Lately, numerous voices haven spoken out about the educational crisis (see this magazine, Quillette and Merion West). These articles cover many Western educational systems in particular and highlight both their differences and similarities.
One flaw common to many of these systems is the fixation on concepts like Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and the emphasis on a visceral, rather than intellectual, learning environment. Many teachers are experimenting with utopian educational programs, in an attempt to satisfy every student.
The argument is that EQ is a better predictor of success than cognitive intelligence. This is partly a definitional matter: what do we mean by success? Does IQ predict academic performance? Yes and no. A study done in the Netherlands suggests that personality is a far better predictor of academic success than IQ. For some, these studies suggest that we should put an end to IQ testing.
Most of us are aware of the impact intelligence has had on our culture and recognize its intrinsic value. When it eventually becomes possible, many will probably choose to genetically enhance their children’s intellects. To call intelligence superfluous is delusional. But do alternative theories about intelligence deserve appraisal?
The Case Against Emotional Intelligence
The term emotional intelligence was first popularised by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Over the years, there has been extensive criticism of EQ as a predictability metric (see here and here).
For Goleman, emotional intelligence consists of traits such as “being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” These are all important skills. But EQ and other similar concepts cannot substitute for actual intelligence.
One of the cornerstones of EQ is empathy. Empathy, as Goleman describes it, “builds on self-awareness; the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings.” A closely related concept is theory of mind: the ability to generate thoughts about your own mental state and those of other people. The latter function plays a role when interacting with others.
The term theory of mind was coined by psychologist David Premack in 1978, in connection with a study of chimpanzees. However, the concept behind the theory has existed for much longer. Adam Smith expresses a similar idea in his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though he uses the word sympathy, rather than empathy:
Sympathy does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination.
Presumably, there are even earlier examples that describe a similar process. But what earlier thinkers may not have known—and Goleman might—is the details of the early development of these skills. Before the age of four, children often struggle with theory of mind. From a Piagetian perspective, these children are forming an egocentric response when participating in theory of mind tasks: they are unable to see a situation from another person’s viewpoint. Once children reach the age of four or five, they start developing the mental perspectives that characterize theory of mind.
As with most skills, people vary in the extent to which they excel in empathy. As I’ve argued elsewhere, people who have a faulty theory of mind can fill such gaps by replacing empathy with well-formulated rules on how to act in social situations. People who lack empathy or have a flawed theory of mind usually have a developmental disorder and endow rules with a Kantian importance: that is, they adhere to these rules so strictly that their lack of empathy will become increasingly less noticeable with practice.
EQ, then, is not much more than a bogus concept, which claims to measure already existing traits and skills that have been measured by much more superior tools in the past. The only reason to substitute this tool for the previous tools is because of its applicability in an environment like a school, as a means to promote overall inclusivity.
However, we should bear in mind the eventual consequences of this emphasis on EQ. I do not advocate subjecting children to extreme pressure to perform well on IQ tests or SATs. However, we should beware of encouraging intellectual indolence by emphasising emotional values, rather than intellectual ones. Adolescent activists (on both left and right) are becoming disengaged from factual knowledge of the topics they are concerned about—knowledge that is necessary if you wish to effectively criticise your opponents. As Matt McManus puts it:
Students should learn about the classics of Western civilization as well as conservative views — and should have them taught following the Millsian principle of knowing them in their strongest iterations. This is true even if the students aspire to be critical of the West and conservatism, given that understanding is the first step to criticizing effectively.
Unlike economist Thomas Sowell, I don’t believe “activism is a way for useless people to feel important.” The scientifically irresponsible attitude of certain activists does not indicate that they are lost causes. But engagement with complex issues calls for a different tactic. These adolescents are not apathetic. This tendency is partly the result of intellectual laziness and partly of social conformity among large groups of students.
The Case Against Multiple Intelligences
There are similar problems with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, first proposed in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind. Gardner argues that “our genetic heritage is so variegated that one can postulate all kinds of abilities and skills [italics mine] … that have not yet emerged, or that we have not yet come to know about.” As many critics have pointed out, the phrase abilities and skills suggests that Gardner is describing talents, not intelligences. Unlike intelligence, skills can be practised and improved.
Average IQ has risen over time. James Flynn has shown that average IQ scores have been rising by three points per decade since the beginning of the twentieth century, as a result of factors such as greater access to education and better nutrition and overall health: a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. However, this does not mean that individual IQ scores can be improved — by contrast with scores on EQ and multiple intelligences. Gardner argues that genetic variability is the possible origin of such multiple intelligences: “The broader the sampling of human beings, the more likely that any list of the range of human intelligences will be comprehensive and accurate.” But the use of different words—skills, abilities, intelligences—to describe the same concept suggests that Gardner is indulging in semantic vacillation.
