Monday, April 06, 2020

Intelligence is More than Mere Knowing

It's in the nature of living to wake up each morning into the unknown. There is nothing like a worldwide pandemic lockdown to bring that truth into stark relief. Oh sure, there are things we already know — my spouse takes cream in her coffee, my kids won't eat cold oatmeal, E=mc² — but when it comes to applying our brains, to thinking, it is upon the unknown that we apply ourselves. I mean, we may appreciate the simple things, the routines, the familiar, the established facts of life, but if we're going to engage in intelligent thought, and we must or else expire of boredom and stupidity. It's the unknown that gets our attention.

What will today bring and what will we do about it? That is what stands at the center of our intellectual lives. It's what gives life relish. Astonishment, confusion, struggle, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, passion: this is the stuff of critical thought, of intelligence.

I have, for instance, been awaking each morning lately faced with the unknown of how I'm going to pay my bills. Up until a few weeks ago, I earned my living primarily as a public speaker, but now, in a flash, I find myself scrambling from sun up to sun down trying to figure out how to fill in that suddenly opened maw in my immediate economic prospects. And I'm not the only one. Every one of us is experiencing the emotions associated with intelligent thought, every single day as we piece together our new world. I'm not sure where we got the idea that critical thinking was a dry, cool, systematic endeavor but that's certainly not the truth.

No, contrary to the popular notions, the application of intelligence is a highly emotional, messy, confusing, stressful process: much more Captain Kirk than Mr. Spock.

One of the functions of schools is to measure intelligence, indeed an entire industry has sprung up around this notion, bringing forth our current era of standardized testing, complete with standardized curricula designed with those standard measures in mind, as if we hope to make all the sprouts grow into plants of exactly the same size. But this is nothing new. Schools were in the intelligence measuring game long before the advent of testing corporations, with their own tests and grades and report cards. Yet all they've ever sought to measure is what kids already know, which has nothing to do with intelligence. The kid with the quick hand and ready answer is judged to be the most intelligent by this process, downgrading the child who is engaged in the actual process of applying his intelligence. That is, to make something that is unknown into something that is known.

Our intelligence is called into play when confronted with the unknown. What are we going to do about it? How do we go about solving or understanding this? Confronting the unknown is necessarily an emotional experience and those feelings of astonishment, confusion, struggle, puzzlement, surprise, eagerness, anticipation, anxiety, excitement, and passion are the material of intelligent thought. Without that, we're left with mere knowing. It's the values and virtues of not knowing that are the real measures of intelligent thought.


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 

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