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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: The equality of intelligence (37/50)

Nina Power is the latest contributor to our special series

Nina Power

Nina Power

The idea that intelligence is something that belongs to all is not a new idea. Plato, who elsewhere is hardly in favour of egalitarian forms of political organisation, famously demonstrated in The Meno the capacity of even the most ill-educated, a slave boy, to understand and work out mathematical solutions on the basis of nothing other than his own innate intelligence. As Socrates puts it: “This knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning. [The slave boy] will recover it for himself.”

However, we live in an age where we see a resurgence of the idea that some people are fundamentally less intelligent than others The spectre of racism and sexism haunts these supposedly neutral attempts to measure intelligence, as in Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s “bell curve” argument, currently the most cited argument in the entirety of the social sciences – precisely because it is wrong. Thus the contemporary axiom or assertion that everyone is equally intelligent is something of a revelation, for all its bluntness.

The work of Jacques Rancière, who never tires of repeating his assertion that equality is not just something to be fought for, but something to be presupposed, is, for me, one of the most important ideas of the past decade. Although Rancière begins the discussion of this idea in his 1987 text The Ignorant Schoolmaster, it is really only in the last ten years that others have taken up the idea and attempted to work out what it might mean for politics, art and philosophy. Equality may also be something one wishes for in a future to come, after fundamental shifts in the arrangement and order of society. But this is not Rancière’s point at all. Equality is not something to be achieved, but something to be presupposed, universally. Everyone is equally intelligent.

But what does the axiomatic assertion of the equality of intelligence mean? Surely not everyone is as capable as each other? Doesn’t Rancière’s claim fall to pieces when you look at differential exam scores, degree results and the entire way in which intelligence divides up and separates out humanity in general?

Rancière takes his cue from the maverick nineteenth-century French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, whose simple question was “[w]ere all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?” What this means is that, as Peter Hallward puts it, “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation. On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation – together with metaphors that distin¬guish students as slow or quick, or conceive of educational time in terms of progress, training, qualification, and so on – ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”

In principle then, there is no reason why a teacher is smarter than his or her student, or why educators shouldn’t be able to learn alongside pupils in a shared ignorance (coupled with the will to learn). The reason why we can relatively quickly understand complex arguments and formulae that have taken very clever people a long time to work out lends credence to Rancière’s insight that, at base, nothing is in principle impossible to understand and that everyone has the potential to understand anything.

For me, this idea renders teaching a joyful practice, far removed from the cynical approach that some pedagogues adopt, namely that there is the odd very good student and everyone else can go rot. The equality of intelligence is a concept at once philosophical and political: if everyone is equally intelligent, then why should we put up with being told how to think, or what to think about, by those with a vested interest in maintaining the hierarchies of the status quo?

Further reading
The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière (Verso, 2009)

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University and reviews editor for tpm

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28 comments for “Ideas of the century: The equality of intelligence (37/50)”

  1. There is a strategic problem for the Left in that equality is at odds with the known or reasonably believed facts about human nature - e.g. human genome project, empirical psychology (I agree the facts can be debated). To presuppose intellectual equality is thus to refuse to look at the facts. To rejoice in the “presupposition” is to choose to live in an aesthetic bubble and to call racism and sexism a “spectre” is just emotive language.

    Posted by Stephen | November 24, 2010, 9:54 am
  2. To my mind, the answer is that inequality presupposes a common measure and in addressing the common measure we are on the common high road of reason, even if not necessarily at the same place on it or travelling at the same speed.

    Posted by Stephen | November 24, 2010, 9:57 am
  3. And finally, it is the differences between people that make life interesting, so equality is questionable as an ideal, not just as a matter of fact. I do not agree with the way our universities try to exclude inegalitarian discourse on campus (”racism, “sexism”) to impose a trivialising uniformity: this is a political agenda at odds with free speech and genuine intellectual inquiry.

    Rant over.

