I recently listened to an outstanding podcast featuring Tressie Cottom on the idea of status and how it connects to intelligence. We have been conditioned to believe that intelligence is something intrinsic to us, something we possess in ourselves, something fixed about us.
But Cottom takes a different view, suggesting that intelligence is more a correspondence between us and the world around us. A person’s intelligence is not a fixed ability within themselves but rather a relationship between us and the technologies and norms popular at a specific moment in time.
We tend to think that a genius in one era would be a genius in the next, but Cottom argues that our intelligence is contextual. By using the example of her grandmother (a Black sharecropper in the South), she reveals how society today is far more able to perceive her, a Black woman, as intelligent than it was to perceive her grandmother as intelligent, despite them being quite similar in intellectual ability and breadth. Perceived intelligence, and, in turn, status, are very much contextual to the mores, norms, and technologies of a given time.
Ezra Klein, the podcast host, points out that disabilities are similar: someone’s disability is not something about them, but rather a relationship between a person and the built world they navigate. Klein, a respected public intellectual by many modern standards and someone with extremely poor eyesight since childhood, is perceived as intelligent now because he lives in a world where the technology of reading glasses exists; Klein says “in another context, I am completely useless.” Had he been born 400 years earlier, his status and his intelligence would surely have been less obvious, embraced, and nurtured because, quite plainly, he couldn’t see.
When we let go of smart being something about a person and embrace smart being something between a person and the world, we don’t have to rely on the rare once-in-a-lifetime genius who is compatible with that specific moment in time, but instead can nurture intelligence by creating the conditions where more people can interact with the world in a way that makes them intelligent, and therefore confers status (both to them, and to the groups they represent).