On Race and Intelligence

My fifth grade class photo.

My fifth grade class photo.

One of the readers of this blog, who came to it after having read a piece in the online political magazine CounterPunch, suggested that I should post, after a suitable interval, all my articles from CounterPunch to this blog. I published a piece recently in CounterPunch on racism, so I thought perhaps I should post an earlier piece I did on racism here. I think it is a good piece to follow the post “On Teaching” because it relates to that topic as well. This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.

Race is in the news again. First it was the Jena Six, then Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s assertion, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, and finally, a series of articles two weeks ago in Slate arguing that there was scientific evidence to back Watson’s claim.

The reaction to these recent developments was predictable. There have been a number of heated debates on the internet concerning not only race and intelligence, but also the appropriateness of studying race and intelligence. Two crucial points have yet to be made, however. The first concerns the contentious association of intelligence with  IQ score and the second is the equally contentious assumption that we have anything like a clear scientific conception or race.

Let’s take the first one first. What is intelligence anyway? We have no better grasp of this than we have of the relation of the mind to the brain. Sure, some people can solve certain sorts of puzzles faster than other people, but everyone knows people who are great at Scrabble, or crosswords, or chess, or who can fix almost any mechanical or electrical gadget, but who seem unable to wrap their minds around even the most rudimentary of social or political theories. Then there are the people with great memories who are able to retain all the elements of even the most arcane theories and who can undertake an explanation of them if pressed, but whose inability to express them in novel terms betrays that they have not really grasped them after all. Other people–I’ve known quite a few of this type–have keenly analytical minds. They can break individual claims, or even entire theories, down into their conceptual components, yet they appear to lack any sort of synthetic intelligence in that they are unable to see the myriad implications of these analyses. Still other people are great at grasping the big picture, so to speak, but have difficulty hanging onto the details.

Some people plod slowly and methodically toward whatever insights they achieve and others receive them almost effortlessly, through flashes of inspiration. But the insights of the former group are sometimes more profound than those of the latter group. Then there are people who are mostly mistaken in their beliefs, sometimes quite obviously so, but correct in some one belief the implications of which are so staggering that we tend to forget they are otherwise unreliable.

I’m inclined to put Watson in this last group. Perhaps that’s not fair. After all, I know of only one point on which he is obviously mistaken. That mistake is so glaring, however, that it leads me to think he is probably more like an idiot savant than a genuinely intelligent human being. I.Q. scores represent something. It just isn’t all that clear what. To suggest that they represent intelligence in any significant sense is thus to betray that one has less than the ideally desirable quantity of this quality himself.

Sure the mind, and therefore intelligence, is intimately connected with the brain. Read Oliver Sacks if you want to see just how intimate that connection is. Sacks is one of my favorite authors not simply because the substance of his writings is so fascinating, but also because he is himself so clearly intelligent. Not only does he not go leaping to conclusions on issues that lie outside his area of professional expertise (though I have to say I’d be more interested to hear Sacks’ social and political views than Watson’s), he doesn’t go leaping to conclusions about the implications of what he has observed in his own work in neurology. He’d be one of the first people, I think, to defend the claim that we do not yet have a clear enough idea of what intelligence is to be reliably able to quantify it. We don’t even understand it well enough yet to be able to say confidently that it is quantifiable. At this point, all we can say is that it appears so intimately connected with the brain that it can, in some sense, be associated with, or represented by, we-know-not-yet-what neurological activities or tendencies.

Okay, so far, so little. But what is a black brain and what is a white brain? Most blacks in the U.S., as opposed to blacks in Africa, have a great deal of white blood, or whatever you want to call it. If whites really were more intelligent than blacks, that would mean African-Americans would be that much more intelligent than Africans. (I’m sure my friend, the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would be interested to hear that one.) There may well be people who believe this. I am not aware of any empirical evidence, however, that supports such a conclusion. My own experience does not support it. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and attended predominantly black schools from fourth grade to college. Since that time I have also met more than a few Africans. I couldn’t detect any difference in intelligence. I’m unaware of even anecdotal evidence that would support the conclusion that there was such a difference. Do you see what I’m saying? We’re not looking at a slippery slope here, but at a meteoric descent down into a pile of deep doo-doo.

From what I’ve read, there is no clear scientific definition of race. “Race” is just a name we give to a collection of physical characteristics such as eye and hair color and degree of pigmentation of the skin. There is no race gene. There are just genes that encode for these individual characteristics. So how many, and what sort, of  characteristics does one have to have to be either black or white. It is some kind of ineffable sum isn’t it? Blacks sometimes have very pale skin, some whites actually have darker skin than some blacks. Blacks even occasionally have blue eyes, or straight hair, just as whites often have brown eyes or tightly curled hair.