    Posted by Stephen | November 24, 2010, 10:02 am
  4. It’s suggested that Plato (through the character of Socrates ) “demonstrated” that a child with no education, a simple slave, could intellectually rise above his lot through proper questioning. It makes for a good story, but do we know it really happened? If so, was the child arbitrarily picked, or was he chosen on the basis of some knowledge about him?
    The statement of Rancière that everyone has the potential to understand anything reminds me of something I mentioned before in TPM. My urologist once told me all men get prostate cancer if they live long enough. And those who die without ever having contracted it? They obviously didn’t live long enough. Although I have a background conducive to understanding one of Einstein’s theories of relativity, I have tried to and don’t understand it. For a good long time after he came out with it, only one other person (I forget who, maybe Bohr) understood it. I guess if I die before it becomes clear to me it will be because of my dying too early.
    So what’s worse, to be born with less potential or not using it? I was once called an overachiever. I didn’t like hearing that. Sounded as though I wasn’t too smart but made up for it by being tenacious. But I’m not sure I like any better the idea I was born with the ability to understand the theory of relativity but wasn’t motivated enough to learn it.
    To say we all have the same intelligence, signifies that we can in some way compare two people and make that judgment. How would one go about doing that? Of course, if they don’t “score” identically, you can always say that prior to being tested they had different opportunity and motivation. This type of argument sounds like the reverse of the dying-too-early one mentioned above.
    So, there is something people refer to as intelligence which doesn’t match what Rancière
    is talking about, everyone is equally intelligent, since as the author of this essay
    wrote “ . . . intelligence divides up and separates out humanity in general.”
    Can we do without any form of the word intelligent? Would it change anything except reduce our vocabulary by 1 word? Surely, people will continue to compare others by that word I’ve just expunged from my consciousness but call it something else.
    Hey, figure it out. Let me know what’s decided, and I’ll go along with it.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | November 24, 2010, 9:37 pm
  5. Nina is quite right: ‘We live in an age when we see a resurgence of the idea that some people are fundamentally less intelligent than others. The spectre of racism and sexism haunts these supposedly neutral attempts to measure intelligence.’ Unlike post-war 11+ selection, which was justified by a spurious ideology of IQ-testing, there is today no accepted ideology to justify the academic cramming for tests of largely literary ability. The ‘brightest and best’ who win through this relentless competition are increasingly and transparently revealed as the richest and most privileged. To disguise this fact, such selection demands a justification and may find it in spurious genetic theories.’ (From my book with Martin Allen ‘Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education’, Continuum 2010.

    Posted by Patrick Ainley | November 25, 2010, 7:24 pm
  6. http://johnivorjones.blogspot.com/2010/10/intelligence_10.html

    That’s a nice meaty link to my article on intelligence. I think I get to grips with this flacid idea and put it to rights with a bit more gritty realism than contemporary philosophical treatments.
    No copying now.

    Posted by John Jones | November 27, 2010, 12:13 am
  7. The difficulty with this idea is the difficulty of defining a person.

    If some-one has certain centers of the brain killed off, if they are born deformed, are they a “person”?

    There has to be some sort of limit to that definition (a rock is after all not a person), and some sort of limit to the definition of “equally intelligent”. The only way to maintain this argument is to make these limits co-terminus, which makes the argument circular. This, incidentally, is part of a more general problem of not considering the material contingency of the subject.

    However there is also an elission here that puts two arguments together that should not be. This may rather be a call to teaching praxis. Is one a better teacher if one assumes an overall effectively equal potential to understand things in pupils, if only one found the right way to engage them? This is a starting point that does, I think, generally improve teaching practice.

    So here the distinction between determining a stable fact and the dynamic use of an idea, performatively in practice, is important.

