topic, all my experience tells me that people who are up for being offended will be. The percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists who have responded positively to what I have said in my book (at greater length - recommended!) is no lower than of other professionals, advocates or family members. There are people who get it and people who can’t.

The lottery idea, I’d like to use that as a brilliant discussion-starter (which is presumably what it is meant as), because it exposes the fact that exam qualifications are basically a quota system for preserving status, as Bourdieu once suggested. The problem though, as you realise, is much deeper. My view is that unqualified people who like reading William Blake should be allowed to study him alongside academics and researchers, even if they don’t want to do so as a means to a degree. At the moment, students at our universities, especially the elite ones, are mainly study him as a means to a career in the exploitation of others. 

With best wishes,

Chris

 

 

 

By Priscilla Alderson, on 19 August 2012 - 15:11 |

In his timely article, Chris Goodey foresees really inclusive education: ‘In universities, it would mean opening the life of the mind to those without prior qualifications or not seeking a degree.’ A great idea? Or maybe the root of the problem?

The current idea that universities centre on the implicitly disembodied mind positions the mind at the pinnacle of all knowledge, and the training ground for all professions. And yet we end up with teachers who confuse their students with abstract information, stop them from learning through self-organized, active, being and doing (which young children do brilliantly), and who fail nearly half their students. Graduate nurses are said to be too posh to care; doctors are found to lack empathy; scientists dream that their technical fixes, from Ritalin to carbon capture, can cure all ills; economists and politicians insist that everything should be assessed for cost and speed, but not for value. All these university-led trends implicitly or directly denigrate nature and human emotions, and bodies, and relationships, trust, solidarity and justice.

Politicians call on British schools to do better in international leagues tables, perhaps not realising that they compete against schools in China, Japan and South Korea where young people study for up to 18 hours per day, rote learning splinters of testable information. The current debate about school playing fields sees them as training grounds for Olympic athletes, instead of also the outdoor space every child should be free to enjoy every day, preferably with gardens and other beautiful and challenging activities.

Instead of universities ‘opening the life of the mind’ they might be spaces where everyone who wants to, in any discipline, can learn together about the embodied good life on earth and how to promote it.

 

By Sam, on 20 August 2012 - 02:10 |

An interesting article - thanks for posting. I have a few questions/comments, though.

Near the end, in your discussion of the idea of disabled persons, you bring up Peter Singer and other bioethicists who “maintain that there is a minority whose lack of genetically determined cognitive skills means their human status is questionable and euthanasia justifiable, ... because the theologians once maintained that there are reprobate “monsters” whose “seminally” determined lack of a rational religion meant that they were not in grace and (in Bunyan’s words) “must perish for their unreasonableness.”

From what little I do know of Singer’s work, this seems like an unfair characterization. Namely, the emphasis he puts on personhood, rather than humanity, and then his attitudes towards euthanasia, which are extremely complex. Obviously, I understand the limitations of a short essay, but on top of that, to say that his arguments are merely the legacy of the historical argument for grace and honour seems to forget all of the thought Singer has put into his arguments.

I’d also love some clarification about your comment ” It [intelligence] entitles you, as a somebody with more of it, to talk first (and down) to the ordinary nobody with less or none of it. And who would dare challenge the general consensus that the requirement of intellectual ability from the people who run things is for the good of society?”  Basically, I’m confused about whether you’re talking about intelligence, as defined by the modern educational system, or intelligence as an abstract concept. Because, generally, I don’t understand why you would ever challenge that general consensus; I do understand why you would challenge the notion that only people who went to Ivy League schools or private academies were intelligent. The indigenous elder who can’t read or write has intelligence, just a different kind or perspective or whatever you want to call it. They, and others who don’t fit into the cookie-cutter definition of intelligent should be part of the people who run things. And maybe, you’re saying that intelligence can mean a lot of different things makes it an empty idea, but regardless, I’m not sure I understand what ‘intelligence’ you are talking about. 

