Intelligence is a problem

Intelligence is such a problem. Not being smart. That’s great. But the whole concept. The common definition. The way it always seems to have something to do with how quickly you can calculate a tip or solve a word problem. If you start to argue that, no, we have all these different definitions of intelligence now, just look at the SAT. No, we don’t.

“If a man wearing a red hat went into a closet and exchanged his hat with another man, and then three more men, we’ll call them A, B, and C, came into the main room, each wearing a differently colored hat, except for B, who was also wearing a red hat, then how would the blind man who came in after everyone else know what shade the second man in the closet’s hat was? Remember, the first man was wearing a RED hat.”

That’s how word problems sound to me. Bear and I did some the other night. For fun. Our neighbor gave Bear this book of logic problems that candidates for fast-paced Wall Street trading jobs are given at job interviews. Bear loves that stuff. When he interviewed for his fast-paced Wall Street job, he thought the logic problem part of the experience was great. I thought it sounded terrifying. I felt myself getting physically frightened as he described it.

As a kid, I was really sure that I was smart. Very, very smart, in fact. I knew that I was smart because it was obvious. I was good at things. I liked to figure things out. I was good at talking, and I knew which flavors of ice cream were best. What could be clearer?

And then it turned out that I was bad at math. I learned this when grownups kept quizzing me, to find out if homeschooling worked. Homeschooling didn’t work, according to my math skills. They always thought it worked when they were talking with me. They said I was precocious and bright and very mature. I knew that later, when they found out about math, they’d start to have their doubts.


People like to tell me that everyone can be good at math. You just have to learn it properly. Maybe this is true. I don’t know. But I do know that I have absolutely no desire to be good at it. It doesn’t interest me even a little.

I struggle with intelligence these days. I think I’m probably smart, but then I catch myself being terrible at some important things that smart people are good at.

Or is there something wrong with the way we define “smart people”? Why don’t we think someone who is an incredible rock musician is intelligent? We think “talent” is something else entirely. And we think “art” is something else entirely, too. “Intelligence” means being logical in a very specific way. Not even necessarily being logical in the sense that you can figure out when to get out of a dangerous situation, or convince people to give you money even though you don’t yet have the company you’re talking about. No. You have to be good at solving problems that “smart” people have decided are appropriate.

I guess this wouldn’t really be a problem– the stuff about art and talent being separate from intelligence– except that often there simply isn’t enough room in children’s education for either art or talent. So while our culture definitely rewards some people who succeed in non-academic ways, like pop stars, movie stars, Bill Watterson, and the South Park guys, they often have to fight to get where they’re going. They certainly don’t learn those skills in school. So often, they have to learn to do what they love in spite of school.

And no one is exempt. It didn’t matter that I was unschooled, I learned very quickly how much math mattered. I was lucky that I loved to write, because being good at writing made college easy for me.

But what about the kids who don’t love to write? College is a very different experience for them. Especially if they don’t like math either. College will continue to be a very different experience for them, if they go.

I’m annoyed. I shouldn’t have to wonder if I’m smart enough. I don’t think anyone should. We shouldn’t have to be embarrassed because we don’t fit all the standard definitions of intelligence. We should be proud of what we’re good at.

I am not good at word problems. I will not get a trading position on Wall Street. Which is totally fine with me, because that has never been a goal of mine. The hours are ridiculous, anyway. But I reserve the right to be smart while I do what I love. Even if it never, ever, not even once requires me to solve for x.

We all desperately need to operate in a world of people who are good at a lot of very different things. And in order to best achieve that world, we need to stop telling the majority of those people that they aren’t particularly smart.

22 comments to Intelligence is a problem

  • Wonderful post! From a gal who was decent at writing, stunk at math, and has absolutely no talent. :-)

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel strongly that this issue needs to be addressed more openly in the world.

  • Kelly

    I love the way you get me to think about “smart” and “intelligence” in new ways. I was one of those kids who was a good test-taker, who enjoyed doing homework, and could usually fudge the answer if I didn’t really know it. I was very successful in school, so I thought I was going to have the world handed to me on a silver platter.

    When I joined the workforce after college, I continued to be successful because I always knew the “right” answer, or I could figure out what the asker wanted my answer to be.

