School yard taunts fly. I’m not talking the R-word, just common words to denote a lack of intelligence. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Stupid.
There are countless insults in the English language that refer to someone’s lack of intelligence. A quick check of ‘moron’ synonyms reveals about 40 different words alone. Plus all the related synonyms stemming from those 40. Being smart, or not being smart, is a very big deal in our society.
Wikipedia has a whole page about morons. It’s fascinating reading. Did you know there are many different places around the world called ‘moron’? Or there are religious, genetic and musical connections to the word moron?
But the biggest original use was Psychology. ‘Moron’ was a clinical term used to describe people with intellectual disabilities. Moron was a specific identifier for people whose IQ fell between 51-70, or as Wikipedia says, “have a mental age in adulthood of between 8 and 12.” Thank you Wikipedia
Moron, idiot and imbecile were all clinical descriptors for categorising people with intellectual disabilities. They have clearly taken on a pejorative tone and are now only used as insults. The way that words used to describe a ‘certain’ group of people take on a stigma unto itself is a topic for a whole other post. Just think about the many different ethnic or racial groups throughout history for an example of this one.
Back to moron, idiot, and imbecile. Now we use mild, moderate and profound, or other vague terms that try to pinpoint and categorise intelligence.
My next question is what is intelligence? You might say being smart. We could go back to Wikipedia and study the history of psychologists who try to define intelligence – Gardner, Wechsler, Binet, Stanford – or we could just say intelligence is about being smart.
Being smart – what is that, really?
Is smart solving problems in an efficient and effective way? Is smart knowing a lot of stuff? Is smart doing what you’re supposed to do when you need to do it? Or is smart something else entirely?
And why is it so important?
There are whole industries related to making people smarter – from additives in yogurt to Baby Einstein for infants to brain games for ageing adults – intelligence is a commodity our society tries to grow, like money in a bank account, squirreling away IQ points and making crude comparisons.
Our society clearly values intelligence.
And I am not sure why.
I am a special education teacher for students with intellectual disabilities. My whole class would fall under the mild to moderate level of intellectual functioning. Let’s not think about some other words to describe them.
One student in particular stands out. A vivacious 18 year old young woman with Down Syndrome, she is a charismatic master of drama and humour with an infectious laugh. She cleans cafeteria tables as part of her work experience program and is proud of her hard work. The custodians love having her help, and chat with her during the school day. She adores the attention and takes great pride in having a job.
On weekends she attends church on weekends and has a busy family life.
This school year she learned the name of the city she lives in and can spell it, with only a couple letters missing. She also learned the name of her street, and is working on learning her house number.
She has an intellectual disability. She struggles with academic tasks and learning most new things. But the real stuff of life – relationships, feeling valued and making other people happy – shines through.
Recently she proudly presented a teaching assistant with a large pink artificial flower, “For you.” After thanking the young woman, the teaching assistant put it on her desk and continued through the day.
The next day the young woman handed the teaching assistant another flower. And the day after that.
Several days later there was a substantial bouquet of pink artificial flowers on the teaching assistant’s desk.
It turned out that the young woman was stealing the flowers from her mother’s floral arrangements at home and smuggling them to school in her backpack, to give to her favorite teaching assistant.
Let’s go back to our thoughts on intelligence.
Is smart solving problems in an efficient and effective way? She sure did this.
Is smart knowing a lot of stuff? She’s not so strong here.
Is smart doing what you’re supposed to do when you need to do it? She sure does this at work, school and home.
Or is smart something else entirely? Such as bringing a smile to those around her, she sure does this too.
But she has an intellectual disability, she is deemed ‘deficient in intelligence.’ So it seems like our definitions of intelligence involves knowing ‘stuff.’ And using it when you’re supposed to in a way that you’re supposed to.
But what about the stuff of life? Isn’t that important too?
What are your thoughts on intelligence and ‘being smart’? What are your experiences with intelligence testing and labelling?