I hope that makes sense! Thanks again for the essay.

By Chris Goodey, on 21 August 2012 - 10:01 |

Sam, thanks for your interest. A single post of mine didn’t deal with the issues adequately, nor will this reply. For that you need to look at the argument as developed at length in my book (see footnote 1)  - if you don’t have access to an academic library, there will I believe be other ways of accessing it. I discuss Singer there.

Just to say for the moment: his attitudes to euthanasia are not that complex. The only complicated bit is that we don’t know how seriously he means them (when charged with being a fascist he tends to say it’s just a philosopher’s hypothesis). Otherwise his position, though he thinks it’s novel, is exactly that which John Locke offered in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding which, 300 years ago, kick-started the modern psychological project.  The argument for elimination on “intellectual” grounds is now, with modern technology, mainstreamed in the form of pre-natal testing - it’s only euthanasia for living humans that appears provocative and different.

As for your second question, it does make sense and requires clarification. Again, see C.F.Goodey “A History of Intelligence” etc. I’m a historian of ideas, not a professional sceptic. I do disassemble “intelligence” (and its earlier manifestations, “reason,” “wit,” etc.) but it’s not an EMPTY idea, it’s simply one whose definition doesn’t transcend historical boundaries. What’s different about the modern era is that intelligence comes to define what it is to be human, thus gaining an aura of sanctity which it inherited from “honour” and “grace” - quite different from the mundane concept of “wit” that preceded it. I would split the idea into three:

(1) The psychometric definition. Here, intelligence is whatever the tester says it is for the purposes of a particular test. Hardly therefore a stable or scientific concept.

(2) The broader modern psychological definition, in which to be intelligent (and therefore to be fully human) is to have abilities in information-processing, logical reasoning, abstraction etc. Now this seems entirely reasonable - surely it transcends history and cultures? Well if you remember nothing else from our conversation, remember this: these “abilities” are historical (and therefore social) constructs. One doesn’t see them mentioned before the late middle ages. This was a period of massive expansion of early modern capitalism together with state and church administration, and required a new kind of administrative skill - basically filing, and hence mental filing - from a new clerical caste who developed precisely these abilities (which have since become presented to us as a “natural” human psychology of intelligence).

(3) Your indigenous elder. I’ll accept your point here - with the proviso that his relationship to modern Western intelligence is so loose as to be meaningless. That’s why disability plays such a significant role in my book. As human beings at the dawn of prehistory roamed around the Rift Valley, my guess is that they wouldn’t have defined or even noticed a separate group of ‘intellectually disabled’ people - to do that, they would have had to have modern minds. The same may go for “intelligent” people.

Hope this helps. 

By Dan Goodman, on 23 August 2012 - 22:33 |

Chris, thanks for your reply!

“CP and its forebears have taken the main constituents of intelligence to be information-processing, logical reasoning and abstraction, but these too are relatively modern and historically contingent.”

Well I would agree that the ability to process information is certainly part of ‘intelligence’ however it’s defined, but it’s almost so wide as to be meaningless. Here, by ‘intelligence’ I just mean something like animal behaviour rather than plant behaviour, or something like that. Just things like: recognising visual objects, sounds, smells, etc. I don’t think you can really say that the importance of this sort of sensory processing is modern or historically contingent, and this sort of thing is a major part of CP. Of course, some people can’t see/hear, and that doesn’t make them less ‘intelligent’ (in the sense of more/less intelligent), but still seeing/hearing is a part of ‘intelligence’ (in the sense of animal versus plant behaviour say).

Once you get into language and ‘reasoning’ things get a bit murkier, of course.

“... it exposes the fact that exam qualifications are basically a quota system for preserving status, as Bourdieu once suggested”

Sadly, I agree. I find your alternative vision of what universities could be to be very compelling. It’ll be a long road before such a change happens. Do you think it can be done without revolutionary change in society? My feeling is no, but some steps in that direction might be possible.

