What We Mean When We Call People "Smart"

A (personal) history of intelligence

by Sara Winnick

Illustration by Kristine Mar

published October 17, 2014

1509, Europe

Etymologists trace the first known use of intelligens, past participle of intelligere, back to sixteenth century France. The noun comes from the Latin verb intellegere, which means “to understand.” Intelligens itself evolved from the Middle English legende, meaning “to gather, select, or read.” Legende is also rooted in the Greek legein, meaning “speech,” “word,” or “reason.” In its roots, “intelligence” requires a facility with language. It means and has always meant the ability to convey ideas through spoken and written Latin, French, and English. Embedded in “intelligent” is language and logic.

16th c., Europe

In the year 1500 Michelangelo sculpts La Pieta and Portuguese ships land in Brazil. In 1505 Leonardo paints the Mona Lisa. 1513, Machiavelli writes The Prince. 1569, Mercator prints the world map. The Renaissance, as it is later known, is remembered as a cultural revolution emphasizing humanism, creativity, and knowledge, rooted in a resurgent interest in antiquity. Its philosophers argue that truth and knowledge can exist in human beings (their minds), not merely divine institutions (the church). For the first time on the European continent, there exists the possibility of having or acquiring personal knowledge—intelligence.

18th c., Europe

In 1784 Emmanuel Kant pens his essay “Answering the Question: What is the Enlightenment?” He begins, “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” It has been 147 years since Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am” in his “Discourse on Method” (foundation of modern philosophy). Ninety-seven years since Newton published “Principia Matematica” (foundation of modern physics). The Age of Enlightenment is an intellectual revolution spanning centuries and countries, built on man’s intellectualism and his ability to discover objective truth and scientific fact.

1869, England

Francis Galton measures people’s heads. The British biologist uses the newly developed scientific method to test his hypothesis: the bigger your brain, the more likely you are a genius. In 1869 he publishes Hereditary Intelligence, chronicling his efforts to qualify and quantify “smart.” Galton writes, “I object to pretensions of natural equality. The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary.” He coins the word “eugenics.”

1879, Germany

Albert Einstein is born to two middle class parents in Ulm, a small city in Germany. He soon begins to study math and play the violin. In 1879, he has not yet proven that e = mc2, published the General Theory of Relativity, or won a Nobel Prize in Physics. He has not yet declared, “imagination is more important than knowledge,” or, “I have no special talents.” In 1879, Einstein’s last name is just his last name. Later it enters the dictionary as a noun synonymous with “genius.”

1908, France

In 1908, psychologist Alfred Binet develops the first intelligence test. The test is a series of hundreds of questions asked by one interviewer to one French school child, one at a time. Students follow directions, construct sentences, describe images from memory. Binet and his team want to know which questions correlate most closely with the interviewee’s success in French elementary school.

1916, United States

Intelligence testing crosses the Atlantic through American psychologist Lewis Terman, who seeks to standardize the laborious task of individual questioning to determine intelligence. Terman invents the Intelligence Quotient. To calculate IQ: divide mental age (determined by written, multiple choice version of Binet test) with chronological age (determined by US birth certificate) and multiply by 100.

1922, United States

Princeton Professors Carl Bringham and Robert Yerkes administer intelligence tests to thousands of adult males enlisting in the US army throughout World War I. With the results, they publish “A Study of American Intelligence” in 1922. They assert, “The United States is made up of four racial elements, the Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean races of Europe, and the negro. If these four types blend in the future into one general American type, then it is a foregone conclusion that this future blended American will be less intelligent then the present native born American.” The text becomes a backbone of the Eugenics movement. Bringham goes on to chair the College Board and create the first SAT.

1926, United States

Students take Bringham’s Scholastic Aptitude Test for the first time in 1926. It is not until 1990 that the test is re-named the Scholastic Achievement Test, to indicate its intention to measure performance, not talent.

1972, United States

African American psychologist Robert Williams invents the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (BITCH). On the test, which is written in black vernacular and uses black cultural references, black Americans outscore white Americans en masse. The test asks about “playing the dozens,” “gospel birds,” and “CPT.” Williams writes, “Most of the research on intellectual differences between Blacks and whites is based on differences in test scores, or IQ. Since the tests are biased in favor of middle-class whites, all previous research comparing the intellectual abilities of Blacks and whites should be rejected completely.”

Williams later combines “ebony” and “phonics” to create the term “ebonics.” Ebonics refers to a variety of American English, referred to by linguists as African American Vernacular English, spoken largely by workingand middle-class African Americans. Linguists later illustrate that ebonics has a rigorous, complex grammatical structure distinct enough to qualify some black students as [standard] English Language Learners in school.

1994, United States

Harvard Ph.D.’s Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray publish “The Bell Curve,” arguing that intelligence is a quality that can be measured on a single axis that will always result in a bell curve—few at the top and few at the bottom. Those at the bottom are, according to Herrnstern and Murray, mostly black and largely responsible for societal ills. The book jacket reads, “Herrnstein and Murray break new ground in exploring the ways that low intelligence, independent of social, economic, or ethnic background lies at the root of many of our social problems. The authors also demonstrate the truth of another taboo fact: that intelligence levels differ among ethnic groups.”

1998, Spring Glen Elementary School

In Kindergarten math I learn that 1 + 1 = 2. Later I learn to solve one side of the equation by solving the other side of the equation because the equals sign in the middle means balance. There are steps (First, Outside, Inside, Last). I find x.

