An old boy recently wrote me a one-line email: ‘Sir, what does it mean to be intelligent?’ The best of my old boys are like that: they suddenly pop up with questions, not only because they are really keen to have an answer, but probably because they know I like people who make me think.
This is what I wrote back: “Ha! You could look up H.J. Eysenck’s books (such as Check your own IQ) for starters, I suppose. Then consider that many experts opine that there are different kinds of intelligence: someone who is great at chess could be hopeless in business, a physicist a dud in politics. Personally, I judge my pupils’ intelligence by how many times they have to be told the same things, how long they remember things they are told, how quickly they pick up hints and see connections between different things, how creative their imaginations are, how curious they are to know things ‘not in their syllabus’... things like that. As you well know, I don't call many people intelligent, and I see remarkably few really intelligent people among those who routinely ace their examinations.” I could have added that an intelligent pupil usually has a lot of questions to ask, and likes to argue every point – so intelligence can flourish only with encouragement from liberal minded, enthusiastic and intelligent teachers (parents importantly among them), especially in the early years!
I deliberately kept that reply short, but I do have a few things to add. First, that intelligence is a very interesting thing – most of civilization we owe to it. What is even more noteworthy about it is that all through history, hardly 10 per cent, or perhaps even less, of the human population could have ever been called intelligent by any yardstick (and I don’t care how ‘elitist’ this sounds – the same applies to other things, like for instance ‘beautiful’. These are facts: if you don’t like the way they are, quarrel with the Maker, don’t call your fellow men names out of frustration and spite!). Also, don’t ascribe worldly success to intelligence: statistically speaking, luck (including which parents you were born to), daring, diligence and ruthlessness, combined sometimes with some native skill which has found a lucrative market, like playing cricket in contemporary India, together play a far bigger role in your success than any intelligence you may possess – indeed, an excess of intelligence might be a serious liability in all sorts of worldly careers which require getting along with the herd and not noticing or bothering overmuch about all that is wrong and weird and stupid around you.
Intelligence sometimes makes you conceited, and helps to make enemies, so it is a good thing to temper it with modesty and quietness. However, whether or not an intelligent person is stuck up, it makes others jealous and spiteful, so it behoves the intelligent person to be careful unless s/he wants to be nailed to the cross, and reconcile to the fact that s/he will be lonely all through life, unless s/he is exceptionally lucky to have a few admiring friends. We hate clever people much more than any other type.
A lifetime of reading, observing and teaching at all levels has convinced me that academic merit has very little to do with intelligence, whether you are looking at the kindergarten level or at post-doc scholars. Learning, yes, sometimes, but not intelligence. Also, children are usually much smarter than adults are, and in that sense that chestnut which says ‘I was born intelligent, but education ruined me’ hits the nail absolutely on the head, especially given the kind of ‘education’ that has been drummed into people’s heads over the last two generations in this country and some others I could name. Which, of course, does not mean that any pinhead teenager who goes around with that legend on her t-shirt has a right to imagine that she should be identified as intelligent, mind you.
Some people of superlative intelligence are very narrowly focused, but I give highest marks to those who have a very wide diversity of interests and talents – the Leonardo and Tagore and Asimov types.
Emotional intelligence is not the same as being able to do complex math quickly in the head: it means being able to imaginatively understand and sympathize with other people’s plight and points of view, and even think up solutions for their problems (which are not usually of a ‘convergent’ nature, meaning the sort they ask you to tackle in most tests for entrance to engineering or business school) even if you have not personally shared in their experiences. In this sense, many an old-fashioned grandma is far more intelligent than her grandson who has just graduated from a top-flight technical college. Technical/mechanical intelligence – the sort that makes successful inventors, scrabble players and entrepreneurs – I believe, is not only far more common than that of the emotional type, but is getting dangerously too common in a world which maniacally undervalues the other type both in academia and in the job market. You cannot expect decent people, leave alone saints, to flourish in a world where plumbers (or software writers, or mannequins) are far more highly rewarded, and not just in terms of money. For instance, so many people whom I once knew cannot understand why I should forget them or become cool and aloof when they try to renew contact after a hiatus of many years… that’s the sort of lack of intelligence I am talking about, and all these people are more or less educated, even bright if you go by their examination scores.
In close connection with emotional intelligence comes the question of wit. And I must insist on this: although wit can be taken too far, a keen appreciation of humour is one very important sign of the kind of intelligence I value most – perhaps because it is so rare around me. Intelligent people, unless they are depressive, laugh a lot, make people laugh, don’t take themselves too seriously, and limit their aggression to verbal barbs (never, of course, stooping to abuse, which is anything but witty).
Intelligence (and talent) can flourish only in a milieu where they are actively identified and patronized. It is no wonder that certain brief periods in the history of many countries have been emblazoned with the apparently ‘sudden’ appearance of a great many men and women of the highest intelligence. India today would rank pretty low in terms of how she values the kind of people who make good writers, lawmakers, teachers, judges and saints. Next to being a highly intelligent man, it is best to be a man who respects and values intelligence, especially if you are in a position of some power, whether as a school headmaster or a tycoon or a cabinet minister. Best for the country, I mean.
Paradoxically, exceptionally intelligent men are often far more sympathetic to the slow and foolish than people of quite average intelligence are: read Maugham’s short story Salvatore, and Tagore’s Balai.
Finally, I must bear witness to the impression that the more this country drowns in solemn and self-important mediocrity, the less it wants to see intelligent people flourish.
Here is also a link to something that some of my readers might find interesting for further reading.
Have I done justice to your question now, Amit, in case you are reading? Any other question on the subject that I can try to answer, readers?