By Peter Joseph, on 24 August 2012 - 03:17 |

For children, this would require the abolition of private, selective, and segregated (special needs) schools.”
I cannot envision how this would be better for the children. If what you advise was done I imagine a classroom with 25 kids and one teacher. The teacher is teaching the children math. A couple of the children would be given the label of moderately to severely mentally retarded if given an IQ test. Due to their brain development being genetically retarded they are not able to keep up with the rest of the class just as someone born without legs would not be able to keep up in a foot-raise unassisted. 

 “It would mean a single accreditation system, for those skills where accreditation seems necessary, that covers the apprentice plumber along with the rocket scientist.”

 Isn’t the current single accreditation system for rocket scientist graduate school?  Let us take the skill set for an historian as an example seeing that is your area of expertise. How would you propose historians become accredited? Would it be a test of ones knowledge of history that is scored by other historians who are already accredited themselves? 

 “And it would mean having people with learning disabilities around, of whatever level of “severity,” since they must be assumed to have the same aspiration to learn as anyone else.”

By this logic would you arguing that a severely mentally retarded human should be able to attend medical classes at Harvard Medical school based only on if they aspire to learn about medicine? How about the chimp that has learned sign language, if they indicate an aspiration to learn about medicine would you argue for their access as well? 
 

By chris , on 24 August 2012 - 11:35 |

Dan: yes, “murky” is the word. And yes, I would make the separation that you do: between sensory processing and perception that are embedded in nature and overlap with animal behaviour, and things like “abstraction” and “logical reasoning” that are historically provisional (see the more concrete historical detail provided in my reply to Sam). At their late medieval onset and conceptualisation, these latter abilities were denied in the majority of the majority of the population (non-gentry, women of all social classes), who were typically regarded as monstrous and only quasi-human. It is only with the rise of meritocracy that this denial has become restricted to a more recently conceptualised, pathologically separate “intellectually disabled” population - and even to these, sensory processing and perception are not usually denied. As usual, it is the historical construction of this latter population that is key to understanding the historical place of “intelligence” and what it means for the rest of us. It is cutting these people out of one’s picture of what it is to be human, a priori (like Peter Joseph above), that enables one to be intelligent and to post unanswerably clever comments. However, the odds are that like most us, at some stage in his life his declining mental capacities will put him beyond ethical consideration as a human being. Let’s wish him the best of luck when he gets to his old people’s home.

Chris 

By Peter Joseph, on 25 August 2012 - 16:38 |

“It is cutting these people out of one’s picture of what it is to be human, a priori (like Peter Joseph above), that enables one to be intelligent and to post unanswerably clever comments. However, the odds are that like most us, at some stage in his life his declining mental capacities will put him beyond ethical consideration as a human being. Let’s wish him the best of luck when he gets to his old people’s home.”

Chris, I highly doubt that my inquires are so adroit that you must resort to ad hominems. If clarification is required I would be more than happy. 

By Sam, on 28 August 2012 - 01:29 |

Chris, 

I’ll try to find your book online and get a better sense of Singer and your thoughts in general, so thanks for the recommendation.

I understand your point about the idea that intelligence is a social construct, and the idea that it didn’t show up before the medieval ages, but does that mean that just the ‘broader psychological definition’ that you mention in your response is a modern construct or that the qualities in people that that definition is connected to didn’t exist before that definition did? This isn’t a great way to explain it, and I’ve forgotten most of my philosophy of language, but let me try to give an example that, while imperfect, gets as my question. Gravity, or any of a variety of other ideas, didn’t “exist” until Newton or someone else ‘discovered’ it, but it’d be inappropriate to say that gravity didn’t function before then. It merely had yet to be defined. 

So, in the intelligence example, aren’t there many examples of ‘intelligence’ as you described it in (2) information -gathering and processing, etc. before the medieval definition existed? I’d say, hunter-gatherers, the invention of fire, and countless other acts all fit the definition, even if it didn’t exist yet.