    Posted by Daniel Taghioff | November 27, 2010, 1:04 am
  8. Daniel Taghioff,
    In your comment: The way you start, that there’s a problem in how we define “person” had me hooked immediately. Too bad the situation didn’t allow you to develop this idea. You believe the way person and “equally intelligent” are defined should have some limits (I suppose you mean relative to the way we might use them since a definition necessarily limits the way a word is used.) Then you say “The only way to maintain this argument is to make these limits co-terminus . . . ” the meaning of which totally escapes me.
    In your next paragraph you wrote, “Is one a better teacher if one assumes an overall effectively equal potential to understand things in pupils, if only one found the right way to engage them? This is a starting point that does, I think, generally improve teaching practice.”
    Under what circumstances do you see this feasible? I assume we’re talking about the average class with 20 or 30 or 40 students, not all of whom are eager to learn, in the first place. Then with a teacher who is a relatively ordinary person, not super anything. And the students didn’t just hatch from some common mold which makes them equally prepared for the material in hand. For some of the students the language being spoken in class will not even be one they are comfortable with.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | November 27, 2010, 10:46 pm
  9. I find this topic extremely interesting. i have not thought of it before. My opinion is that all people are equally intelligent but in different ways and with different preferences for balance in the the scheme of things.

    Posted by George Di-Ibor | November 29, 2010, 3:38 pm
  10. While the Meno is obviously saying something slightly different from Rancière, surely this claim was clearly and concisely expressed in the first paragraph of Descartes Discourse on Method. However far Rancière pushes the idea into new political practice, it seems questionable to call it his idea, a new idea, or even a forgotten idea as it has been constantly debated over the last few centuries, not to mention being one of the first (if not the first) claim every undergraduate student of philosophy reads:

    “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess. And in this it is not likely that all are mistaken the conviction is rather to be held as testifying that the power of judging aright and of distinguishing truth from error, which is properly what is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men; and that the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it.” Descartes

    We should be clear that neither Descartes nor Rancière’s claim is that there are a set of different intelligence metrics for various mental talents and that by luck or divine plan the tally of each individual’s capacities happens to be equal. We are not dealing with the comforting moral at the end of a children’s TV show where your amazing sprinting ability is perfectly offset by my swimming speed such that we’re all athletically different but equal. The point is a denial that intelligence is measurable, such that we refuse to recognise any of the capacities that testing can measure as equivalent to intelligence. There is some good reason to do this in that intelligence in the sense of a quantitative degree of mental alertness has often been seen to be the seat of our human dignity in a way that our running / caring / dancing ability is not.

    However, one might worry there is another kind of social exclusion that comes with redefining intelligence such that those with mental handicaps or degenerative conditions are automatically classed as possessing equal intelligence. Are we not in danger of erasing their specific suffering under blanket ideology? There have been some very damaging and even sadistic methods of education rooted in the assumption that if pushed everyone can understand anything. Perhaps we’d do better to leave intelligence to the metric creators and work instead to define dignity and worth independently of such concepts.

    Posted by Timothy | November 30, 2010, 12:34 pm
  11. Politically correct claptrap…
    Hard evidence not required/desired.

    Posted by Samuel | December 4, 2010, 5:39 am
  12. The response by Samuel above is neither witty, insightful or helpful. Typical of elitist, arrogant, anti-intellectual right-wing bloggers who think it is ‘politically correct’ to present emotional responses ie; claptrap, as “evidence”. I’ll bet you love Sarah Palin!

    Posted by Earnest | December 6, 2010, 5:53 am
  13. One of the most remarkable and refreshing philosophical articles I have read in years, demonstrating what a radical discipline philosophy can be.

    Nina, I am now one of your most fervent acolytes. Well done!

    Samuel - you are a MUPPET!

    Posted by Jonny | December 6, 2010, 11:18 pm
  14. This article is absurd. People are not equally intelligent. Intelligence is general problem-solving ability, and some people are better at it than others.

    The branch of science which studies this, psychometrics, has various ways of measuring intelligence, including IQ tests. IQ tests are very good, having been honed over many years. If you spend a long time devising ways of measuring general intelligence, as many people have done, chances are you will come up with an IQ test. IQ tests show conclusively that some people are more intelligent than others. (They happen to show that distribution of intelligence is a normal distribution.)

    Furthermore, studies on identical twins separated at birth and on regression to the mean show that intelligence is about 50% genetically hereditable.

    None of what I have just said is at all controversial amongst people who actually study the matter. No evidence exists that contradicts this theory. None.

    This article is a load of BS.

