Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Egalitarianism on Steroids

Nina Power at The Philosopher's Magazine argues for the counter-intuitive proposition that we should presuppose that everyone is equally intelligent. Here's an excerpt:
The work of Jacques Rancière, who never tires of repeating his assertion that equality is not just something to be fought for, but something to be presupposed, is, for me, one of the most important ideas of the past decade. Although Rancière begins the discussion of this idea in his 1987 text The Ignorant Schoolmaster, it is really only in the last ten years that others have taken up the idea and attempted to work out what it might mean for politics, art and philosophy.

Equality may also be something one wishes for in a future to come, after fundamental shifts in the arrangement and order of society. But this is not Rancière’s point at all. Equality is not something to be achieved, but something to be presupposed, universally. Everyone is equally intelligent.

But what does the axiomatic assertion of the equality of intelligence mean? Surely not everyone is as capable as each other? Doesn’t Rancière’s claim fall to pieces when you look at differential exam scores, degree results and the entire way in which intelligence divides up and separates out humanity in general?

Rancière takes his cue from the maverick nineteenth-century French pedagogue Joseph Jacotot, whose simple question was “[w]ere all men virtually capable of understanding what others had done and understood?” What this means is that, as Peter Hallward puts it, “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation.

On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation – together with metaphors that distinguish students as slow or quick, or conceive of educational time in terms of progress, training, qualification, and so on – ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”
In other words, Ms Power wants us to believe that there are differences in knowledge but not in intelligence. Given the same educational opportunities and socio-economic background everyone could obtain the same knowledge.

This strikes me as egalitarianism on steroids. I've often been in the presence (perhaps too often) of people compared to whom I feel like a mental dwarf. Some of these people were not particularly well-educated, but they seemed to me to be far smarter than I am.

Not everyone is equally fast, equally strong, equally tall, or equally attractive. We don't all have the same personality or temperament. What reason is there to think that we're equally intelligent? Why would we be so obviously unequal in every way except in terms of intelligence? Why should we even think that in this one respect we are all the same? What is the empirical evidence for such a belief?

Indeed, it seems clear that we're not all equally intelligent. An adult is more intelligent than a toddler. Down's Syndrome children are less intelligent than "normal" children. You and I are less intelligent, probably, than Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. Intelligence is the ability to grasp concepts and meaning, and it seems undeniable that there are some who can do this much better than others.

In fact, it seems to me so manifestly true that I have to wonder what the point is of denying it.