Intelligence is not a Virtue

mountain landscape with a path at summer sunset

That schools are results driven institutions is not, I think, an inherently Bad Thing. Schools are publicly funded and the children in them are the responsibility of the community in its widest sense; we all have a stake in how well they do. If (and I do recognise what a big ‘if’ this is) results of tests are valid indicators of, for example, how well a child can read or do arithmetic then a school does pupils no disservice by trying to improve how well they do in their tests. This is because literate and numerate people are typically better able to navigate the world and so more likely to achieve personal fulfilment and satisfaction.

Even when exams are cohort referenced and so indicators of how well a child has done in comparison to his or her peers rather than of a set standard, as is the case with GCSEs, a drive to improve results usually still remains ethical. GCSE results day is very stressful because we all, whether pupils, parents or teachers, recognise the stakes are high. As much as some may flinch from acknowledging it, an important purpose of GCSE results is to stratify young people by their ability, and to then afford greater opportunity to those who do best. As unpleasant as this truth it, we must face it; however we feel about the moral ins and outs, any school that makes out results do not matter is concealing the truth from its pupils.

So far so uncomfortably good. It may not feel nice but it’s hard to think of a much better way of doing things.

But this can, very easily and quickly, trip up into a much more disturbing direction of thought.

If a drive to improve outcomes is done without care, thought and intelligent compassion, schools can easily create the impression that intelligence, a key component and prerequisite of strong results, is actually a virtue in of itself. Unless we are very careful about how we talk to pupils and their teachers, and unless we create school cultures that loudly celebrate more than just high grades in public examinations, we can very easily construct a narrative that the more intelligent someone is, the more virtuous and valuable they are. By association this, of course, means that those who are less intelligent are less virtuous and of inherently less worth. Most distressingly, this means that those who are of very low intelligence cannot be virtuous and are of no worth at all.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the logical fallacy here, but for clarity I’m going to do it anyway. Intelligent people are not invariably virtuous and unintelligent people are not invariably not virtuous; it doesn’t take much historical knowledge to find numerous examples that prove this. Josef Goebbels was a gifted man and nobody would argue Harold Shipman was stupid. It would be fairer to say that intelligence is more likely to equate to eminence or notoriety, but this is not the same as virtue.

Whether it is virtue or eminence that we wish for our pupils, we could all rest easier if all our children competed on a level playing field with all having an equal chance of high achievement. This, for what it’s worth and as something of an aside, is one of my most significant concerns about right-of-centre political thought; if we genuinely did have equality of opportunity then the idea of the American Dream, or ‘we want people to go as far as their talents can take them’ it might work. But we don’t.

Intelligence is highly heritable. In fact probably no less so than physical attractiveness. Even if everyone had the same IQ at birth, environmental difference over which people may have little control especially as children, also has a profound effect. This means that, whether implicitly or explicitly, we set high academic grades as a measure of inherent worth as a human then we set the bar at a height some of our children will never be able to reach. It is worth returning to the cohort referenced nature of public examinations again here; we must remember that our system is set up to deliberately preclude the possibility of all children doing well in their GCSEs; for a child to do well, another child has to do worse to balance things out.

Regular readers of this blog may well have already worked out why I’m writing this post. I have a dog in this fight. It’s personal. My daughter has a rare genetic condition which makes it very unlikely that she will achieve a string of 7s, 8s, and 9s at GCSE. That’s fine. I really couldn’t care less. But I do care very much that this might mean she comes to see herself as somehow less valuable as a person than an Oxbridge graduate, or that any learning difficulties she may have somehow puts a ceiling on how complete a person she can be.

This kind of moral difficulty is often dealt with by giving those with diagnosed learning difficulties a sort of condescending pass out that implies people with differences are innocently virtuous by dint of a sort of sepia-tinted mystical quality no matter what they do. Yuck. I certainly don’t want this for my daughter, because this others her and cuts any sense of agency and purpose away from her life. This cop out also swerves the substantive point, because it fails to address the fact that learning ability is a spectrum with no cut off points; some children, whether they have a diagnosed condition or not, will struggle to learn as fast as others.

So what to do? I certainly do not want schools to slide into a sort of ‘we are all different, it doesn’t matter how you do, don’t worry about your results, just be happy’ stew. This would rob every one of purpose and direction, which we require to live meaningful lives. Nor do I want some people to be steered down cul-de-sacs or to complete qualifications that have no value, and are really just there to keep people busy because we don’t know what else to do with them.

Instead I’d like schools to focus on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as virtuous. This is something open to all of us, from the straight 9 student to those struggling with very severe life limiting conditions that make learning to eat unassisted a real challenge.  It would mean that worth is measured not by the destination but in the earnest pursuit of a journey. It would make the virtuous those who humbly submit themselves to learning more from wherever they start. It avoids low expectations for the intelligent and promotes high expectations for those who are not. The parallels with Dweck’s Growth Mind-set are, of course, clear. But it isn’t the same. Dweck’s error, in my view, was in applying a consequentialist justification to her theory. It also means that those trying and failing to replicate her findings in further studies are missing the point. It actually doesn’t matter whether or not having faith in your own ability to learn leads to better measurable outcomes or not. The important thing is that we see the attitude as a virtuous in itself. After all, for many of us, it may be all there is.

To conclude I’m proposing a new motto for schools. I don’t speak Latin so this is probably flawed and I’d welcome comments on how I could better express what I’ve written about here, but how about “indagatio veri” as a starting point?


3 thoughts on “Intelligence is not a Virtue

  1. John Matthews says:

    Hi Ben

    I agree that we should value knowledge gained over just basing someone’s virtue on their grades. However I think your solution can fall foul of the same critique you make of those who might argue that to be intelligent is virtuous.

    Take Harold Shipman, he also had great amounts of knowledge. And dedicated his life to getting more knowledge.

    I might also take issue with ‘knowledge for its own sake’ this to me leaves out what could be called due diligence on what knowledge to peruse.

    If someone dedicates their life to knowing everything they can about pokemon or Harry Potter instead of say the Roman empire or set theory. I don’t think that would be classed as virtuous use of time. I’m not trying to be snobby here simply that if were not being relativistic about knowledge then it should be more than the simple persuit of it.


  2. As someone who is right-of-center politically, I agree with you. I believe that society judges value based primarily on one’s perceived intelligence. It is a flaw that I carried throughout high school, and struggled with in college. Now that I am out of school in the business world, it is easy to see the difference between “intelligence” and “virtue”. I unfortunately see many “intelligent” people who lack common virtues such as work ethic, kindness, and integrity; conversely, people I knew who struggled academically are some of the most virtuous people I know. It is not a hard rule that this is always the case, but it is antithetical to the notion that we were taught to believe.

    Where I disagree with you is in your position on equality of opportunity. You are correct that true equality of opportunity does not exist. And, unfortunately, it never can. There are too many uncontrollable variables to ever achieve true equality of opportunity. However, controlling equality of outcome, I believe, is more dangerous than admitting that we can never truly control equality of opportunity. The regimes that have sought the former have ensured equality of misery for their people, excepting the political class. Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in Venezuela. Equality of opportunity, on the other hand, however imperfect it may be, allows individuals the freedom to achieve what they are capable of, knowing that “worth is measured not in the destination but in the earnest pursuit of the journey.”

    We need more people to understand this precept and to start valuing people for who they are again. Great article!


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