Against Unidimensionality

During my second, mostly disastrous second year teaching in the Bronx, I worked on Saturdays at a state park about 50 miles north of the city, up the Hudson Valley. We would take classes of graduate teaching students up to the park, where they would look around for a research topic (spiders, oak trees, butterflies, etc) and then Do What Scientists Do, on the theory that if teachers felt more confident observing and studying living things themselves, they’d be more likely to help kids to do the same in their classrooms. (Urban elementary school teachers are in recent years notorious for not teaching science at all, to make room for all-reading-and-math, all the time.)

Whether it helped their teaching or not, tromping around after bugs or birds up in the Hudson Highlands was, on all but the rainiest Saturdays, great fun. One fall day, we climbed up a muddy hill and found a vernal pool entirely filled with chirruping frogs and their spawn. I brought a huge jar of them back to my classroom, hoping the kids could observe their tadpole-to-frog metamorphosis, but while many of the eggs hatched and became cute little tadpoles, there also happened to be a water boatman bug lurking in the jar as well, who despite being the same size as the tadpoles, ate them all up, one by one. One day, frustrated with his carnivory, I reached into the jar to grab him out; he bit me quite painfully and retreated to the other end of the jar. Nature red in tooth and claw.

The graduate teaching students in the classes were mostly an interesting bunch- often career changers who wanted a go at teaching in New York after trying social work, or banking, or law (or after securing a spouse with a higher-paying job.) One semester, we had a student who had just come back from a Peace Corps stint in Papua Guinea.  I was reading Guns, Germs, and Steel then, and was struck by Jared Diamond’s allegation, from his years doing ornithology in Papua New Guinea, that the residents of PNG were smarter than people elsewhere in the world. This didn’t seem entirely unbelievable to me at the time, the idea that recent hunter gatherers might be just plain smarter than us settled-and-cizilized folks. My own  middle school science classes seemed to be making their participants steadily stupider, for example. So I asked the recent Peace Corps returnee what she thought about New Guineans being extra smart.

“Well, they could make a shelter in the woods really well, and I can believe they were exceptionally good at helping Jared Diamond find birds and not get lost or killed in the jungle. But…” and then she told what she described as her ‘classic Peace Corps development story.’

She and her husband were the only foreigners teaching at a remote public school. There wasn’t any electricity at the school, or anywhere nearby, so her husband won a grant to purchase a generator and fuel, which he was hoping to use to run a refrigerator so they could store medicine and run a small clinic for the kids. Somehow, one of the (New Guinean) teachers brought in an ancient television set that still worked, and pretty soon, the refrigerator was constantly being unplugged (the generator didn’t produce that much power) to allow for the TV to be plugged in to show endless reruns of Baywatch. The medicine was spoiled, and the other teachers began sleeping through their classes, because they had been up all night watching Baywatch.

“And that’s how most Peace Corps development projects go,” she finished.

It is possible to believe that IQ is a meaningful and reliably-measured construct, is largely inherited, is important for individual and group differences, and isn’t identical to the meaning of the word “intelligence,” whether for Papua New Guineans or for the rest of the world.

Ironically, teaching is a career that encourages this distinction, and not just because getting up in the morning and trying to get a group of fourteen-year-olds interested in mitochondria requires a degree of delusion and self-deception. It is both true that general cognitive ability is a hugely neglected explanatory factor for what goes on in schools and that, paradoxically, teaching is one of the careers in which IQ-the kids’ and your own- can seem less important than you’d think. This is both because an ample IQ is of relatively little help in being a good teacher, especially in the short run, and because every day you’re around dozens of kids who couldn’t pass the end-of-year Algebra II test if their life depended on it but are, nonetheless, witty, insightful, curious people with whom you can have intellectually engaged conversations about the presidential election or the water boatman bug that just ate another tadpole.

In other words, abstraction and inference- which, at some level, is what IQ is about- isn’t everything. This is true of the theoretical physicist who got entrapped by an obvious catfishing scam and ended up in a South American prison for drug trafficking, yearning for his imaginary internet girlfriend.  And it’s true for me, when I can’t find my car in a parking lot, remember the lyrics to a pop song, or keep track of a piece of paper for more than a few hours. As my best friend said to me, when we were walking home from elementary school many years ago, “you’re smart, but you’re an idiot.”

Perhaps the water boatman bug thought much the same thing.


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