Our society certainly has a streak of marginalizing those who don’t meet traditional notions of ‘intelligence’ (which I think is your point? Maybe that it’s more than just a streak, but same idea), which, since those definitions are fluid and a product of society, makes that marginalization unfair. Do you think it’s possible that society could say that there are differences between people with regards to learning: speeds, styles, etc., but that those differences don’t make one or the other better? I don’t know if I’m being naive, but I’d like to think that you could have difference schools, different classrooms that work to each student’s advantage without the idea that one is better than the other. “seperate, but equal” comes to mind, obviously, so I want to be careful (and I certainly don’t have your background in disability or education, so don’t hold me to anything,) but, while I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon given where our society is, it doesn’t seem like a terrible solution to me.

By Sam, on 01 September 2012 - 03:52 |

Chris,

You might find this article interesting:

http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/08/31/massive-open-courses-arent-answer-reducing-higher-ed-inequality-essay

By Aaron Johannes, on 03 September 2012 - 08:54 |

This is a fascinating article and a great discussion.  I do recommend Chris’ book as the word count here makes the information he delivers there rather poetically more workmanlike here.  I think one of the ideas that gets left behind is not that we must make room for people with different intelligences, which the systems we’ve put in place might classify as “lesser,” but that we are diminished and reduced by their absence.  I was stuck by David’s comment, “For example, I think it is useful to be able to ask a question like ‘Would it be intelligent for humankind to so damage its own habitat that it won’t be fit for our children and grand-children?’ In this context, acting intelligently would be highly desirable! But of course what is desirable is now just a question of intelligence but also a question of values, or put more strongly, of moral purpose,” and how in the end he perhaps answers his own question.  As a long time supporter of people with disabilities I don’t want to suggest that they are all possessed of some moral superiority, but I’m always fascinated by their ability to slow down the reasoning processes and contextualise the possible outcomes.  And it interests me a great deal to think what my education and life might have been like had those people been present in my classes, and had we found ways to incorporate their needs and their strengths. 

Tanya Titchkovsky has created a body of critical work based not least on the idea that people with differences give us the opportunity of a lens through which we can examine our culture.  I think this idea that what is thought of as measurable, currently intelligence, was once different is a great place to begin look more critically at education…  I recently returned to graduate school after 30 years and am amazed at the differences in expectations and the kind of commodification that has crept in…  Many of my new colleagues wouldn’t have lasted a day in my classes of 30 years ago because they can’t seem to think critically, but they know how to say what they need to say to get them what they want.  This is a skill that many of my friends with disabilities do not have, but I don’t think they’d envy it, and neither do I. 

Thanks for a great article.

By chris , on 04 September 2012 - 11:28 |

Thanks for these comments - not a routine thanks, since anything that makes me think again is helpful. 

Peter, this was not so much an ad hominem, as an attempt to provoke you into suspecting that there might be limits to your existing knowledge - which is not far from the scientific method that you would probably endorse.  You could have imagined instead a classroom with the entire range of humanity in it and a teacher preparing a differentiated lesson for all (and additional support staff as and when). There are schools where this is normal, and there is a range of literature on inclusive education that would tell you about it. Why did your mind jump instead straight to that imaginary picture of yours? It is part of scientific mind to reflect on precisely this kind of question.

Your other question is already covered in the article. No, I would not let a chimp or an unqualified human being operate on me, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t let them near my central heating system or have them cut my hair. I made an admittedly crude distinction in the article between the type of accreditation needed for these sort of things and the criteria that people in the humanities use to judge each other. There are historians of repute who don’t have university qualifications. 

It’s in the nature of blogging that I don’t really know who you are. If you are a no-nonsense man who has already made up your mind that anything outside biology (of a Dawkins type) is airy-fairy pc stuff, please excuse the above comments as they will be of no use to you. If you have innocently strayed into a discussion which you had no previous idea of, then I hope you find some of it stimulating enough to think your way through, even if you come to a different conclusion from me.  

