The Antinomies of ‘Intelligence’

On this week’s Any Answers, there was a call so fascinatingly stupid that I’ve been intermittently thinking back to it for the last few days. In a discussion about the possible reintroduction of grammar schools, a couple who had been to grammar schools but were ‘forced’ to send their children to a comprehensive, explained how there was “no comparison” because the grammar school will be filled with pupils who are “bright and motivated” and come from “homes with very supportive parents who want them to be there”. In comprehensives there are “far more disruptions” and the “very brightest pupils have to lower their standards”. She went on to explain that her daughters both succeeded immensely at A Levels and university “simply because we could afford to give them private tuition” which wouldn’t have happened if they’d been sent to a grammar school. This understanding of the trajectory of her daughters reflected a broader social outlook:

I truly believe that we will never all be equal. Some of us are born beautiful, some of us intelligent, some us not quite as wealthy as others and some from supportive homes. We’re all genetically geared to have different hopes and aspirations. Not everyone wants to go to university. I really think that if a child wants to go and work in a shop, or wants to do marketing, we should teach them a decent work ethic and not tell that they’re second class because they didn’t get into a grammar school.

The presenter raises the possibility that grammar schools intensify inequality because it’s the already privileged who are most likely to gain access to them. But the caller says that the solution is to build more grammar schools so that “the children who are not quite at the top of the tree” get an opportunity.

A later caller offers a spirited defence of grammar schools, explaining how her own experience of grammar schools improved her life: she was able to get any job at work she wanted with just an interview because they could tell she was able & when her husband died, she was able to cope with everything she faced when taking over his business. She then explains how “the legacy went on to my children”, “one went to university and the other could do anything he wanted if he set his mind to it”, and her grandchildren are now “well placed to take advantage of this legacy”. Her experience sounds like an interesting example of Margaret Archer’s (contentious) point that social structures don’t constrain until you formulate a project that runs up against them. There are presumably many jobs this caller wouldn’t have got without an interview, or even with one, but these constraints aren’t experienced and they fade from view for her.

What fascinates me about this is how ‘intelligence’ serves as an umbrella under which a vast array of social, cultural and personal factors are subsumed: aptitude for academic work, supportive parents, stable homes, engagement with institutions, good behaviour at school. The complexity of the social world gets built into the designator ‘intelligent’ in a way that renders it opaque: the concept of ‘intelligence’ stitches together an otherwise untenable individualism. Yet both callers recognise the possibility of inherited privilege and yet this doesn’t undermine their determinedly reductive view of intelligence.

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