In the past, we just arbitrarily determined what made a person black, and, by implication, white. Since, presumably, we have gotten beyond the point where we would say that even one drop of black blood makes a person black, the only reasonable definition of race (even given its circularity) would, therefore, appear to be one based on the statistical representation of the various races in one’s family tree. That would mean people with predominantly white, or perhaps I should say “white-ish” ancestry would be considered white. Have you ever seen a photo of Charles Chestnut or Anatole Broyard?  Not only are these guys clearly white, according to this definition, there are a whole lot of other people walking around this country who call themselves “black” because of the social environment into which they were born, but who ought properly to consider themselves white.

Since when have scientific studies been undertaken on ineffable, or arbitrarily determined, classes of thing? It’s like trying to determine whether people with purportedly good taste are more intelligent than people with purportedly bad taste, or whether people who live in Chicago are more intelligent than people who live in L.A. You might undertake such a thing as a sociological study with some arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what would constitute good and bad taste, or for how far out into the suburbs you want to go before you decide you have left Chicago, as well with some equally arbitrarily agreed upon criteria for what constitutes intelligence.

You cannot undertake such a thing though as a scientific study (no matter how convinced you may be in the genetic superiority of people who live in Chicago), and to think that you could betrays that you have a very weak grasp of what constitutes natural science. Given that race, at least from the standpoint of natural science, is nothing more than a collection of certain physical characteristics, the view that white people are more intelligent than black people is not uncomfortably close to view of the Nazis that blue-eyed blonds were inherently superior to everyone else–it is essentially the same thing.

As I said earlier, I spent a huge portion of my life in the almost exclusive company of black people. I’ve been around black people and I’ve been around white people and I haven’t found any general differences in terms of intelligence. My experience has led me to believe that most of what often passes for intelligence is actually intellectual self confidence, confidence in one’s own reasoning powers, confidence in the value of one’s insights. Teachers, of which I am one, will tell you that you can just see some people’s brains seize up when they are confronted with tasks they fear may be beyond them but which sometimes later prove not to have been beyond them. This fear, however, that certain tasks are beyond one, is a substantial obstacle to completing them. One stumbles again and again, fearing his “guess” is just that, a guess, rather than understanding. One fails to pursue an insight for fear that it is not genuine, or from fear that it is so obvious that others have come to it long ago.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are not innate differences in intelligence among human beings. I’m sure there are, but I agree with what I believe Noam Chomsky said somewhere about how these differences, measured relative to the difference in intelligence between human beings and their closes relatives the apes, are simply vanishingly small.

I construe my job as an educator not to impart knowledge, but to nurture intellectual confidence. (Of course this could be partly a defensive mechanism because I am a philosopher, which means I don’t have any knowledge to impart.) I try to teach critical thinking skills, of course, but even more important to me is somehow to get my students to believe in their own intellectual potential because even these skills, I believe, can, at least to a certain extent, be acquired naturally by people who are confident in their ability to acquire them.

I say, teach people to believe in themselves and then see what they are able to do with that faith. But be very careful when you start judging the results because if anything of value has emerged from the recent debates on race and intelligence, it is that many of us in the U.S. are much closer to the edge of idiocy than we would like to admit. Noted intellectuals have failed to grasp even the most basic facts about what constitutes natural scientific research and failed to understand that to parade this ignorance in the way they have before a public still marked by social and economic inequities that cut along racial lines is offensive in the extreme. The whole thing has been very humbling. It has shown, I believe, that racism is still very firmly entrenched in the American psyche.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Racism and the American Psyche” in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue of CounterPunch.)

On Teaching

Plato

Plato

I don’t remember ever forming the ambition to be a teacher. When I was very small, I used to play “teacher” with my dolls. I had a little slate that I would position for them as a blackboard and on which I would write my “lessons.” That was a child’s game though, not an ambition. I did it, I suppose, because school was a large part of the world of my experience, so when I was alone with my dolls I naturally imitated the few adults I’d had exposure to. That meant that if I wasn’t playing “mother,” I was playing “teacher.”

I was an art major when I first entered college. It had been drilled relentlessly into me that I would not be able to make a living as an artist, but that since I could draw, I would probably be able to make a living as a medical illustrator. So I enrolled at Ohio State, one of the few schools in the country that had a program in medical illustration. I did not fit well though into the community of art students, either at Ohio State, or at the Columbus College of Art and Design where I subsequently enrolled. I remained an art major, however, even after leaving both institutions, more out of a lack of imagination, I supposed, than out of positive commitment.

