March 30, 2011

Last time, I argued that the purpose of education was to make people smarter and observed that we would need to consider what it meant to be smarter.

The first point that needs to be made is that I do not accept that the development of the intellect is something that happens in a vacuum. I do not accept that there is a single unitary property of the mind that is summed up by “smartness”. While it may be possible to create a single metric for intellectual functioning, Gould (1996) describes convincingly the many efforts to conceptualise this as a single property of the intellect, usually known as “intelligence”, have consistently been unjustified and biased by the prejudices of those seeking to identify the property. He also observes the extent to which supposedly inherent properties of the intellect can invariably be traced to environment and education. Gardner (1983) describes a number of different properties of the intellect (which he names “intelligences”) and demonstrates the evidence that, at least in some individuals, these qualities can exist independently and are subject to the effects of training and education.

What goes for “intelligence”, is even more clearly the case for less hygienic concepts such as “smartness”, “cleverness” and “the intellect”. While there may be components of the intellect that occur naturally in the untrained mind, when we describe how smart someone is we are referring to a selection of qualities that we value in our particular context, and most of which can be deliberately cultivated. We have to accept that what we consider to be smart changes over time, and is different in different countries and different eras even though, no doubt, there are common elements to views about the intellect in different societies. When we identify what makes somebody smart we identify what types of knowledge and what types of thinking are valued. Arnold (1869) calls this “culture”:

“culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”

This might be a starting point for debate rather than an end; people have widely different ideas of what is the best, but at least we know that this is what we are looking for. We are looking to pass on the most worthwhile parts of our intellectual inheritance.  It seems less debateable when we recognise that most academic disciplines do have within them some consensus about what are the most valuable fruits of that discipline, and where there isn’t a consensus, we can normally identify which positions are coherent parts of an intellectual tradition and which are ideological fads. We should remember that schools are there to pass on what is considered intellectually valuable in our culture rather than to change our culture. The commitment to pass on what is best in the world is not permission to disown the world. Arendt (1961) explains that:

“…the educators here stand in relation to the young as representatives of a world for which they must assume responsibility although they themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is. The responsibility is not arbitrarily imposed upon educators; it is implicit in the fact that the young are introduced by adults into a continuously changing world.”

There are political questions here. I know this can be portrayed as simple conservatism, but I believe it is just describing something inherent to a coherent notion of education. The belief that the school must be part of the world as it is should not be confused with the belief that the world as it is must never change, or that children are not the new part of the world:

“To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something – the child against the world, the world against the child the new against the old, the old against the new – Even the comprehensive responsibility for the world that is thereby assumed implies, of course, a conservative attitude. But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among adults and equals.”

To develop the intellect in children is to introduce them to part of the world. We are not dealing with an abstract property of the brain which can be directly accessed by a curriculum empty of actual content. We still need to consider how the intellect engages with culture, but we cannot doubt that it must, for our very notion of the intellect requires that it cannot be ignorant. A developed intellect must be firmly anchored in knowledge even if it does not consist only of the holding of knowledge. It is for this reason that INSET which favours dumbing-down is always prone to start with talk of “skills for the twenty-first century”, “preparing for jobs which don’t even exist yet” or “relevance”. All these are ploys to suggest that there is a great discontinuity between intellects in the past and those in the future. To truly empty the minds of the next generation then they must first be inoculated against the contents of the minds of all previous generations. The greatest theft that educators can commit is to steal, from the next generation, their intellectual inheritance.


Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961

Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869

Gardner, Howard  Frames of Mind, Fontana Press, 1983

Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man: Revised and expanded. W. W. Norton, 1996



  1. Excellent. A cogently-argued and well-referenced position with which, as a philosopher and historian, I can agree. That’s not to say we don’t need to look at the disconnects as well, but we’ve more in common with the past than than we (as a society) often recognise.

    Thanks for the additional contribution! :-)

  2. […] […]

  3. Nice point. I think you’ve described here the middle ground between clinical cold intelligence with no relevance to real life, and work based skills and vocational learning.

    Educators seem to be divided as to which one of those has the most worth. Focusing on culture bridges the gap.

  4. I’m saddened that you allow a one-sided ideologue like Stephan Jay Gould be your guide to understanding IQ – and a book that was poorly reviewed by those who actually know about IQ and its history.

    Please read a non-ideological book like Earl Hunt’s ‘Human Intelligence’ which avoids falling into either the Marxist/environmentalist camp or the more conservative camp which believes in (40% 50% 60%?) heredity).

    I also have a suggestion for the purpose of education. In HE, its purpose is to nourish the development of the ‘Self-authoring’ mind in students (see the work of Marcia Baxter Magolda and Robert Kegan). I think this is slowly becoming increasingly widely acknowledged.

    Perhaps the goal of school is to enable the development from the ‘Instrumental mind’ to the ‘Socialised mind’?


    • You are going to have to do better than an ad hominem attack on Stephen Jay Gould to convince me that he is wrong. Not to mention that you have ignored Howard Gardner who I also referred to.

