Redefining Intelligence

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In the early 20th century, The Binet Test was created as a means of testing children with significantly below-average intelligence, but in the modern day it is better known as the IQ test. One of the lasting legacies of this test is the idea that linguistic and mathematical abilities are the essential components of intelligence- or in other words, that there is only one specific way of really being smart. A key purpose of social and emotional learning in the past century has been to challenge the ‘monopoly on intelligence’ held by traditional abstract intelligence. This conservative view supported the sociopolitical view of eugenists as a means of solidifying a class system based largely on educational opportunity and attainment. The psychologist E. L. Thorndike popularised the theory of multiple intelligence which allowed him to solidify his position in the nature versus nurture debate that was brewing on either side of the Atlantic. His theory was that knowledge comprises of abstract, mechanical and social intelligences – and was published in Harper’s Baazar in 1920. 

The monopoly on intelligence by abstract, rational thought extends beyond the 20th century. From Cartesian-based systems defining reason as Godly, to the Enlightenment debating the role of the individual to society, to the 19th century and its positivist science and nationalism, abstract intelligence as the main driver of reason has been privileged in most post-Enlightenment thinking. After World War II, this was challenged by the Frankfurt School- according to Theodor Adorno, reasoning created “abstract, coherent, architectonic systems’ (the main example being the Holocaust) and did not promote ‘subjective, private reflection.’ These insights allowed for humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, part of the affective education movement, to start emphasising the experiential parts of personality. Though such movements allowed for the advancement of social and emotional learning – and could be argued to have founded them – abstract intelligence still dominates the modern education system and its sense of educational accountability with its emphasis on basic academic skills, frameworks and – since the 1980s – international competition.

More recently, physics and computer science have begun to add to the definitions of intelligence, even creating an equation for intelligence, F = T ∇ Sτ. Intelligence being a force (F) that acts to maximise future freedom of action with some strength (T), with the diversity of possible accessible futures (S), up to some future time horizon (τ). 

As computer scientist and physicist Alex Wisnner-Gross describes it, intelligence tries to maximise future freedom of action and keep options open. With this definition of intelligence in mind, social and emotional learning can be respected as one of many components of a process that tries to maximise future freedom of action and void constraints in the future.

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