Intelligence is perhaps one of the most socially-desirable traits today. It is considered, by far, one of the most valuable assets required to be successful in life. Intelligence can be defined as “the ability to think, to learn from experience, to solve problems, and to adapt to new situations.” It is important to note, however, intelligence cannot be ascertained independently from behaviour. A person is considered intelligent because they act congruent with the image of intelligence. What does it mean to be (or act) intelligent, though?

Societal standards

It is essential to remember that intelligence, like all other traits, is subject to societal standards. Similar to how beauty standards change over time, so does the ideal of what (and who) is considered intelligent. For example, During World War One, The American army administered the Binet IQ test to its officials. One of the questions was “Why should you not give money to beggars on the street?” The possible answers were because of it:

  1. Breaks up, families
  2. Makes it hard for the beggar to get work
  3. Takes away the work of organised charities
  4. Encourages living off others.

Only the last one was an acceptable answer.

Often, being proficient in a socially acceptable way constitutes acting intelligent. This has proven dangerous several times throughout history.

Categorising people

Alfred Binet, the inventor of the first IQ test, the Binet and Simon test, initially created it to identify children with learning difficulties and mild intellectual deficiency. Today, IQ tests help classify and rank individuals, mostly children, in academic categories. Kids classed ‘unintelligent’ often become the brunt of cruel jokes and are systematically ostracised and demotivated. History, however, has witnessed far grimmer divides based on supposed intelligence.

Eugenics: an ugly history

At the height of the Great Depression, thirty of the fifty states that make up the United States of America had passed miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriages. This was largely due to the racial bias present in intelligence tests which consistently led to people of colour scoring lower than white people. Studies then showed correlations between low IQ and criminality, which led to the American government sanctioning sterilisation of individuals with lower IQ scores. In 1927, the Buck V Bell ruling of the United States Supreme Court recommended the sterilisation of “mental defectives.” By 1930, over 60,000 people had been sterilised.

While intelligence does play a huge role in how individuals navigate the world. It is very important to recognize that nothing is important enough to systematically and systemically discriminate against communities. Intelligence tests can be a very useful tool to identify the unique needs of individuals in educational settings. Individuals who understand the kinds of intelligence they possess can better understand what they can excel at professionally. However, limiting the opportunities and freedom a person can access based on how intelligent they appear can be extremely damaging, and often ableist. It is so very important to remember how the concept of intelligence has often been misused and misconstrued so that we, as a society, can do better going forward.