    But, now, as a stay-at-home-mom, I feel like a failure. I have one daughter who is so much like me, it scares me. I have another who is my polar opposite- funny, charming, active, with no patience for books or numbers- and I don’t know how to teach her. I keep wanting her to sit with me and read, or to attempt to count crayons like her sis did at her age (almost 2), or just do something that will get people to say “oh, she’s so smart”. I need to redefine my idea of smart. She loves people and animals and music and being outdoors. There’s a whole world out there for her, but, in my mind, I already have her boxed in as a goof. How horrible is that?

    I read your blog because I’m considering home-schooling my girls starting this fall with the older one, who will be 4. I’m just not sure I’m cut out for this. I’m such a by-the-book, it’s black-and-white type of person.

    (sorry this is so long, i tend to ramble.)

    • kate

      I love your honesty. Maybe you think of her as a goof, but you also clearly have a lot of awareness about her differences and respect for her learning style. I think that’s exciting, to have a kid who is so unlike you. Sounds like a mystery and an adventure. And it’s also awesome that your other daughter IS like you. They probably complement one another really well and will make each other’s lives really interesting and fun. I’m really glad that my brothers were goofy where I was serious. They balanced me out.

      I don’t think you have to have figured everything out to homeschool. You just have to be willing to learn with your kids, and to make mistakes, and figure things out as you go along. I don’t think there’s one “great homeschooling parent” archetype. There are a lot of ways to approach it. Let me know if you want to talk more!

  • […] post about intelligence, and why it’s stupid, at […]

  • This made me think of my own kids. When people talk to them, have a conversation with them, the first thing they say is how intelligent they are. But those people never ask my children math questions in these conversations, or they would probably just look at them in horror and concern. My children don’t necessarily understand 2 dimensional math that can be laid on paper. They just know how to use numbers to function with. Which, is probably (ok, definitely) more useful, in my opinion.

    Also, the same people that remark, in awe, at how intelligent they think my children are, turn around and think they’re probably idiots when they find out we’re unschooling. Afterall, SOMEthing must be wrong with them if no one’s teaching them anything!

    • kate

      The last line made me laugh outloud. “But HOW could they POSSIBLY be learning?? There’s no TEACHER!”

      When people had that reaction to my brothers and I, I always felt like we were these awesome social rebels.

  • Julie

    Thank you for this. I have been getting parental wobbles about Home Schooling (Home Education in the UK) because my son has Special Needs and is ‘idling’ at the moment. Just not interested in conventional subject matter. But I was comparing what his Grandmother had in the way of schooling, she left school at 14 to help the family out by earning a wage. She has done fine, she worked for all of her working life and is now enjoying retirement. She left school knowing how to read, how to sew and cook, a good dollop of history and how to do basic maths. That is all, she has done well, has brought her children up well (I’m one of them, I should know), dotes on her Grandchildren and is waiting with bated breathe for the first Great Grandchild (eeek that would make me a grandmother).
    He will have problems in the future, don’t we all, but giving him the ‘grounding’ he needed by taking him out of school, where they couldn’t help him (couldn’t be bothered as they had already labelled him a scrapheap child) to keep up, has given him a better chance that he would have had.

    • kate

      One of the things that always shocks me is just how little formal education kids seem to need to turn out smart, savvy, happy, and productive. It’s amazing how reliant we’ve become on a system that doesn’t actually yield real results. Good for you for being brave and giving your son a better chance!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chan Stroman, davidwees. davidwees said: Great read => Intelligence is a problem #edchat […]

  • This is an awesome post. “Intelligence” is so over-measured and over-rated!

    I want to offer a bit of counterpoint about math. An ability to think mathematically, while not necessary to be happy/fulfilled/productive, does offer insights and open doors that might otherwise be inaccessible. (And of course this is just as true of, say, the ability to draw or to understand other humans empathically.) Which isn’t to say everyone should learn math — I don’t mean that. What I AM saying, is that if you, personally, don’t like math, then please don’t project that dislike onto your children. They are not yet afraid of it, and if they’re allowed to go at their own pace, they might well discover a “talent” for it. But I think that’s less likely to happen if a parent shows a strong aversion to the subject.

