I have recently noticed the high frequency at which we casually ask the question “Is ze smart?” At a school where the diversity of students’ interests and intellects is vast and highly celebrated, it is surprising to hear a question that assumes such a narrow-minded view of intelligence. Although this inquiry oversimplifies the elusive concept of smartness, the way it is often answered serves to expose a variety of lurking biases.
A “yes” answer to “Is ze smart?” seems to privilege abilities in math and hard sciences. The answer to this question about a person whose talents lie outside STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is never as simple as, “yes.” Instead, this answer seems to require some sort of explanation: “Ze is good at art,” “Ze writes really well,” or “Ze is an amazing dancer.” What makes someone who excels in calculus require only a simple “yes” while someone who is an extraordinary artist necessitates an explanatory “Ze’s a good painter?”
This apparent need to justify the intelligence of those with intellectual abilities beyond a specific set of subjects is likely a facet of the intellectual hierarchy that got us to a school like Wesleyan in the first place. Currently, most colleges’ levels of exclusivity are partially based on one-dimensional measurements of intelligence: GPA, class rank, and test scores. Considering Wesleyan’s perceived status as an extremely exclusive university, it might seem appropriate to assume that all Wesleyan students are “smart,” because they presumably did exceptionally well in these areas. Yet perhaps this acceptance rate-based assumption of a “smart” student body is merely the reflection of this poor and biased intelligence classification system.
Additionally, the perpetual reliance on this hierarchy stems from a lack of alternative measurement systems. The hyper-competitive landscape of modern education requires a reliable methodology of relative evaluation. Because we haven’t yet accepted alternative systems for empirically evaluating multiple forms of intelligence, we are forced to rely on stigmas and antiquated conventional wisdom. Molecular biology & biochemistry or physics majors hold a different (higher) level of presumed intelligence than religion or dance majors. This automatic correlation we make between high intelligence and majoring in a subject that relies on logical and mathematical reasoning exemplifies the pervasiveness of these biased intellectual hierarchies.
However, alternative ways of classifying and defining intelligence do exist. For instance, psychologist Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences consisting of seven unique forms of intelligence: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. He defines intelligence as something requiring “the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community. The problem-solving skill allows one to approach a situation in which a goal is to be obtained and to locate the appropriate route to that goal.”
Gardner claims that each individual possesses a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses among these seven categories, a sort of intellectual fingerprint. This theory of multiple intelligences poses a less exclusive and more desirable approach to intelligence.
While most of us presumably believe that intelligence exists in many forms, our socialization has nonetheless instilled an unconscious bias toward relating intelligence with excellence in logic- and math-based disciplines. However, at a school that exalts a creative environment and celebrates intellectual diversity, the evaluation of people based on measurable “smarts” or quantifiable intelligence is unexpected at best and hypocritical at worst. If we truly value a community with diverse talents and unique intellectual capabilities, we need to actively promote a more progressive model of intelligence. Ultimately, the answer to the question “Is ze smart?” should never be as simple as “yes” or “no.”
Solomon is a member of the class of 2018.