Ruminations on the IQ and Virtue

Psychologists have long assumed that measures of infant intelligence are of little value in predicting later mental ability. This makes sense because intelligence tests are heavily verbal while the language skills of infants and young children are not well developed. New research, however, suggests that measures of curiosity and of selective attention in infants and young children do indeed predict later mental test scores. I anticipate that these findings will lead many companies to create kits for assessing and raising young children's IQs. Such kits will simply add to the current overemphasis on the IQ, and upon tests of academic achievement. This overemphasis has already led to an epidemic of cheating at all levels of education and to undue pressure on teachers to give good grades.

These reflections brought about my ruminations on the IQ. Individuals vary in their levels of brightness, their ability to adapt to new situations. Brightness is determined in part by heredity and in part by the environment and is generally constant across the life span. Individuals also differ in particular areas of mental functioning. I, for example, have absolutely no sense of direction while my wife is just the opposite and always knows just where we are. Another important consideration is that intellectual ability is not highly correlated with creativity. Many of our most gifted writers, musicians, and painters would probably not be admitted to a Mensa meeting.

It seems to me that the contemporary overemphasis on the IQ, and academic success, misses a very important corollary of high mental ability. In the broadest sense intelligence is a form of freedom. It affords one the ability to evaluate and make choices. The brighter the individual, the greater the freedom of choice. But freedom is necessarily linked to virtue, the ability to make moral choices. An emphasis upon intellectual achievement and academic success without an equal emphasis on virtue is one-sided and can work against the common good. Those who crafted the multi leveraged credit schemes that led to the current mortgage crises were ingenious. But they were lacking in virtue.

This is not to say that we should not value intellectual ability and academic achievement. It is only to say that high intelligence carries with it a moral imperative. As parents we need to ensure that our children appreciate not only the choices, but moral responsibility, that goes with superior mental ability.

About the Author

David Elkind

David Elkind is Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University.

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