    • kate

      Fair enough. I have a lot of respect for people who enjoy math though, despite not liking it myself. (There are many things I’m not interested in for myself but think are cool for others– salsa dancing, for one.) My husband loves math, and I’ve made it really clear to him how important it is that he conveys that love to our future children. I want them to be able to be exposed to as many subjects as possible, and I want to influence them through what I love, not what I dislike. I’ll have to report back in ten years or so with how that’s working out :)

      • I think “math” as a “subject” is greatly inflated in perceived complexity and “hardness”. It is taught in a way that is almost guaranteed to make people hate it (OMG algebra worksheets? The better to crush your soul with, m’dear!) And then this becomes a positive feedback loop, with an entire really useful and beautiful field of knowledge getting this general rep of being difficult and mysterious, and that reputation sort of soaks into our whole culture. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Math is everywhere, it’s just another way of thinking about interactions and organization, one that happens to be really useful for predicting and analyzing. If it were allowed to arise organically when people reached a point (in ANY endeavor) where a mathematical understanding became useful and relevant, many more people would enjoy and value it, I think.

        So, shorter me: I guess we agree :-)

  • Claire Allison

    Chess club. It teaches analytically reasoning, long-term planning and the ability to calculate possibilities, all in their heads. Even if they don’t get math as a numeric activity it can prepare them to get it as a logical activity. Plus, it’s fun and fosters healthy competition. My boyfriend’s family did it and so far they have a computer programmer, a lighting designer for theatre, a game programmer and a budding young painter.

    Dance teaches about spatial kinetics, carpentry about fractions and spatial proportion, and reading to them teaches them how to visualize what they hear.

    That’s what I like about intelligence: it comes in so many categories. The more you branch out into unconventional kinetic, audio, visual and linguistic learning forms the more flexible the brain becomes, and the better it gets at finding new pathways to problems.

  • shevrae

    I read your post to my husband (a self-described math geek) and he said you probably solve for X all the time, just not in the way a math teacher would teach it. He said most people naturally apply the abstract principles of mathematics, but they just don’t get the academic language. And according to him, unless you want to be a PhD, who cares about the academic language?

    So take that for what it’s worth. :)

  • I was home schooled and am terrible at math. Coincidentally, so are my parents.

  • One of my best friends thinks she’s not very smart because she has trouble with numbers. The first time she said that to me I told her she was dead wrong. She’s an unbelievably talented artist who actually earns her living through art, as a graphic illustrator–oh, and manages to run her own small business just fine, despite being “not good at math”–single parents her ebullient young daughter, and writes fantastic blog posts which also help her earn a living. Yet she thinks she’s not very smart, just because she sometimes gets numbers mixed up in her head? I told her that quite frankly I don’t get to be good friends with people who aren’t at least as smart as me, and she considers me to be a quite intelligent person, so she can’t think of herself as not smart anymore. Ha!

    Also, I have a good friend who sometimes laments that her second daughter, age 6, isn’t as smart as her older sister. This drives me absolutely WILD because her second daughter is every bit as smart as her big sister, just in completely different ways, and in ways that my friend doesn’t value as highly as, say, reading and math.

  • I read you every day. You get me through my daily second thoughs about whether I’m doing the right thing for my kids. Please don’t ever ever stop :)

  • I’d really like to email you but there are no contact details!

  • […] Intelligence is a problem. If Einstein said that ‘everyone is a genius’ then it must be true. And I see that in my own children. Elijah, for example, is a genius at drawing. Literally. He was looked at by art people as a three-year-old who couldn’t believe his ability to convey real life in his drawings. They said that a ‘normal’ child of his age ‘doesn’t draw people in such exact proportions’. He can navigate a computer better than many adults. He’s been Googling since he was three. He taught himself to read at three. His reasoning ability is scary – especially when he uses it to render me speechless and get his own way. He’s a master debater. But if you ask him 6 + 3, he’ll flippin’ freak. He doesn’t have a clue about numbers. As far as I can see, he has no numeracy skills. So if you had a conversation with him about the universe, you would say he’s intelligent. But if you talked to him about numbers, you would assume that he’s stupid. And this is the heart of what Einstein was saying: Elijah’s a fish who swims like a pro, but if we sit there and quiz him on things that a fish simply doesn’t do [climb trees] and we make him out to be the village idiot. […]

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