I studied, God knows what (I don’t remember now) at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle before, finally, ending up at Earlham, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana, still an art major. I took some art classes, but I also took a philosophy class. I don’t remember what prompted me to take that class; I think some philosophy class must have been required for my major. The subject, I still remember, was rationalism and empiricism. It sounds very unromantic, but I loved it. I changed my major soon after that first class and took almost nothing but philosophy from that point on.

I didn’t particularly like reading philosophy, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I loved talking about it. I loved talking about it so much that I actually tried to talk to my father about Kant’s Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics the first summer after I transferred to Earlham.

“All that stuff about ‘a prior synthetic cognition’ may be very interesting to you,” my father observed somewhat patronizingly, “but you’re not going to find many young men interested in it.” I didn’t bother him after that with philosophy. I kept it to myself, or at least kept it to myself until I was back at Earlham again and could drop by the office of my professor and advisor Bob Horn.

“Bob is God,” is what students at Earlham used to say about him. He was kind and patient and brilliant. He didn’t talk too much, the way I fear I tend to do with my own students now, but just enough, just enough to get, or keep, the conversation going. He was tolerant and understanding. He wrote on one of my friend’s papers, “Eric, I understand you as if through a cloud.”

Nearly every afternoon of my senior year was spent in his office. I would head there as soon as my classes were done for the day and sit in the slanting afternoon light and talk and talk and talk about the ideas that were always swarming in my head like so many bees. And he would smile patiently and respond occasionally with his vastly superior knowledge and wisdom. I never felt though that he was talking down to me. I felt as if we were kindred spirits, as if we connected at a level that is rarely reached by two human beings.

Even when I decided, in my senior year, to go to graduate school, it had not been because I’d harbored any ambitions of becoming a teacher, but because I couldn’t conceive of any other life than the one I’d come to know, the life of philosophy, the life of talking about philosophy with some kindred spirit. I was afraid of teaching, in the beginning, afraid I would never be more than a kind of fraud, afraid I would never be able to approach the knowledge and wisdom of my own professors, particularly Bob. I cherished a little hope, like a tiny flame in the darkness, that somehow graduate school would transform me into a paragon of philosophical knowledge, but that day never came. The more I learned, the clearer it became to me how very much there was to know, and how little of it I had actually mastered.

They ease you into teaching in graduate school. You start out as a teaching assistant, which means you are really sort of a glorified student so you don’t feel you have to be so knowledgeable as the professors but can luxuriate in the experience of being ever so slightly more knowledgeable than the students. I did that for a few years before finally teaching my first course, so even if I still felt something of a fraud when students referred to me as “professor,” my impostor syndrome was not quite so pronounced as it would have been if I’d been thrown into teaching right after I’d gotten my undergraduate degree.

I like people. I’m an animal lover and people are animals, so I like people as well as other animals. I was raised not to dissemble, so I didn’t pretend to know things I didn’t know, and I learned gradually that in fact, over time, I’d acquired a great deal of knowledge and that even if I still fell pitifully short of the standards of my own undergraduate professors (particularly Bob), I was actually in a position to be of some real, concrete help to my students.

I taught in Denmark for several years before I came to Drexel. I never had a student for more than one course when I taught in Denmark, however, because my students there were nearly always Americans or other non-Danish nationals who were taking their semester abroad. I loved my students, but in a very detached way. I never got to know any of them, really, but that was okay with me. I’ve always been kind of a loner. I liked engaging with them intellectually, but it didn’t bother me that I would have them for only one course and after that would never see them again.

My situation when I came to Drexel was not so different. Drexel didn’t allow students to major in philosophy. The best they could do was a minor. I didn’t mind that; in fact, I rather like it. I loved teaching, but I also loved writing, and the fact that my exposure to the lives of my students was very limited suited me well. I got to go into the classroom and do what I loved–talk about philosophy–without having to spend any time helping my students navigate the practical difficulties of their lives. I had all the fun of teaching, or so I thought, with none of the inconvenience.

But then someone senior to myself got the idea that we should offer a major in philosophy. Drexel had had one before but had jettisoned it after several professors retired and were not replaced. Philosophy students do inordinately well on the GREs, so it wasn’t too difficult to convince the dean that a philosophy major would be good for the university. I was ambivalent about it myself, though. I knew that if we had a major I would suddenly “have students” in a way I had never “had students” before and that these “students” would cut into my research time.

