Excerpt: Susan Engel's 'Red Flags or Red Herrings?: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become'


Years ago, psychologist Robert Sternberg set out to learn what ordinary people think about intelligence. He sent his students at Yale out into the streets of New Haven to ask passersby what they thought were the essential characteristics that make someone intelligent. In particular, he wanted to know if people from different walks of life would agree or disagree about the qualities that make up smartness. It turned out that almost everyone found it easy to answer the question. To a great extent, at least within our culture, people tended to agree.

Whether we are highly educated or not, whether we work in offices or factories, almost all of us feel, even if we don't admit it, that we know whether someone is smart or not soon after meeting him or her. On what do we base this? We look for humor, savvy, verbal skill, competence within a domain, and a general air of "quickness." And as it turns out, our collective intuition about who is smart, and why, falls for the most part right in line with what psychological research has to say on the topic.

Herbert Crovitz, a social psychologist at Princeton University in the 1960s, used to tell his students, "Theories do two things: they account for the data, and they make people happy." As it turns out, theories of intelligence do one or the other but usually not both. And in the past two decades, theories that make people happy have gained some ground over theories that best account for the data. Many people in our society resist thinking of intelligence as a narrow, quantifiable characteristic. They find the traditional view of intelligence, conveyed by IQ tests, to be too restrictive. In my psychology classes at Williams, few students will say openly that intelligence is the ability to do math and comprehend texts, the very abilities that got them into a college like Williams. They worry that such a definition is elitist and are quick to point out that one can be intelligent in many ways. My students are like many across the country who are drawn to the idea that being "book smart" is only one way to be intelligent.

Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard University, provided an alluring alternative to traditional views of intelligence when he published Frames of Mind in 1984. In it, he railed against the narrow-minded idea that the full range of people's mental acuity could be measured by something as academic as a traditional IQ test. He argued that there are not one but seven kinds of intelligence (logico-mathematical, spatial, verbal, musical, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal) and that there are a range of ways to express intelligence. A child who is wonderful at dance but has a small vocabulary and trouble with numbers would be considered to have high bodily kinesthetic intelligence but low logico-mathematical and verbal intelligence.

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