Phillipian Commentary: The Significance of Intelligence

You are smart. Say it out loud to yourself. It feels good to hear, especially at Andover, where we value ourselves and each other based on our perceived intelligence. But rarely do we stop to interrogate this metric. Many of us who strive for the validation of being considered smart don’t even have a clear understanding of what ‘smart’ means. And we almost never consider whether being smart is a good thing to strive for. We should not base our worth off of how smart we think we are.

Intelligence is extremely difficult to quantify. Flawed tests like the IQ and SAT are better at measuring race[a][b] and socioeconomic status than actual intelligence.[c] Because these tests measure smarts through concrete skills and knowledge, kids who grow up with educated parents and plentiful resources are always more successful on these tests. According to the Atlantic, “There is no such thing as a direct test of general mental ability. What IQ tests measure directly is the test-taker’s display of particular cognitive skills: size of vocabulary, degree of reading comprehension, facility with analogies, and so on.” For other forms of intelligence, like emotional, linguistic, and bodily-kinesthetic, the tests don’t even exist. [d]

In many ways, intelligence is meaningless. Smart people are not happier; in fact, in aggregate, they are much sadder.[e][f][g] A recent study showed that over 20 percent of Mensa members had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Intelligence doesn’t correlate with monetary success, either. [h]People who are financially successful share traits unrelated to having a “high level of intelligence” such as a strong work ethic, the ability to compartmentalize emotions, and a growth mindset. This is because intelligence alone is not enough. It can only lead to success when it is combined with many other traits.

The Andover admissions process selects for several different forms of intelligence. The SSAT scores of new incoming students are, on average, over the ninetieth percentile[i]. It takes powerful emotional intelligence to thrive in a dorm. The sports requirement rewards those with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Nearly every aspect of life here rewards varying forms of intelligence. This is purposeful–Andover promises to bring together the brightest youth from every corner. However, valuing intelligence, specifically classic intelligence, above all else reinforces a damaging belief system. [j]

Andover spends enormous amounts of money, time, and effort on having and celebrating diversity in all of its forms. There are programs to celebrate differences in race, gender, sexuality, and class at Andover. Yet we never work on improving our empathy and understanding of the difference in intelligence. It makes sense that diversity of intelligence is rare at Andover. The school’s mission is to support smart students who are looking for a more supportive school environment. But we can find a way to have respect for people with lower intelligence without having them be a major part of the Andover population. At Andover, it’s almost always assumed that smarter is superior and that everyone who is successful is smart.

This belief creates two separate categories of problems. It decreases our capacity to respect and appreciate all people, regardless of intelligence, making us more thoughtless and arrogant. It also reinforces impostor syndrome and low self-confidence surrounding intelligence. When people feel like “smart” is better, their self esteem and feelings of self-worth drop when they don’t feel smart. Our lack of discussion about the insignificance of intelligence encourages superiority complexes and self-aggrandizing.

Bias against those who we perceive as having a lower intelligence also reinforces negative stereotypes towards other marginalized groups. Through our years living in a heavily biased society, it is impossible not to internalize false connections between race, gender, socio-economic class, ability, and intelligence. When we believe that lower intelligence is inherently inferior, our internalized biases against other marginalized groups are strengthened.

We need to take action as an institution and a community to combat this unspoken bias on our campus. It should be fought at the institutional level, through clubs, speakers, class discussions, and administrative support. But it also must be fought daily, on an individual level. We must stop celebrating this singular expression of intelligence; instead, we can recognize all forms of intelligence and the varied ways they influence us. We have to be more aware of how our choice of language in daily conversations either reinforces or deconstructs this bias. [k][l]Most importantly, we must all work to be aware of this bias when it appears within ourselves. We must identify it, whether it is directed towards ourselves or towards others, and recognize it as a detrimental belief.