The Dangers of Intelligence


My PolicyMic colleague Andrew Hanson has recently suggested a very appealing solution to the myriad problems faced by students and teachers in American public education. The idea is that schools should specialize by recognizing the different strengths and weaknesses that young people bring to the classroom. There should be schools for verbal learners, schools for tactile ones, and schools for those who don't even care to learn much more than they'll need to start a technical profession. Instead of subjecting different kinds of minds to the same Procrustean curricula, the American public education system could serve the different needs, strengths, and ambitions of their students. Everybody would win.

It’s an appealing plan, but also a dangerous one.

Intelligence theory has long been a safe hiding place for those who seek to naturalize economic and racial inequality. Gardner's "multiple intelligence" disavows the monolithic, retrograde criteria of IQ testing, but a public education scheme implemented with his theory in mind could still track social and economic conditions instead of some "core" ability nascent in brilliant students from all walks of life.

Which gets to something deeper: There are many problems with the American education system. But, while it's ideologically convenient to inflate the failures of public education and suggest a silver bullet solution, both tactics mislead more than they contribute to school reform debates. Public education (like nearly every other institution in a vastly unequal society) cannot be considered outside of the economic and social context in which it exists. Treating it otherwise runs the risk of simply reproducing exactly the same inequalities that an excellent public education system would rectify.  

But might a multiple intelligence education change things? Well, currently American public education has something like that system in magnet education. While these systems are not produced with theories of "multiple intelligence" in mind, many magnet schools cater to students' different strengths – from science to performing arts. But they are often tainted with voluntarism, taking in students from middle class families and leaving those from families without cultural capital in the dust. Or siphoning the best students from marginalized communities, leaving large public schools without intellectual or social anchors.

“Solutions” to American public education failings depend on a few things: How we think about public education's failings, what we attribute those failings to, and what we want public education to do. The first two are mostly (though not entirely) empirical, answerable questions.

If we want public education to reinforce the strengths and obscure the weaknesses of certain kinds of students, then a tracking system based in theories of multiple intelligences would work just fine. But if we want to give every child in America the chance to succeed and enjoy the best and most well rounded education, then a more serious institutional overhaul might be in order. That solution would dignify the teaching profession and give schools the resources they need to produce confident and engaged students – not reproduce the class and racial inequalities that daily threaten our democracy.  

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