    Posted by Hugo | January 3, 2011, 2:10 pm
  15. Even if you claim (absurdly) that everyone can understand anything, given enough time, it is clear that some people can grasp things very quickly and other people take ages. That is because some people are more intelligent than others.

    Posted by Hugo | January 3, 2011, 2:12 pm
  16. If differences in “opportunity and motivation” account for everything, then why do people from the exact same social and educational backgrounds differ greatly in displayed intelligence?

    Why do adopted siblings show correlations with the intelligence of parents they never met?

    Why do some geniuses emerge from bleak lower-class backgrounds? Why do some students remain unteachable given infinite “opportunities”?

    You are totally incapable of explaining the facts. Intellectually, a bad joke.

    Posted by Ben | January 3, 2011, 7:37 pm
  17. Wot about us retards? Are we not people? Are we not less intelligent?

    Posted by Rob Spear | January 7, 2011, 1:36 am
  18. Also, surely more racism and sexism is a good thing? Anything that increases divisions between people allows for more human diversity, and diversity is generally considered good these days.

    Posted by Rob Spear | January 7, 2011, 1:48 am
  19. [...] Tassano wrote about this piece by philosophy lecturer Nina Power (and David Thompson linked to Fabian). Superficially, [...]

    Posted by Sinister philosophy « Peter Risdon | January 7, 2011, 5:43 pm
  20. Intelligence has been selected for over time for we are brighter than our fish ancestors. For intelligence to be selected for there must have been naturally occurring variation amongst individuls that could be inherited.

    The author of this piece seems to be asserting that we happen to have reached a point where there is no more natural variation.

    That seems unlikely; but some argument or evidence might have been appropriate.

    Roehampton. Says it all.

    Posted by David Jones | January 7, 2011, 7:04 pm
  21. This seems to be no more than politcally motivated wishful thinking disguised as cutting edge philosophy. This sort of thinking process (model before reality),when applied to economics, gave us the banking crisis. People are more intelligent that others. Whats the problem with that? I dont make a moral judgement on people based on their IQ, although this article hints that the author does. One further point: The effects of such a presupposition of the equality of intelligence in education would inevitably be a reduction in achievement as the model comes up against the hard facts, and educators try to maintain the validity of the model by not testing its limits.

    Posted by Alex | February 9, 2011, 11:22 am
  22. [...] TPM: The Philosophers’ Magazine | Ideas of the century: The equality of intelligence (37/50) [...]

    Posted by TPM | Ideas of the century: The equality of intelligence (37/50) | Panecastic | March 9, 2011, 11:45 am
  23. This really is one of those articles that astounds me. How anyone who has interacted with other people on a regular basis could think that there are not huge differences in innate levels of intelligence by almost any meaningful way you care to describe it is baffling. Truly it is so nonsensical that I can hear the sound of axes grinding.

    Either we are from different planets or Nina Power only knows a very small circle of people who are very much like her.

    Many of life’s questions are not amenable to simple common sense but this is not one of those things.

    Posted by Perry de Havilland | April 10, 2011, 9:09 pm
  24. I am equally as intelligent as Mr. Rancière and Ms. Powers and I say they are both wrong.

    Posted by B. Long | April 19, 2011, 1:54 pm
  25. [...] [...]

    Posted by All things being equal.. - Politics and Other Controversies -Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - City-Data Forum | April 19, 2011, 2:56 pm
  26. There are only FOUR DNA molecules. By taking this argument to its logical extreme, we share 100% of our DNA with CABBAGE. Are you smarter than CABBAGE?
    All things are not equal. Some are smarter than others, some are stronger than others. Some write chuckle-headed articles and some pay them for it.

    Posted by criolle johnny | April 19, 2011, 3:26 pm
  27. Nina Power is equally intelligent to a pine cone

    Posted by Matthew | April 19, 2011, 3:48 pm
  28. What about retards? Are they as smart as everyone else? Can they understand Einstein’s theory of relativity if they want to? Come on. They can barely learn how to write.

    I’d like to believe that what you say is true, that everyone is equally intelligent. But that is just nonsense. And you don’t have to be a psychometrician to know that.

    Posted by Juan Diego | June 30, 2011, 5:12 pm