I couldn’t bring myself to protest the reinstatement of the major, but neither could I champion it. I sat by quietly with a curiosity not unlike that of a disinterested person watching a train wreck. I didn’t think our students were sufficiently prepared for such a rigorous and intellectually challenging major and I feared that I was emotionally incapable of forming the kind of attachment to them that it seemed to me was necessary for a productive mentoring relationship.

I like large chunks of time all to myself, time when I don’t have to see, attend to, or worry about anyone else. I couldn’t picture myself hanging out with my students, couldn’t imagine welcoming them into my office and cheerfully allowing them to monopolize my time the way Bob had allowed me to monopolize his. I liked my students, but more as abstract beings than as concrete ones. I knew that in this respect I fell short of the standard that Bob had set for me, but I had accepted long ago that I would never be able to meet any of Bob’s standards, Bob, after all was “God.”

But then when we got the major back, everything changed. As if out of nowhere students began to appear who stood out from the students I’d had before. They weren’t interested in philosophy; they were possessed, possessed as I had been all those years ago when I’d practically lived in Bob’s office. Not only did I have them for more than one class; I had them in more than one class at a time! I teach only two courses per term, so I was surprised to find that I had a couple of students in both my classes and not just for one term, but for several terms in a row.

Something else happened with the reinstatement of the major: the size of my classes shrank. Where before I’d been teaching critical reasoning to twenty-five students, I suddenly found I was teaching epistemology to ten, and ten students who were a cut above, at least in terms of their commitment to the material, the ones I had become used to.

I suddenly found myself caring about my students very much. I couldn’t help but get to know them. They would talk to me not simply about the material they had read for class, but about their lives and long-term ambitions and I realized that by that point in my life, I’d actually lived long enough to have acquired some wisdom that could be helpful to them with respect to these more general concerns. They would come talk to me, as I had to Bob, and I found to my surprise that I actually enjoyed talking to them, even about things that were not directly related to philosophy.

“Your students are not your friends,” a colleague once remarked when advising new faculty on the perils of socializing too much with students. He’s right, of course. There’s a certain responsibility in a pedagogical relationship. A teacher must never confide in a student, or look to a student for emotional support. It is perfectly appropriate for a student to do these things, however, with a teacher. A teacher stands in loco parentis. Most college students are young people who have not yet made their way in the world but who are going to college as part of their preparation for that. They are more than their student numbers. They are inexperienced adults who occasionally need support and guidance when contemplating life’s larger questions, or simply how to survive a term in which they are taking too many courses in order to minimize their student-loan debt.

A teacher cannot hold himself too emotionally aloof from his students and still be an effective teacher. The point of a liberal arts education is not merely to impart knowledge to students on a variety of subjects. It is not even to introduce them to the joys of the life of the mind. It is to help them to become happy and thriving adults, to help them in their pursuit of “the good life” in the classical sense. But that can be done only by teachers who are willing to engage with their students as human beings and who can draw on their own humanity, and not simply their intellects, in those relationships.

A teacher has to love his students in a manner that is perhaps unique to that relationship, and in that way teach them that it is natural for people to care about one another and that the world into which they are entering, though challenging, is a friendlier place than they may have thought.

The Idiot

Portrait caricatureI found out recently that the BBC is doing a new adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In honor of this auspicious event, I thought it would be appropriate for me to post here a piece I wrote a few years ago on the experience of reading Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. So here it is.

 

The Idiot

Russian novels should come with little paper dolls of all the characters. Readers could use these dolls to connect faces with the multitude of names and in that way keep the various characters straight. Without some kind of device such as this, it is virtually impossible to make sense of the average Russian novel (at least in its nineteenth-century instantiation).

I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot now. There are, according to a list I found on the website for Middlebury College, fifteen main characters and ten secondary, or minor characters, in the novel. But with names such as Nikolay Andreevitch Pavlishchev and Vera Lukyanova Lebedev, it is difficult for someone who is not himself of Slavic extraction, to keep all the names straight. Characters are often introduced by names that will rarely be used again and the reader is left to figure out, by an elaborate process of deduction, who is who. The “idiot” is the novel’s protagonist, Prince Myshkin, who is also sometimes referred to as Lev Nikolayevitch.  The further I have gotten into the novel though, the more I have begun to suspect that the title may actually have been intended to refer to the reader. Prince Myshkin, after all, does not appear particularly stupid, but my own intellectual self-esteem has been progressively eroded the further I have gotten into the work.