Sam, yes, I think I needed to be pushed back to the Rift Valley. I have avoided making any speculative attributions of psychological ability to historical actors this far back. I was simply raising the question of whether any group of “disabled” (other than physically, or perhaps not even then) would have had some separate social identity, or identity full stop. I will have to reutrn to this point. There is, however, half an answer to the your question of whether intelligence is like gravity. In the long-term history of physics, one account of why a dropped stone falls to earth at least gives way to another account of the same phenomenon. In the long-term history of psychology, one account of a phenomenon (“intelligence,” for example), while seeming to give way to another account of it, is always surreptitiously giving way to that of a different phenomenon entirely. Culture is itself the root of intelligence; it is not simply a  lens through which we are seeing refracted some otherwise stable component of human nature. Or is it?       

By Peter Joseph, on 17 September 2012 - 18:35 |

“Peter, this was not so much an ad hominem, as an attempt to provoke you into suspecting that there might be limits to your existing knowledge - which is not far from the scientific method that you would probably endorse.”
Chris, your provocations are not unwelcomed, but you can be rest assured that I have long questioned the limits of my knowledge as any reader of Plato hopefully would. I would highly encourage you to question your own thinking and to investigate the existence of cognitive bias(i.e. Dunning-Kruger effect) within it.
 “You could have imagined instead a classroom with the entire range of humanity in it and a teacher preparing a differentiated lesson for all (and additional support staff as and when). There are schools where this is normal, and there is a range of literature on inclusive education that would tell you about it.”
Although such notions may be delightful to imagine I find them wholly preposterous. One teacher preparing a differentiated lesson for 20, 30, 40 students whose learning abilities range, in conventional terms, from genius to severely mentally retarded is not possible. If such schools do exist please do provide me an example of one, so I can learn how this, in practice, is done. A classroom with 30 students and 30 or slightly less tutors now that would allow for each student to receive a differentiated lesson, but this does not occur due to the costs involved and thus such one-on-one tutoring is often limited only to the wealthy who can personally afford such costs. Chris, you may find this article interesting, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/magazine/how-computerized-tutors-are-learning-to-teach-humans.html?pagewanted=all which, covers a possible technological solution to this problem. 
“Your other question is already covered in the article. No, I would not let a chimp or an unqualified human being operate on me, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t let them near my central heating system or have them cut my hair. I made an admittedly crude distinction in the article between the type of accreditation needed for these sort of things and the criteria that people in the humanities use to judge each other. There are historians of repute who don’t have university qualifications.”
Chris, I made no inquiry into if you would “let a chimp or an unqualified human being operate on me, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t let them near my central heating system or have them cut my hair.”. I will restate my questions for you 1) Explain in some level of detail what the accreditation process would be for a rocket scientist, surgeon, historian, etc. Otherwise your assertions are no better than the political who claims to have a plan to balance the budget, but refuses to provide the details of such a plan for critical examination 2) When you stated, “And it would mean having people with learning disabilities around, of whatever level of “severity,” since they must be assumed to have the same aspiration to learn as anyone else.”, are you arguing that the only requirement for admission into an institution of higher education, such as Harvard Medical school, is an aspiration to learn? If not, how is it to be decided who is allowed access to such places of learning?
“It’s in the nature of blogging that I don’t really know who you are. If you are a no-nonsense man who has already made up your mind that anything outside biology (of a Dawkins type) is airy-fairy pc stuff, please excuse the above comments as they will be of no use to you. If you have innocently strayed into a discussion which you had no previous idea of, then I hope you find some of it stimulating enough to think your way through, even if you come to a different conclusion from me.”  
Please don’t presuppose my thinking, for it may allow you to learn something that you would otherwise be closed too.