I don’t remember learning that a curved line that meets a straight line and looks like “2” means that: there is one object, there is another object, and those objects are linked together in a conceptual category called “two.” Two has, in my memory, just always been 2.

1999, Spring Glen Elementary School

My first grade class has 26 buckets of books. Each is marked by a letter of the alphabet. The A books are easiest, then B, then C, all the way through Z (chapters). In the first week of class, each student reads aloud to Mrs. Jones for five minutes to determine which basket we pull from for Silent Sustained Reading. I know my letters and their corresponding phonetic sounds. I attended two years of pre-school before Kindergarten (total cost = $12,000) and have my very own bookshelf at home. I pull from bucket P.

2001, Washington DC

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is signed into law. Students take annual standardized tests in reading and math, which are scored on a scale of 1-4. 1: below basic, 2: basic, 3: proficient, 4: advanced. The lawmakers agree on 100 percent proficiency by 2014. “Failure is not an option,” says President Bush.

2002, Spring Glen Elementary School

My third grade teacher nominates me for entry to the district’s Talented and Gifted enrichment program, which will start in two years when I begin fifth grade. TAG students get to leave their elementary schools for one day each week (school bus ride = approximately $200 taxpayer dollars per trip) for an all day curricular program. We will each pursue year-long research projects on subjects of our choice. We will take field trips to museums in New York. My two best friends are also nominated. My twin brother is not. My parents wait two years to tell me that I’ve been accepted.

2006, Spring Glen Elementary School

On Valentine’s Day, every sixth grader at Spring Glen is given a paper heart with their name written on it in black sharpie. Sixty 12-year-olds sit in a circle on the gym floor. Every 60 seconds, I write something nice on the classmate’s heart in front of me and pass it to the left. When my heart returns, it reads: “You’re smart, you’re smart, you’re smart.”

2007, Hamden Middle School

In middle school Talented and Gifted changes from a one-day enrichment and creativity program to a curricular track for core English, Social Studies, Algebra, and Science classes. I shuffle through the halls of my urban/suburban public middle school with 18 other students, 15 of whom attended my Elementary School. We have nearly identical class schedules. I rarely interact with the other 985 students in the school.

2008, Hamden Middle School

Middle school science teaches me the scientific method, which is useful for proving things. In order to prove things one must control variables, take measurements, record data. Proof is related to truth and fact, though the teachers do not say how or why. I learn that pendulums with longer strings move slower. Objects with more surface area are more likely to float. There is something significant about potato proteins, but the science kits didn’t arrive in time for me to learn what. I get A’s on lab reports with check marks beside section headers “Hypothesis,” “Data Collection,” “Procedure,” and “Results.” A’s somehow mean “smart.” I don’t remember when I learned that.

2010, Hamden High School

I do remember that Jamestown was established in 1619 and that President Arthur passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. I remember this on the AP US History Exam in 2010. These things are easy to remember in part because I read about them in books; I have always liked reading. I could read quickly, which meant I could do my AP US History homework without compromising sleep, sports, or hanging out with my friends. In history, I wrote papers and was praised for my writing. According to Bloom’s taxonomy (invented by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom circa 1956), students remember the least when asked to recall information, but more when applying, analyzing or evaluating information, as one does when writing papers.

On the exam I get a five, which is three more than two and means that there is one object, another object, and three more objects somehow grouped into a single conceptual category. The category is represented by two straight lines and a curved line in the shape of “5.” Somehow this symbol in this setting means that I have a chance of going to Brown University (total cost = $200,000).

2011, Hamden High School

I take the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity in AP psychology. The teacher leaves out the words “black” and “of cultural homogeneity” when he gives it to us. “We’re taking an IQ test,” he says. I, along with most of the class, fail; the four black students are declared geniuses.

2012, Brown University

In an Education Studies classes in college, I learn about Bloom’s taxonomy. Students learn some when asked to recall or regurgitate, more when asked to analyze or apply. Students remember the most when able to create something from the information at hand—often explained as being able to teach the material to other students. The people most likely to be good teachers, therefore, are those who are already good students.

In the Education Studies class, I write an Educational Autobiography in response to the question “How did you get to Brown?” In it, I wonder if I would have gotten to college if nobody had ever called me smart. I wonder if more students will get to college if they have people in their life calling them smart. I learn about Bloom’s taxonomy. I decide to become a teacher.

2012, Providence, RI

She (Ethiopian Refugee tutee) counts “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” while I (Brown University tutor) write and point to the relevant written symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. She counts “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” when I write and point to 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I try to explain that “2” means “2” and “7” does not mean “2.” I try to explain this in in pre-school second-language level English.

July 2013; Providence, RI

I (the teacher) attempt to teach first grade phonics to eight refugee students in the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment Summer School. He (the student) refuses to look at the worksheets with foreign symbols and confusing directions. Instead he uses his energy to make the entire class—who share no common languages—laugh aloud. He dances on desks, drums on tables, invents “The Poop Song,” and mimics my every move. He smiles with round cheeks and bright eyes. At 12, he understands that learning a new language is difficult and that everyone else has a head start. He does not understand why C sometimes sounds like K and sometimes sounds like S. He is in the same class as his six-year-old sister. “I’m stupid, I’m stupid, I’m stupid,” he repeats.