      The main objection to IQ, from both, is its unrealistic unitary nature. If you want to point me to a defence of that feel free. Without that though, any defence of the concept, no matter how ingenious, will simply seem contrived.

  5. Actually I already pointed you to a good, balanced defence of IQ (ie Earl Hunt’s recent book ‘Human Intelligence’).

    You’ll see there that modern IQ tests are far from unitary, and measure all kinds of capabilities.

    (Not that I’m a huge advocate of IQ: as you saw it’s Baxter Magolda and Kegan’s studies of ‘self-authoring’ etc that I think might well be particularly relevant to an understanding of what the purpose of education is).

    Saying that Gould’s book was badly reviewed *by experts on intelligence* (but not by journalists, activists, sociologists etc) is not an ad hominem attack – it’s reflection of my experience in reading lots of reviews of that book.

    I just looked back, and I did also call him an ideologue too – that is ad hominem, I must admit. But seems arguably correct too (Gould has been praised by Lewontin and Levins for his socialist activism).

    Here’s a comment from one researcher:

    “The reviews of Gould’s book in Nature, Science and some other professional journals were highly negative and severely critical (see Davis 1986),
    in contrast with typically favorable and laudatory comments in the popular press”.

    “Gould’s central argument against hereditarians
    happens to be based on his gross misunderstanding of the position he is criticizing.”

    The American Journal of Psychology said:
    “The book may be described as part science fiction. It is more aptly called political propaganda”

    One of Gould’s most memorable arguments was a critique about old research on brain size and IQ.

    The researcher Ian Deary pointed out that this view was outdated in the light of new evidence. Gould refused to correct this in the new edition, apparently.

    Even Flynn is scathing about Gould.

    Just look on Wikipedia and you’ll find plenty of critique.

    The impression I get about Gardner’s multiple intelligences hypothesis is that the evidence he – and others – expected to emerge over the last 20 years to support it just hasn’t really turned up.

    I’ll paste in what Wikipedia says about it…


    Lack of empirical evidence

    According to a 2006 study many of Gardner’s “intelligences” actually correlate with the g factor, supporting the idea of a single dominant type of intelligence. According to the study, each of the domains proposed by Gardner involved a blend of g, of cognitive abilities other than g, and, in some cases, of non-cognitive abilities or of personality characteristics.[16]

    Linda S. Gottfredson (2006) has argued that the results of thousands of studies support the importance of IQ for school and job performance. IQ also predicts or correlates with numerous other life outcomes. In contrast, empirical support for non-g intelligences is lacking or very poor. She argued that despite this the ideas of multiple non-g intelligences are very attractive to many due to the suggestion that everyone can be smart in some way.[17]

    A critical review of MI theory argues that there is little empirical evidence to support it:

    “To date there have been no published studies that offer evidence of the validity of the multiple intelligences. In 1994 Sternberg reported finding no empirical studies. In 2000 Allix reported finding no empirical validating studies, and at that time Gardner and Connell conceded that there was “little hard evidence for MI theory” (2000, p. 292). In 2004 Sternberg and Grigerenko stated that there were no validating studies for multiple intelligences, and in 2004 Gardner asserted that he would be “delighted were such evidence to accrue” (p. 214), and he admitted that “MI theory has few enthusiasts among psychometricians or others of a traditional psychological background” because they require “psychometric or experimental evidence that allows one to prove the existence of the several intelligences” (2004, p. 214).” (Waterhouse, 2006a, p. 208).

    The same review presents evidence to demonstrate that cognitive neuroscience research does not support the theory of Multiple Intelligences:

    “the human brain is unlikely to function via Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Taken together the evidence for the intercorrelations of subskills of IQ measures, the evidence for a shared set of genes associated with mathematics, reading, and g, and the evidence for shared and overlapping “what is it?” and “where is it?” neural processing pathways, and shared neural pathways for language, music, motor skills, and emotions suggest that it is unlikely that each of Gardner’s intelligences could operate “via a different set of neural mechanisms” (1999, p. 99). Equally important, the evidence for the “what is it?” and “where is it?” processing pathways, for Kahneman’s two decision-making systems, and for adapted cognition modules suggests that these cognitive brain specializations have evolved to address very specific problems in our environment. Because Gardner claimed that the intelligences are innate potentialities related to a general content area, MI theory lacks a rationale for the phylogenetic emergence of the intelligences.” (From Waterhouse, 2006a, p. 213).

    A number of articles have surveyed the use of Gardner’s ideas and conclude that there is little to no academically substantiated evidence that his ideas work in practice. Steven A. Stahl found that most of the previous studies which claimed to show positive results had major flaws:

    Among others, Marie Carbo claims that her learning styles work is based on research. {I discuss Carbo because she publishes extensively on her model and is very prominent in the workshop circuit…} But given the overwhelmingly negative findings in the published research, I wondered what she was citing, and about a decade ago, I thought it would be interesting to take a look. Reviewing her articles, I found that out of 17 studies she had cited, only one was published. Fifteen were doctoral dissertations and 13 of these came out of one university—St. John’s University in New York, Carbo’s alma mater. None of these had been in a peer-refereed journal. When I looked closely at the dissertations and other materials, I found that 13 of the 17 studies that supposedly support her claim had to do with learning styles based on something other than modality.[18]

    * * *

    I must admit to being more than a little shocked at your vehement defence of two of the touchstones of today’s PC views on education.

