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Childhood Intelligence

Written by Adamantaimai Feb 19, 2009

Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the capabilities of the human mind and the meaning of intelligence. The common perception is that human intelligence grows as we age, that young children start off stupid and it is adults’ job, through the various institutions of education, to implant the right “knowledge” into children’s brains until they’re intelligent like us. I think that’s very, very far from the truth.

 

If you’ve read Dr. Robert Epstein’s “The Case Against Adolescence,” you may remember, in his chapter on intelligence, his description of two studies conducted in the 1940s, one by David Wechsler and one by J. C. Raven, demonstrating that “intelligence,” to the extent that it is measured by one’s capacity to score highly on an IQ test, peaks in the early- to mid-teens. Our IQ remains relatively constant throughout our lives, because IQ is a measure of how well we scored on the test compared to everyone else the same age as us. But, according to Wechsler and Raven, raw scores on “intelligence tests” rise rapidly during childhood, peak between the ages of 13 and 16, and decline steadily thereafter.

 

But raw scores on IQ tests do not measure intelligence. They measure how closely our “mental model of reality,” as educator John Holt puts it, conforms to actual reality, or at least societally perceived reality. Some portions of intelligence tests measure social knowledge; others measure the capacity to perform mathematical calculations mentally; others measure one aspect of memory or another, or our ability to put things in sequence.

 

But this is not real intelligence. Real intelligence is our ability to construct our mental model of reality from the ground up, to absorb information from the world around us, the individual bits of which may not make any sense by themselves, and to detect patterns in it, to analyze it, to fit the bits and pieces into a coherent whole and use them to further our understanding of the world. Not nearly as easy a task as writing symbols beneath their corresponding numerals as quickly as possible, one of the tasks of many IQ tests.

 

According to Wechsler and Raven, intelligence peaks in our teens. But I think that real intelligence peaks much earlier. In fact, I think it peaks between the ages of 1 and 3. Certainly, after the age of 5, when children generally enter school, real intelligence declines sharply, and continues to decline throughout life, or at least never increases.

 

To understand why, compare the way very young children learn about the world and the way older children, youth and adults learn about the world. We, whether we’re 13, 20 or 50, learn about the world by being told what to do, being told what the answers are, or at least being told where we can find the answers. We hear or read something, remember something else that we heard or read before, and are able to use this new information that we have been given to build upon the previous knowledge, make connections between various facts, all of which we’ve been told or pointed towards, and so enhance our understanding of the world.

 

That is, however, by far the “easy way” of constructing a mental model of reality, and it is, I think, the inferior way. Very young children cannot construct their mental models of reality the easy way. They haven’t been “taught” how yet. They must absorb a million disparate pieces of information coming at them from a million different directions, none of which make much sense, into their mental models, mentally arrange this information in ways that correspond with observed reality, experiment with the world around them, and come, by trial and error, to a more accurate understanding of the world they inhabit.

 

They learn, over a period of months and years, the intricacies of language by observing it being used around them, without the benefit of a guidebook or translation, learning the concepts, the words for them and the way in which they are categorized with nothing to reference, a task the staggering difficulty of which makes it nearly incomprehensible. They learn the way the world works in a million other ways, and are far more perceptive than any adult.

 

Consider that this is what very young children actually do with their lives, every day, day in and day out. And they get absolutely no respite from the intellectual rigors of this ongoing task. They are completely immersed in a world which to them is totally foreign, arbitrary and incomprehensible, and from which they cannot escape, and yet they plug at it day after day, genuinely exploring the world in ways which “adults” hardly ever do, building their understanding piece by piece. And they are extremely good at it. They are far better at this type of exploratory learning than we could ever hope to be.

 

In fact, if we were given a task with even one percent the difficulty of the intellectual task that very young children face every day, we would fail. If we were completely and irrevocably immersed in a world that was totally alien and nonsensical to us, and left, with the powers of our own minds, to piece together some sense of the way this world works, with no one to hold our hands, no one to show us the way, no one to tell us what to do, no one to even help us get started, we would go insane. We would utterly mentally collapse.

 

The average two-year-old is far, far more intelligent than any of us. When I consider the intellectual capabilities of very young children’s minds, I am awestruck. Somewhere along the way between “childhood” and “adulthood,” between the ages of 5 and 10, this amazing capability and intelligence is utterly destroyed, lost forever, replaced with the sequential, “disciplined,” passive, hand-holding approach with which we all learn.

 

Imagine what the world would be like if this destruction of intelligence did not happen. Imagine what kind of society we would live in if older children and adults functioned intellectually the way that two-year-olds do, with openness, determined resolve to understand the world, wide-eyed exploration, deciphering the way the world works under their own power. What kind of advancements could be made in the various fields of science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, medicine, and in fact all realms of human activity? How far could we progress as a species in just two or three generations? The possibilities are limitless.

 

The question that we as a society commonly ask when it comes to “educating” our children is how we can make children intelligent like us. If we should indeed have some kind of organized system for education and to foster intellectual growth, which is open to debate, I think the question should be how we prevent children from becoming intellectually stunted like us.

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