On Intelligence

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 French 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 Binet’s position, “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 premise that intelligence exists and can be 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 began with Binet and that was largely discredited by scientific communities.

            I am not sure how I understood human cognition when I began my career in in education. In the few notebooks I still have from my initial preparation in education, I can see no record of my thoughts. Any recollections I have now of the ideas I held then are surely faulty. I do expect that any concept of smart or intelligence that I had probably resembled the reified intelligence that is h an attribute of an individual that dominated education in the 20th century. I do know that my understanding of intelligence has changed. I have concluded that no matter what one’s level of expertise, everyone (in the plural) is smarter than any anyone (taken as an individual).


Gould, S. J. (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. W. W. Norton.