    You’re obviously a more complicated guy than I realised.

    Which is good, of course ;-)

    Or maybe you’re just confused and self-contradictory, like the rest of us… ;-)



    PS I’m afraid I don’t have time to write a detailed e-mail about Gardner or Gould right now, nor do I have access right now to the materials I have on the topic.

    • I did take the time to surf the net and could quite easily find positive comments from scientific types about “The Mismeasure of Man”. That said, I don’t particularly want to play cut and paste games, or defend the whole of the book.

      What I wrote in this blog post relied on one particular argument of Gould’s (and mentioned another) and you have directed me to a whole book and to attacks on the whole book rather than tell me what is wrong with that particular argument.

      Your criticism of Garnder seems even less focused. I actually object to a lot of what Gardner claimed, particularly in his later years writing more as an educationalist than a psychologist. The nonsense others have come up with when applying his ideas is something I have frequently criticised. However, I can see nothing in what you have posted here to critique the one point on which I have used Gardner as a source.

      My argument here is not Gould and Gardner cannot be wrong, it is that I cannot see how they can be wrong on this particular point: that of a unitary basis for something as multi-dimensional as intelligence. Either tell me how it can be justified or stop posting these more general attacks please.

  6. I don’t have the time, or the materials to hand, to do the research I’d need to do to answer your query.

    As far as I remember there’s a rather a lot of evidence that Gardner’s intelligences aren’t as independent as he argues, but in fact correlate strongly with eachother, and often with IQ.

    Here’s a graphic which shows one modern take on IQ:

    As you can see, it’s far from unitary – it looks fairly multi-dimensional to me.

    It’s from the Cattell-Horn-Carroll version of IQ.

    Here’s something Carroll says:

    ““Carroll (1993) has pointed out that Gardner’s intelligences bear a striking similarity to the second-stratum factors of Carroll’s hierarchy. For example, Carroll noted that Gardner’s Linguistic intelligence corresponded to the factor of crystallized intelligence, Musical intelligence to auditory perception ability, Logical/Mathematical intelligence to fluid intelligence, and Spatial
    intelligence to visual perception. Interpersonal or social abilities, in Carroll’s framework, were represented to some extent in first-stratum factors of knowledge of behavioral content (with separate factors emerging for convergent and divergent tasks assessing those abilities).
    Carroll stated that only Gardner’s Bodily-Kinesthetic and Intrapersonal intelligences appeared to have no counterpart in second-stratum factors. However, psychomotor ability is not typically recognized as an aspect of cognitive ability and, thus, Bodily-Kinesthetic ability would not be represented in hierarchical models.”

    I’m not sure we can ever get to the kind of evidence that might be convincing, as Gardner is adamantly against developing any tests for his intelligences, as far as I know.



    • Gardner doesn’t argue that his intelligences are independent or uncorrelated. He does present evidence that they can exist independently in some individuals (which is what I said).

      Non-unitary versions of IQ, are irrelevant to this discussion. My blogpost only referred to Gould and Gardner’s arguments against unitary notions of intelligence (and the idea that intelligence could not be developed).

  7. I don’t follow your argument that “Non-unitary versions of IQ, are irrelevant to this discussion”.

    You seemed to be suggesting that – despite all their faults – Gould and Gardner should be praised for showing the non-unitary nature of intelligence/IQ

    But the current most popular IQ theory has also shown the non-unitary nature of intelligence.

    Why the need for Gardner and Gould?


    • Because their books (particularly Gould’s) make a good read? Because their books are readily available? Because it appealed to me to reference authors who are often referenced by people who disagree with me?

      Why not Gardner and Gould?

      To be honest, I quoted the literature which most influenced me on this point and (on this point) I think their arguments have held up well for three decades and covered everything I needed for my paragraph on the topic.

  8. I may have misunderstood, but are you arguing that there is a ‘canon’ that we should draw from when educating children?

    • There is literature recognised in our culture as great and which any student of English literature should be familiar with.

      • does that extend beyond students of English literature, though? Are there, for example works that should be studied for there scientific or historical significance, that perhaps have a valid claim to cultural significance?

        • Most subjects are probably best studied by looking at ideas and information wherever they can be found rather than looking at particular set texts. But I guess the identification of particular texts could be extended to language teaching.

          • I think that I agree with this idea, education as a transmission of the most valuable aspects of culture, with the caveat that each generation gets to reevaluate what is valued. I suppose the tricky bit is agreeing what should belong to the canon, and who gets to decide.

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