The only prerequisite for an intelligence, for Gardner, is that its activity should be visible in the brain. Take musical intelligence. According to Gardner, musical intelligence is primarily associated with the temporal lobe, though various other areas of the brain must be involved because of the many different approaches to expressing music. As he puts it:
[t]here is the tremendous range of types and degrees of musical skill found in the human population; because individuals differ so much in what they can do, it is conceivable that the nervous system can offer a plurality of mechanisms for carrying out these performances.
Nevertheless, the fact that a brain area performs or assists with the performance of a certain task does not indicate that this task is a form of intelligence. The temporal lobe regulates numerous functions, including complex visual functions like facial recognition. This does not imply that those who are exceptionally good at recognizing other people’s faces are especially face-reading intelligent. But Gardner believes that as long a skill is represented with some lateralization — meaning, either the right or the left hemisphere dominates the function — it qualifies as “an autonomous intellectual competence.”
Besides championing inclusivity, advocates of multiple intelligences theory are often blank slatists on the subject of IQ. The infamous debate about racial differences in IQ first introduced by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their 1994 book, The Bell Curve presents such uncomfortable possibilities that it may seem more appealing to scrap our present picture of intelligence and exchange it for a pleasanter one. Some also reiterate the debunked argument that IQ tests can be both inaccurate and inadequate. Our current IQ tests, however, are, as Jordan B. Peterson puts it, “simply the best psychometric tests available, among actual definable useable tests.”
Both EQ and Gardner’s theory devalue the concept of intelligence and render the word intelligence susceptible to what Spencer Case calls concept inflation: a form of deceit in which the frequent use of an emotionally charged word, as Case puts it, “degrades the rhetorical effect” of the term. Using the word intelligence to promote these theories only demonstrates the cultural value associated with cognitive intellect.
These theories are still given credence in educational settings, in which inclusivity is idealised. The apparent semantic relationship between EQ and multiple intelligences theory and IQ and intelligence lends the former concepts undeserved legitimacy.
So how can we resolve this issue?
First, we educators should think critically about the standards we use to assess children. Second, we should address the naked emperors in the room (Goleman and Gardner). Their theories convey a message of inclusivity that might, at first glance, seem positive, insightful and advantageous. Unfortunately, the benefits of such theories have yet to appear.
Finally, we must tackle the devaluation of the concept of intelligence as a result of concept inflation and of the kind of “positive feedback mechanisms” described by Richard Dawkins in his 1987 book, The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins uses the example of star to show how words can degenerate:
the word ‘star’ was used to mean a film actor of quite exceptional celebrity. Then it degenerated to mean any ordinary actor who was playing one of the principal roles in a film. Therefore, in order to recapture the original meaning of exceptional celebrity, the word had to escalate to “superstar.”
Continuously inflating the definition of certain words is not a viable solution. Gardner’s multiple intelligences are talents, not intelligences.
I agree with Gardner’s contention that psychologists and teachers can “help [guide a pupil] toward a field where his talents best suit him, where he will be satisfied and competent.” We should provide the appropriate environment for a child to develop her skills, as long as that doesn’t hamper her academic performance—or, more importantly—devalue the concept of intelligence itself.
As far as I know, there is a lack of evidence to support the notion that EQ is a greater predictor of socially important outcomes, like academic success, than intelligence and personality. It would be nice if the characteristics that predicted success were malleable and, at first glance, emotional intelligence meets this qualification. That’s why Goleman and Gardner set out to create a new norm by which to assess the competence of our children and wanted to get rid of IQ scores, as an inadequate measurement.
The idealistic notion that everyone is intelligent makes us forget that our social world and the relations we form are not designed for universal perfection. Our defects and weaknesses give us a reason to seek external support and therefore motivate our social interactions. As Jung puts it in The Undiscovered Self:
A human relationship is not based on differentiation and perfection, for these only emphasize the differences or call forth the exact opposite; it is based, rather, on imperfection, on what is weak, helpless and in need of support — the very ground and motive for dependence. The perfect have no need for others, but weakness has, for it seeks support and does not confront its partner with anything that might force him into an inferior position and even humiliate him.
Some of the ways in which we aim to achieve inclusivity are counterproductive. Those who promote Goleman and Gardner’s theories are blind to their long term ramifications. Primary and secondary schools, above all, should be largely exempt from any large scale experiments: we must stick to the systems that have been proven to work. Yes, students should be given the support they need: academic, social and psychological. We should help them cultivate their interests—but only if we don’t mistake these for forms of intelligence.