When most people think the concept of "intelligence," they think of how "smart" an individual might be. Typically associated with academic success, many imagine that intelligence has a lot to do with how well one did (or did not do) in school, and later, by how much money one can make in its exercise. However, as many people know, there are many different kinds of intelligence -- from the "book smart" to the "street smart," from practical knowledge and common sense (both work-related and social), to the heights of technical or scientific learning. Thus, in my conceptualization of the "perfect" definition of intelligence, I imaging a melding of the "types," a kind of sum total of the common and social sense, combined with the ability to grasp complex logical, mathematical and spatial concepts.
However, even in my perfect definition, one must ask, but what of the "other" realms of human experience that are harder to measure? How does one measure one's success at reaching the heights of spirituality (an undertaking highly debatable in merit according to some), or at being able to utilize the harder to classify gifts of creativity -- the ability to paint a beautiful rose, compose a well balanced concerto, or recognize or produce a note of perfect pitch? What of one's ability to hone one's moral fiber, to resist temptation, and act in the good of all, perhaps like a Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi? Could it not be true that intelligence may be a quality that is completely non-measurable due to its very complexity and range of expression? Perhaps the greatest evidence to this possibility is the glaring shortcomings of some of the most respected definitions of intelligence in the Western World.
Famous Definitions of Intelligence
Although there have been many theories concerning the nature of intelligence throughout history, one of the most common hallmarks of them all is their lack of breadth. Of course, if one wants to somehow measure specific "areas of intelligence," particularly for a given use or task (for example, academic ability, spatial reasoning, logic, etc.) it is necessary to somehow classify the measurable characteristics of intelligence. However, the danger of this is the propensity of professionals and lay people, alike, to misuse, misapply, or misinterpret the results of intelligence studies by either ignoring, or being unaware of the limits of all definitions of intelligence.
Sternberg's Triarchic Theory
One of the most famous theories of intelligence is known as Sternberg's Triarchic Theory. It enjoys tremendous support primarily for its relatively broad definition of the concept of intelligence, specifically in that it is divided into "theoretical, practical, and productive," aspects (Sternberg, 1988). In its basis, many consider this theory to be related to Aristotle's view of intelligence as being comprised of theoretical, productive and practical intelligence (thus, "triarchic").
What is perhaps most striking about Sternberg's theories, and what makes it more acceptable than most is the fact that he incorporates the notion of "creativity" as an important aspect of human intelligence. Yet, Sternberg's insistence on the "interchange" between the analytical, practical and creative faculties of the mind as a kind of gage of intelligence still has its drawbacks, specifically when one considers the existence of many of the "great minds" of history, and their very clear "one sided" nature with regard to analytical verses creative natures. Although it is true that Steinberg notes the importance (and tendency) of individuals to exhibit "preferences" with regard to the demonstration/utilization of their specific intelligence style, not enough though seems to be applied to the utter lack of one of the major aspects he puts forth in the theory. Further, one also has to consider the importance of moral or ethical intelligence, which is often quite apart from the intelligent "behavior" Steinberg describes as "adapting to your environment, changing your environment, or selecting a better environment (1988)."
Gardner's Multiple Intelligences
Another theory concerning the nature of intelligence is Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. In its most basic terms, this theory asserts that there are different types of intelligence, and each person possesses different amounts of each. These types include linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligence.
Although there is significant resistance to this theory, many believe that Gardner's theory helped significantly in the push toward "strength-based" teaching techniques (that is teaching to one's strengths). Additionally, many also recognized that by accepting the concept of "multiple intelligences," that the typical intelligence measurement techniques -- which tended to focus primarily on linguistic and logical or mathematical abilities -- were sorely lacking in breadth.
Of course, another strength in Gardner's theory is his emphasis on the role of culture in both intelligence, as well as in what "type" of intelligence one is likely to develop, or be encouraged to develop. For example, a largely agricultural community may emphasize visual/spatial intelligence over mathematical/logical intelligence. However, although Gardner focuses on the role of culture, as well as the idea of strengths and weaknesses in kinds of intelligence, he still does not adequately explain just how such intelligences should be measured, when it is clear that most assessment techniques plainly require good to high levels of linguistic intelligence -- even if they purport to measure other forms.
The Bell Curve: The Dangers of Biological Theory
Although it may be tempting to imagine that intelligence is mainly grounded in genetic information, and may even be linked to ethnic traits, to suggest this creates significant problems, chief among them is the tendency to ignore other important factors. For example, although the Bell Curve suggested that Caucasians had overall higher intelligence than people of other ethnicities (specifically those of African origin), the impact of socio-economic factors (including aspects of culture, religion, income, nutrition, and possible overall risk of exposure to environmental pollutants) were never adequately addressed. In fact, although many have pushed forward biological theories of intelligence -- either on a personal level, or in academia, to do so is harmful specifically due to the fact that it is next to impossible to adequately rule out non-biological factors. Further, to assume that small studies of identical twins support biological/genetic/ethnic findings is flawed in the very inadequacy of the sample sizes of the studies.
In addition to problems with the scientific validity of various biological theories, one must also address the cultural biases of those who purport to measure intelligence at all. For example, one culture or ethnic group may place little emphasis on a particular area of intelligence that is highly valued in the dominant culture of bio-theorist. By simply placing emphasis on this area, the theorist may reach conclusions that are patently false.
Assessment: Can It Be Done?
One of the most difficult areas of the study of human intelligence is the subject of assessment. Although many people imagine that it is quite easy to assess intelligence by administering a simple IQ test, or other standardized form of assessment, the truth is much debate exists to the validity of even the most routinely used intelligence analyses. Interestingly, however, many "professionals," particularly in the field of childhood education, routinely utilize intelligence testing to assess the educational needs of schoolchildren, without ever questioning their methods.
Some of the reasons commonly given for the need of intelligence testing are for placement in "special education" programs, "gifted" programs, and for inclusion or exclusion from certain scholastic or employment opportunities. Yet few professionals who require this kind of testing know (or care) that the typical kinds of assessments only compare individual results with the "norm" or scores of other test takers. Thus, if the majority of test takers are of White, middle-class origin, students from cultural or ethnic minorities may not be accurately measured. This is all the more true when one considers the more common occurrence of measuring children with some kind of disability with "typical children."
Indeed, when one considers the wide range of factors that go into what is termed "intelligence," it is obvious that a demonstrated "lack" in one area can effect how the other areas are expressed or demonstrated. For example, when my six-year-old nephew was tested by his elementary school at the beginning of his first grade year, intelligence testing as administered by the school pronounced him "extremely delayed." In fact, he was so delayed that his scores were as low or lower than many of the mentally retarded children at the school. The interesting thing, however, is that my nephew is not retarded, but has a severe speech and language delay (linguistic), that causes him to misunderstand directions. Thus, even if the testing is "non verbal," he still has difficulty understanding the directions given to him for their completion.
Of course, a further problem exists with the common "testing format" itself. The simple fact is that many people simply do not do well on tests. For example, someone may be extremely gifted yet suffer from anxiety. Although they may be extremely intelligent in their daily lives, when it comes to formally "assessing" that intelligence, these people simply "freeze up" and are…