Scene after scene takes place in my imagination with only the faintest semblance of coherence. Characters enter and exit, make dramatic declarations, quarrel, lie, dissemble, plot, attempt suicide and even homicide, yet I’m unable to make sense of most of these events because I’m almost always in a state of confusion about who these people  are. I believe I have finally figured out that General Yepanchin also goes by the name of Ivan Fyordorovitch and that Totsky is also referred to as Afanassy Ivanovitch, but I did not figure this out until at least a third of the way into this six hundred page book and I fear that my earlier confusion may have caused me to miss some important plot twists.

I debated starting over, once I felt I had gotten most of the main characters straight, but quickly abandoned the idea. I feel like a drunken person threading his way through a crowd of acquaintances he should recognize but can’t because of his inebriated state. A face will become familiar in hindsight, but I feel so fortunate to have made it this far that I am reluctant to retrace any of my steps. I continue thus to stumble forward over people I feel guiltily I should know.

Like the drunk who becomes aware that he is seeing double, I have also begun to fear that I may have overpopulated my novel—i.e., that I may have included in my imagination a set of extraneous characters who are in fact the same person simply referred to periodically by different names. This at least is what I take to have happened with Keller, who seems to me to have sprung spontaneously into existence on page 321, but who I can tell from the nature of his exchange with the novel’s protagonist, that I, the reader, am supposed to know.

Ganya, I know, is the same character as both Gavril Ardalionovitch and Gavril Ivolgin (i.e., his full name is Gavril Ardalionovitch Ivolgin), and Kolya, is the same character as Nikolai Ardalionich (whom, I assume, could also have “Ivolgin” appended to his name, since Nikolai is Gavril’s brother, at least I think he is Gavril’s brother). Ptitsyn’s full name is Ivan Petrovich Ptitsyn, so though he is usually referred to simply as Ptitsyn, he is sometimes also called Ivan Petrovich.

But who the hell is Keller? Prince S is easy enough to keep straight when he is referred to as “Prince S.” It seems to me, however, that there is something sadistic in placing him in dialogue with Prince Myshkin in scenes where each is referred to in turn simply as “the prince.”

A reviewer of a recent biography of Isaiah Berlin marveled at the genius of a man who, he learned, had read War and Peace when he was only ten years old. That didn’t seem any great accomplishment to me though as I quickly calculated that I also had read War and Peace when I was ten years old. I had forgotten, however, when I mentally disparaged Berlin’s accomplishment, that I had done this only after having watched the entire Masterpiece Theater dramatization and that I thus had faces to connect with the names before I ever picked up the book. It takes such an extraordinary level of mental acuity to keep the characters in Russian novels straight, that until I remembered this fact, I feared my difficulties with The Idiot might indicate I was the victim of some kind of degenerative brain disease.

Reading Russian novels requires skills similar to those required to play blindfold chess. Since I have neither the patience nor the mental discipline to learn regular chess, you can imagine how I am struggling now. It seems to me that there were fewer characters in both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, but then I suppose being an adulteress and a murderer respectively has the effect of shrinking one’s social circles. I had what is from one perspective the good fortune and from another perspective the misfortune, to read those works immediately after War and Peace. I was fortunate in that they are great literary works that helped to shape my views of human nature and aided in the development of my intellect more generally. Unfortunately reading them led me to believe that I loved Russian novels, which must have seemed the height of intellectual affectation to anyone to whom I declared it. Now I understand why that declaration was always such a conversation stopper. People who knew me well enough to have some grasp of the limits of my cognitive abilities must simply have assumed I was lying, and those who didn’t know me so well must have thought me a snob.

I think it would be easier if the characters had names like “Heather Smith” and “Frank Jones.” “It doesn’t help that to a native English speaker, names like Aglaya Yepanchin and Gavril Ardalionovitch are bound to seem strange no matter how many times they appear in a particular text. Still, hardly anyone, I think, even a Russian, is up to the challenge of the Russian novel. It is the literary equivalent of the Chinese box. If Isaiah Berlin really was able to read War and Peace without the benefit of any sort of visual aid, then he probably was a transcendent genius.

Dickens, they say, was paid by the word. I’ll bet you anything that Russian novelists were paid by the character and that when they absolutely could not cram any more characters into a particular story, they hit upon the device of referring to the same person by a variety of names in the hope that this would so confuse their editors that the latter would be forced to rely on the author for a character count.

Now that’s creative!

(This piece originally appeared in ASK, The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences of Drexel University, May, 2005)