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Thursday, November 24, 2011

What does it mean to be intelligent?

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?


Navin said...

Dear Sir,

it is a wonderful post. Thanks to Amit for asking this question and I could not agree with you more on this.

Thanks for a wonderful post


Amit parag said...

Thanks for the answer,Sir.

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
While explaining the meaning of a comprehension passage, where the author was not interested in seeing a flower through a microscope because that destroys its beauty, you had explained the concept of analytic and synthetic beauty. Does it take two different kinds of intelligence to perceive the two?

Thanks and with regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I think so, Sayantika. Most people have one or the other, or at least the two faculties in vastly disproportionate measure. My heroes, however, have been those who could do both almost equally well at the same time: the Einstein, Tagore, Goethe and Asimov types.

Shilpi said...

This really is an illuminating post. I've been reading it and thinking about it for a week. I have a couple of questions but I have to share a couple of stories that came to my head.

1. That whole thing about intelligence and exams reminded me of a little news snippet I'd read probably a decade and a half ago or more. A young man had been forever interested in joining the police force in the UK (I forget whether it was in England or Wales), and so he took the exams when it was time. He didn't make the cut and was appalled and utterly broken up about it. I don't remember how the following bit came to light but a superior officer actually let the press know, "He was much too intelligent."

2. And Guha told me once that his dad (who's a retired civil servant himself) had laughed and told him one day, 'Brilliant people never get through the civil service exams. They don't want brilliant people in the civil services. They want somewhat literate people, who can read and write a bit more than the low average, and ones who can follow orders well.'

3. I don't know why you said that bit about it being paradoxical though. If highly intelligent people have emotional intelligence as well then they can put themselves in the place of less unfortunate others, I would think, for the most part.

4. Whatever else I expected I didn't expect the link to lead to 'spiritual intelligence'. That really is one unusual addition to 'intelligence', I'd think. But that aspect of quantifying and measuring it seems to me to be rather silly.

5. The beauty and intelligence bit made me think of something a little disconnected but reminded me of that review of yours on Blink and this book that I did read called Gut Instincts. I wonder whether humans are more likely to find beautiful people more intelligent at least for a little while longer than usual, even if they don't really have much intelligence. I sometimes think it's somewhat likely.

6. And the one other thing I was reminded about is a couple of comments from a while ago. Sumitha had remarked on this bit. That a nitwit had said 'imagination can't be counted as intelligence.' And you'd said something about, 'stupid people who don't even know that they're stupid.' I have often wondered whether the appreciation for poetry and stories and great fiction seem to come out of some sensibility other than intelligence! Not even the ability to write them but just the ability to appreciate such things.

7. I never quite saw playing scrabble as being a mechanical sort of intelligence. I always thought it had something to do with knowing lots of words. Makes me feel better actually. I almost always lost.

That's all for now. Oh, and the wit and humour bit is yet another thing I'd never have considered as being a part of intelligence. It makes sense though.

Thanks a lot for writing this one.


Shilpi said...

Oops, sorry. I meant 'less fortunate'. And I know I've made the same mistake before!

Sayan Roy said...

I remember reading two books on intelligence tests by Ajay Rai(I do not remember the exact spelling of his name) and Eysenck,which used to be there under the table in the room where we attended our classes.I raised a question about their utilities once,to which you rapidly answered,"These types of tests are abundant in exams like CAT,MAT,XAT,SAT,..any AT!Take the tests as timed,not at any time you like and you will do fine." I later understood that you meant to highlight one of the biggest drawbacks of I.Q. tests.It has been proved experimentally that practising similar tests makes any one of otherwise average intelligence adept at taking the actual tests,thus tipping the scales of unbiasedness in favour of them.I read in one of those books that 'intelligence',in the primary sense of the word, means the responsiveness and the alacrity with which one can adapt him/herself to the various changes of his/her surroundings and of nature(my words,not a quote).I find this "definition" quite a bit more general in its scope than those specific parameters like,spatial ability,numerical ability,geometric sense,etc.
We may have noticed how the perception of intelligence have other ignominious forms.A person is sometimes considered "intelligent" if s/he can stab others in the back and come out unscathed in the proverbial "rat-race" of life whereas you might be labelled silly and "impractical" if you stop by and stoop down to care for someone who fell behind.So,sensitivity of mind is something which,I fear,is not being encouraged even by parents to their children.(Who would THEY say was an intelligent person:Caesar or Cassius?)
As Shilpi-di remarked earlier,I too feel that appreciation of any form of art or creation,be it literary or scientific or technical,reflects some sort of sensitive and mature mind.There might have been many bright and "intelligent" mathematicians during Ramanujan's time,both in India and abroad,but it took the likes of men like G.H. Hardy to recognise his potential. Where would Alfred Binet,on his intelligence scale,rate persons like,Steven Spielberg and Bertrand Russell?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Those tests are meant for very average types, Sayan. When they try to measure genius, they go as wildly wrong as a compass at the poles!

santanu Chatterjee said...

The passage made for an interesting reading. I liked the way you have disected the idea of intelligence. Also i agree with the fact that wit and an appreciation of humour must be part of intelligence. In fact, recently Khushwant Singh in an interview said "If you cannot dazzle them with your wit/Bamboozle them with your bull****" .i am told that in order to get quick promotion in most government jobs, the first criteria is that you should not be intelligent. Also here i must mention that at a personal scale, i value diligence much more than intelligence. It may be simply because i envy them. But don't you think that intelligence also has something to do with a person's knowledge and experience? Now it should be noted that i am not saying that all knowledgeable people are intelligent. Also what about common sense. Will you put it at par with intelligence? Someone had told me in my childhood - cannot remember who - that "Common sense is the most uncommon thing in the world".