How smart is dumb?


I recall how stupid I felt when I first learned about Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Gardner, in his 1985 book Frames of Mind, tells us that “I.Q.” should not be narrowly defined by intellectual capacity, or, in other words, the ability to “think.” Rather, he says, there are diverse “intelligences”––Spatial, Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, and Existential––each with a measurable I.Q. I’m convinced that there are a few others that never crossed his mind, especially when I look around and see how popular and shrewd some politicians are.

Gardner’s theory has some appeal to me. In my vaguest moments I’m always sure my Existential I.Q. is operating in high gear. But most of the other intelligences on Gardner’s list leave me feeling dumb, especially when I’m on the basketball and tennis courts and my Spatial I.Q. fails to figure out whether the ball should be in or over the net.

I wish I’d been savvy enough to think up Gardner’s theory before it dawned on him. A fat book contract would help with the big bucks we pay for my daughter to get a few college smarts. If I had a lot of different smarts I’d be less uptight about whether I’m making a smart-aleck fool of myself. What I don’t know makes a big enough fool of me. During those brilliant moments when my Existential I.Q. kicks in I tend to stare wide-eyed at the black hole of the unknown, and that hole is so bottomless I get a profound view of how deep and wide my ignorance is. The insights I get down there, however, provide me some pleasures too. Because my lack is so low-down visible in that hole some of the guilt that attaches itself to the moral responsibility for overcoming my cluelessness gets lost in it. If my free-fall into the dark gets me off the hook, it gives me little shivers too: They’re like the kicks we enjoyed as kids when we closed our eyes and chanted, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

But these pleasures don’t compensate for other reasons I have for feeling ignorant these days. For one thing, my mind shrinks at the thought of being globalized. When I contemplate how many multiple intelligences there must be in the whole world, most of them not speaking English, I get confused about what I’m supposed to know, and in what language. I’m told that China and India are full of geniuses. Is it too late to learn Chinese, and whatever it is they speak in India? The internet loses me too, makes me nostalgic for a plain and simple 24 volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I could get through one volume per month of that set and in two years end up feeling as if I had a Ph.D in something. But the internet makes me an Alice in Wonderlander. A few clicks drop me into cyberspace’s black hole, where I drift in an endless swirl of unalphabetized infobit debris while wondering which of the multiple intelligences I should invoke to give me grounding again. If I were a school teacher I would know why standardized tests fail reality checks, and if I were a student too much would be at once too important and trivial for me to care much about anything. And if my curriculum were being dumbed down to focus on standardized tests so that my education is reduced to the training I’ll need to compete with the Chinese work force, I’d be honest with myself and say, “Okay, I am dumb, but at least I’m honest, I’m proud of that, and I’m not alone. There are a lot of interesting, smart and creative people who hate school.”

I’m also dizzied by my incomprehension of the multiple intelligences that have no names. How do my two eyes know enough to get their acts together so I can see straight? How do flowers know enough about dirt to decide whether or not to blossom in it? How do butterflies know how to make themselves so beautiful? And how do some politicians know enough to make themselves successful and popular, especially those we enjoy calling stupid and dumb?

I don’t think it’s smart to call them stupid and dumb. Nobody would accuse two eyes, or flowers or butterflies, of being stupid and dumb. But we hear it said about certain politicians every day who have made it part of their mission to make non-credible, extremist, or those obviously false statements we used to call lies. As we laugh at and reject these politicians what we often forget is that they’ve learned how to make all sorts of multiple intelligences kick in lots of money to get them where they are. So they’re maybe not as stupid and dumb as we think. I suspect it’s very smart of them to get us calling them stupid and dumb.

I dimly remember the days when Ronald Reagan was running for president. I was one of the liberals sitting in my ivory tower agreeing with other liberals that he was too stupid and dumb to be elected. While we sat around agreeing about how stupid and dumb he was an army of conservatives was busy organizing, creating think tanks and media outlets, and developing the vital strategies, alliances, and fund-raising schemes that have given liberals the politics they today think are stupid and dumb. We were oh so smart, while they were oh so busy getting political hard work done. They kicked our intellectual buttheads.

If I were a smart politician I’d play dumb now and then, and I’d want people to call me dumb every time I said things a lot of people maybe believe. There’s a lot to be ignorant about these days, but people as a rule don’t enjoy being dumb. I’m one of them, except in my dizzy Existential I.Q. moments. So if I’m feeling dumb and people call me dumb I think they’re being unfair and rather immediately I develop an urge to dislike them for accusing me of being what I don’t enjoy being. I’m also likely to try to work harder to prove, at least to myself, that what I believe is not unbelievable. I gain strength for even my most unbelievable beliefs by identifying with politicians who agree with me, those smart enough to use their multiple intelligences to become prominent. I make them more prominent when we agree to agree, and together we enjoy disliking people who accuse us of being what we don’t enjoy being.

We win a lot of elections this way.

For good reason we should be suspicious of the high intelligence we associate with intellectuals. The best and the brightest Harvard minds coolly reasoned us into the Vietnam and other wars, the geniuses at MIT have provided the fancy weaponry, and the think tanks “head-quartered” in Washington D.C. that help spread some of our current messes all over the planet are plugged with Ivy League success stories. It’s useful to imagine that Dr. Kissinger’s absent father was Dr. Frankenstein, and (I’m told by a liberal who really really knows) Dr. Strangelove is Dick Cheney’s real dad. Would the world be better off if the great I.Q. of all these powerful men had been channeled into playing the violin, or hockey, instead?

What good does the wisdom of serpents do if doves fail to coo? What good is any political stance if it fails to express the practical value of compassion and community? It’s an irony of political anatomy that more good is likely to come from open ears than from open mouths. And minds often have less to say than hearts. A host of politicians endowed with all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences would be fine, and several no doubt exist, but the nasty heart of a genius gives off a nasty stench. To call nasty geniuses stupid and dumb misses the point and makes winners of them. The point to be addressed is that some policies are impractical, unfair, and mean. We need to figure out civil ways of saying that, particularly to those at a loss for words because they have been hurt by policies that are impractical, unfair, and mean.