By Peter Joseph, on 20 September 2012 - 05:14 |

Not the best formatting options, so let me repost. 

1)“Peter, this was not so much an ad hominem, as an attempt to provoke you into suspecting that there might be limits to your existing knowledge - which is not far from the scientific method that you would probably endorse.”

       Chris, your provocations are not unwelcomed, but you can be rest assured that I have long questioned the limits of my knowledge as any reader of Plato hopefully would. I would highly encourage you to question your own thinking and to investigate the existence of cognitive bias(i.e. Dunning-Kruger effect) within it.


 2)“You could have imagined instead a classroom with the entire range of humanity in it and a teacher preparing a differentiated lesson for all (and additional support staff as and when). There are schools where this is normal, and there is a range of literature on inclusive education that would tell you about it.”

          Although such notions may be delightful to imagine I find them wholly preposterous. One teacher preparing a differentiated lesson for 20, 30, 40 students whose learning abilities range, in conventional terms, from genius to severely mentally retarded is not possible. If such schools do exist please do provide me an example of one, so I can learn how this, in practice, is done. A classroom with 30 students and 30 or slightly less tutors now that would allow for each student to receive a differentiated lesson, but this does not occur due to the costs involved and thus such one-on-one tutoring is often limited only to the wealthy who can personally afford such costs. Chris, you may find this article interesting, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/magazine/how-computerized-tutors-are-learning-to-teach-humans.html?pagewanted=all which, covers a possible technological solution to this problem. 


3)“Your other question is already covered in the article. No, I would not let a chimp or an unqualified human being operate on me, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t let them near my central heating system or have them cut my hair. I made an admittedly crude distinction in the article between the type of accreditation needed for these sort of things and the criteria that people in the humanities use to judge each other. There are historians of repute who don’t have university qualifications.”

          Chris, I made no inquiry into if you would “let a chimp or an unqualified human being operate on me, for the same reasons that I wouldn’t let them near my central heating system or have them cut my hair.”. I will restate my questions for you 1) Explain in some level of detail what the accreditation process would be for a rocket scientist, surgeon, historian, etc. Otherwise your assertions are no better than the political who claims to have a plan to balance the budget, but refuses to provide the details of such a plan for critical examination 2) When you stated, “And it would mean having people with learning disabilities around, of whatever level of “severity,” since they must be assumed to have the same aspiration to learn as anyone else.”, are you arguing that the only requirement for admission into an institution of higher education, such as Harvard Medical school, is an aspiration to learn? If not, how is it to be decided who is allowed access to such places of learning?


4)“It’s in the nature of blogging that I don’t really know who you are. If you are a no-nonsense man who has already made up your mind that anything outside biology (of a Dawkins type) is airy-fairy pc stuff, please excuse the above comments as they will be of no use to you. If you have innocently strayed into a discussion which you had no previous idea of, then I hope you find some of it stimulating enough to think your way through, even if you come to a different conclusion from me.”  

        Please don’t presuppose my thinking, for it may allow you to learn something that you would otherwise be closed too.

By Michael Rosen, on 13 October 2012 - 15:12 |

Part of the problem about ‘intelligence’ is that embedded in the way we think of it is the testing required in order to ‘find’ it, or judge it. That’s to say ‘intelligence’ is pre-defined as that thing you can a) find in one person and b) give a mark to. 

Really? Does anyone in the known world express a skill, an ability, a capability or even a recognizable potential on their own, derived from themselves and no one else? I would suggest that that is impossible, or better still, ‘humanly impossible’. So, ‘intelligence’ is not only a ‘social construct’, but also, whatever way we think of our human abilities they are always socially expressed and socially derived. 

Our particular model of schooling (age-ranked, competitive, individualistic) requires the category ‘intelligence’ in order to underpin itself ideologically. However, the moment we get into life beyond or outside of school, we carry on expressing our abilities and capabilities (or they are being repressed and exploited) in social forms - who we live with, work with, play with etc. 

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