On Intelligence

Education is based on a simple idea: We want to make people smart. “Smart” is the general term that we use to describe an individual who has greater than usual cognitive skill and knowledge; public education is intended to ensure a minimal level of “smart” for each individual in our society. As we understand it, smart is approximately aligned with intelligence which is approximately aligned with the ability to solve problems that require literacy and numeracy as well as sufficient amounts of memory to apply those abilities later. These are characteristics of human capacity that are improved by what we describe as learning, and schools are intended to be institutions that increase cognitive abilities by providing learning experiences.

            Definitions of smart in the previous paragraph seems nebulous and unsatisfactory because they are; all of these concepts (smart, intelligent, thinking, numeracy, literacy, even memory and learning) are neither well-understood nor well-defined. When someone poses the question, “What makes someone smart?” the only reasonable response begins with the sentence, “Well, that depends on what you mean by smart,” and it becomes less certain after that.

            In his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould noted that mental capacity is important to humans, and—whatever it is—it is a uniquely human characteristic that has, in many and diverse forms, contributed to the development of our species. Alfred Binet, the scientist who began developing tests to measure intelligence in the early decades of the 20th century sought to use the tests as only one of many instruments to measure humans’ cognitive abilities. Gould summarized this, “the number is only an average of many performances, not an entity unto itself. Intelligence, Binet reminds us is not a single scalable thing like height” (p. 151).

            Binet’s original intent is contrasted with what general intelligence has become, and there is some irony in the observation that Binet’s name is associated with the test that that seek to reduce intelligence to a single number. Gould summarized our society’s understanding of intelligence, “We therefore give the word ‘intelligence’ to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves a dubious status as a unitary thing” (24).

            Once conceptualized, intelligence has captured educators’ attention in a singular way. The profession has sought more reliable and valid methods of measuring intelligence with increased objectivity. The idea that intelligence and the cognition that contributes to it can be clearly defined and measured has dominated schooling for generations. When I was in high school, I took the SAT to measure scholastic aptitude (I took the tests before the name changes). Today, we define curriculum standards, and use tests to measure the degree to which students have achieved those standards. The unchallenged and reified concept underlying all such attempts is the human cognition is a relatively stable feature of each individual that is improved through the effort of the individual.

            The unsatisfactory results of decades of effort in this area has not led to s systematic questioning of the basis premises that intelligence exists as conceived and can be reliably measured. A cynic may conclude that the current focus on standard and standardized tests to measure achievement are simply new embodiments of the testing that was bastardization of Binet’s concept and a practice the that has largely discredited by scientific communities.


Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man (1st ed). Norton.