Education Commentary

How Should We Think About Intelligence?

By Mike Rose — September 21, 2004 7 min read
We tend to undervalue, or miss entirely, the many displays of what the mind does every day, all the time, right under our noses.

We live in a time of much talk about intelligence. Yet, we operate with a fairly restricted notion of what that term means, one identified with the verbal and quantitative measures of the schoolhouse and the IQ test. And even though scholars like Howard Gardner and Robert J. Sternberg have helped us broaden our understanding of intelligence—with concepts such as multiple intelligences and practical intelligence—we tend to undervalue, or miss entirely, the many displays of what the mind does every day, all the time, right under our noses.

I have just finished a long study of the thought it takes to do blue-collar and service work, welding to waitressing, and it has left me not only with a heightened respect for the intellectual content of such work, but also with a concern about the way we tend to judge people’s intelligence by the work they do.

Consider the number of distinctions we readily make about work that carry with them powerful implications about both the work and the worker. These distinctions are usually expressed as binaries, as opposites: brain vs. hand, mental vs. manual, intellectual vs. practical, pure vs. applied, neck-up vs. neck-down. All this is intensified in our high-tech era, and, to be sure, high technology and “symbolic analysis” typically involve advanced formal education and require high levels of analytic skill. What worries me is the way we celebrate the play of mind in such work but diminish, even erase, it in other kinds of work, physical and service work, particularly. In our schools and industries as well as in our informal talk, we tend to label entire categories of work and the people associated with them in ways that generalize, erase cognitive variability, and diminish whole traditions of human activity.

One of the most unfortunate of these dichotomies, particularly in the lives of young people, has been the distinction between the academic and the vocational. This distinction characterized the high school curriculum for much of the past century and has defined entire courses of study. Though it has been the focus of significant reform over the past two decades, vocational education—and, more generally, the divide between the academic and the vocational curriculum—has been one of the most longstanding and visible institutional manifestations of our culture’s beliefs about hand and brain, mind and work.

It is the academic curriculum, not the vocational, that has gotten identified as the place where intelligence is manifest. Such separation plays out on the ground, in the way school people talk, in the formal and informal terms and categories they use. Thus a language of abstraction, smarts, big ideas surrounds the academic course of study, which is symbolically, structurally, and often geographically on the other side of the campus from the domain of the manual, the concrete, the practical, the gritty.

The reforms aimed at bridging the academic-vocational divide—many spurred by the federal Perkins Act—have led to a range of solutions. Yet, any reform movement produces widely varied results. Many efforts are little more than minor adjustments to the status quo. But some efforts are ambitious, involving a cross section of a school’s faculty over many months in developing a curriculum that integrates academic and vocational material. And in a few cases, a visionary faculty uses voc. ed. reform as the occasion to reimagine the very structure of high school itself and with it the academic-vocational divide.

Unfortunately, such innovation is rare. Intellectual enrichment, when it occurs, is typically achieved by beefing up the vocational side of things with traditional academic content and courses. As a practical matter, this makes sense; one of the goals of the reforms is to render more students eligible for college, so they need to have the prerequisite academic courses. But conceptually, such practice doesn’t move us much beyond the narrow definitions of knowledge that separate hand from brain. These biases about mind and work— which have so influenced schooling—are infrequently raised in reform deliberations. Thus, as the education scholar Theodore Lewis puts it, vocational knowledge is not perceived as valid school knowledge. I believe that this bias will continue to limit a creative rethinking of the academic- vocational divide.

These reductive and limiting ways of thinking about intelligence also affect job training and the way work is organized, even in a time when some industries are trying to restructure and give more responsibility to front-line workers.

Consider the following example, provided by the literacy researcher Glynda Hull and her associates. They spent several years investigating the production of computer circuit boards in a high- tech workplace in California’s Silicon Valley. What they found was that although the front-line assemblers were expected to be literate and analytical, the managerial structure of the factory and assumptions by managers about the mental capacity of the assemblers all contributed to a restricted development of literacy skill among the workers. Ms. Hull’s cautionary tale reminds us that even at a time of much talk about occupational change—and on the part of some, a real desire for it—there remain in effect powerful beliefs about mind and work that sabotage reform and constrain human potential.

Economic and educational opportunity is typically defined in terms of slots, positions, openings, or, more generally, by the absence of structural barriers to advancement. Just so. Such definitions have been used by the courts to force opportunity where little opportunity existed. But there is another dimension to opportunity, not as obvious, less verifiable, but exceedingly important. As we just saw, it has to do with beliefs about intelligence.

I am not diminishing the kinds of ability that have increasingly formed the core of our century’s conception of intelligence, for they clearly enable extraordinary achievement. Rather, I want us to consider other spaces in the picture of human cognition and the effect our partial perception has on the way we think about mind, school, and work.

How should we think about intelligence, particularly in a democratic society? Whatever the basic neurochemical mechanisms of cognition are, most psychologists would agree that the way intelligence is defined and manifested is culture-bound, affected by historical and social circumstances. So it becomes a legitimate act for a culture to ponder its ideas about intelligence: What do our ideas enable or restrict in education, in the economy, in social life? And how do our ideas map onto our foundational beliefs about the person?

As an ideal, democracy assumes the capacity of the common person to learn, to think independently, to decide thoughtfully. The emergence of this belief marks a key juncture in Western political philosophy, and such belief is central to the way we in the United States, during our best moments, define ourselves as citizens. Our major philosophical and educational thinkers— Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey—have affirmed this potential among us, our intelligence as a people.

If we in some ways constrict the full range of everyday cognition, then we will develop limited educated programs and fail to make fresh and meaningful instructional connections.

The models and language we use have social consequences, a point worth pondering at this historical moment, as we undergo transformations in the workplace, as we struggle to provide a quality education for all. Of course, matters of the economy and of education are affected by a number of forces, but the beliefs we carry about people figure into both the development and implementation of policy. If we believe common work to be mindless, that belief will affect the work we create in the future. If we don’t appreciate, if we in some ways constrict, the full range of everyday cognition, then we will develop limited educational programs and fail to make fresh and meaningful instructional connections among disparate kinds of skill and knowledge. If we think that whole categories of people—identified by class, by occupation—are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across our current cultural divides.

To affirm our capacity as a people is not to deny the obvious variability among us. Nor is it to retreat to some softhearted notion of mind. We mistake narrowness for rigor, but actually we are not rigorous enough. To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously. Not as a neat binary distinction or as slots along a simplified cognitive continuum, but as a bountiful and layered field, where many processes and domains of knowledge interact. Such a model demands more, not less, from those of us who teach, or who organize work, or who develop social policy. To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the workshop and in the classroom. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination.