Over a year ago, I began to think more critically about the binaries we create through words, especially “intelligence.” This has been an idea forming in the back of my mind ever since then that I am still trying to find the words to express. Below is my explanation of why I do not believe in measuring, studying, or even using the word for “intelligence.”
For my entire life, people have been telling me that I am “smart.” In elementary school, I was put in a “Gifted and Talented” program that pulled me out of one of my “regular classes” in order to give me and other “more intellectually advanced” students lessons in areas such as logic and algebra. Throughout high school, I maintained a high GPA and scored well on my SAT, ACT, and AP tests. These numbers got me into one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, where I am surrounded by other “smart” students with the same experience. My entire future has been determined by my adherence to this socially prescribed path to success. We never question the value of intelligence as a measurement for someone’s worth because, as Professor David Robb might say, it fits into our conceptual schemes.
In actuality, there is no way to define or explain intelligence in a way that is not culturally biased. “Intelligent” can mean something entirely different based on who one asks. Ultimately, there are so many different ways to be intelligent that everyone is intelligent and the word becomes obsolete.
However, the different types of intelligence are not represented, especially in Western capitalist culture. The term is oversimplified and unfairly restricted to academia. Institutions in power quantify intelligence and use it for comparison, which creates yet another social hierarchy with even more binaries attached to it. In capitalist society, the ability to learn a certain subset of information and skills essentially determines one’s survival. We have to learn to make good grades, we have to make good grades to go to college, we have to go to college to get a job, and we have to get a job to avoid starvation. Because wealthy people have far better access to education, the concept of intelligence has a direct relationship with privilege, thereby making it racialized. The entire course of a person’s life is decided by a single word that means nothing.
When people say I’m “smart,” I say, “What does that mean?” They tell me that I’m “smart” because I work hard on my homework, I use big words, and I make good grades. None of those things have to do with my innate abilities. I work hard in academic areas because I was raised by two college professors who spend all day working hard in academic areas. I use big words because I read them in books, which my book-writing parents encourage me to do. I make good grades because I have a system of support and privilege that gives me the time and space to do my homework, and I have parents who can help me with it. Even under the pretense that intelligence is a valid word for this combination of traits, it would still be wrong to assume that a person can be born with it. While it is possible to have innate abilities that another person may not have, those abilities neither determine worth nor guarantee academic success, which is the foundation of what we refer to as intelligence.
I am not “smart,” because there is no such thing. The distinction between “smart” and “not smart” (and subsequently “worthy” and “not worthy”) that we have created sets up a system of unnecessary hierarchies that benefit those who are in power while casting aside those who are not – all based on an illusion.