Minding The Campus Takes Its Best Shot At This Blog

Dear readers,

Today is an immensely exciting day. I’ve discovered that on April 5, 2011, a blogger named David Thompson wrote a column for “Minding The Campus” concerning my earlier post, “There’s No Such Thing As Intelligence.” I was bound to find Thompson’s piece sooner or later, because he was unable to think of a title, and so used mine. Here’s Thompson’s little comedy of a column.

Oh, David. You’ve made a classic blunder. The oldest rule in the book is never start a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go up against The Kugelmass Episodes when death is on the line! Nor am I only going to take down what he says about my piece. He’s a right-wing pundit spreading disinformation. I’m going to take down everything he says.

Professor cooke’s subtlety of mind is evident in her claim that the oppression and misogyny found in the Islamic world is actually the fault of globalization and Western colonialism, despite the effects predating their alleged causes by several centuries.

Wrong. Thompson doesn’t cite anything by miriam cooke, and it’s no wonder, since he’s completely misrepresenting her argument. cooke’s theory of the “Muslimwoman” asserts that the figure of the Muslim woman became particularly visible during and after the colonial period. She also argues (in her book Women Claim Islam) that “women’s unprecedented independence as a result of the revolution in reproduction technology, and their massive entry into the paid workforce, has begun to erode the patriarchal system.” In other words, cooke’s actually describing the benefits of contraception and industrialization, revolutions which began in the West. She doesn’t blame Islamic patriarchies on Western colonialism or globalization, ever, except in the sense that Islamophobia helps to vindicate and embolden fundamentalist Islamic groups.

It was perhaps inevitable that this contrarianism should dovetail with the left’s rather awkward relationship with intelligence and its unequal distribution – a subject that, for some, is likely to cause unease in ways that the unequal distribution of musical or athletic talent does not.

The concept of intelligence is not comparable, at all, to musical or athletic talent. Those are specific skills, and they are acquired. Yes, we’ve all encountered talented athletes who play four sports in high school. That means they are putting their bodies through an unbelievably rigorous schedule of practices and workouts. In all likelihood, they have been doing this from a very early age. As Malcolm Gladwell has brilliantly demonstrated in his book Outliers, success in music and sports has more to do with practice and environmental advantages (e.g. being slightly older, in the case of Canadian hockey players) than with any inborn talent. But you don’t have to take my word for it — here’s a helpful summary by Wisdom Group:

In the early 1990s a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”

All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

The elite had more than double the practice hours of the less capable performers.

One fascinating point of the study: No “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

Back to Thompson, who now quotes me to the effect that the concept of intelligence is a technology of power:

Note how [Kugelmass’s] objection to intelligence as a personal attribute is simply asserted and is political in nature. Apparently, some of the things that people do (when suitably trained or prompted) may be regarded as intelligent; that would be permissible. But the people themselves–-the ones doing the clever thing–not so much. That would be essentialist and privileging–wickedness itself.

When somebody passes a driving test, do we think of them as “born” to be competent drivers? No. Do we think of touch-typists as “born” typists? No. Writing a sonata or a novel is a more demanding and complex task, but it’s not different in kind.

But what if a person does things that are intelligent much more often than others, and does so autonomously, with greater flair and perhaps at a very early age? Isn’t it fair to say that person has some qualities that aren’t possessed to the same degree by people who don’t often do intelligent things, at least not without prompting, and who didn’t do those things until much later in life, if at all?

Thompson’s argument shows how little he knows about the lives of prodigies. I’m sure, for example, he thinks of Mozart as an “autonomous” composer. In fact, Mozart’s father was a musician and composer, as was his sister, and Mozart spent much of his youth as his father’s trained monkey. Name anyone you like — Josh Waitzkin in chess, Arthur Rimbaud in poetry, Blaise Pascal in mathematics — and I will show you the pressure cooker that produced them.

I’m not going to touch Thompson’s fascinating theory that nerds have a great deal of flair, except to say that I really, really wish he was right.

Then Thompson switches to a discussion of Nina Power, drawing our attention to his most disingenuous argument by helpfully including italics:

Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation. [NB: he’s being sarcastic] On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation… ceases to be an integral part of teaching.

See what he did there? One moment we’re talking about intelligence, and the next, we’re talking about superior knowledge. Stephen Hawking has a better understanding of physics than I do. I have a better understanding of James Joyce than he does. Neither of us were born with any of this, which is precisely why we can explain physics and Joyce to students and the general public.

Thompson continues:

If Dr Power is a product of modern humanities teaching and is sufficiently regarded by her peers to be entrusted with cultivating philosophical enquiry in others, then the system she wishes to see subsidized appears to be malfunctioning.

No, David, you can’t switch sides like this (i.e. sarcastically) without destroying your own argument. Obviously, if his attack on Power’s theories had any merit, her mistaken ideas would be the “product” of others “cultivating philosophical enquiry” in her. Power obviously wasn’t born making assertions (correct or incorrect) about the nature of intelligence; she wasn’t born wrong.

In reality, though, Power is both superior to Thompson in knowledge and also right. Is that all you’ve got, David? Because, listen: if it is, tangling with me is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.

Until next time, this is Joe Kugelmass, saying…
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