Briefing: Is intelligence taboo?

When obvious things can no longer be said, it's usually a sign that we are suffering from an ideology-induced blindness. Acknowledging that some children are more intelligent than others is a symptom of one such malady. A few weeks ago, a delegate to the Professional Association of Teachers' conference warned that kids should not be called clever, as that would make them targets for bullies. And then we heard from London University's Institute of Education that streaming students according to their ability risked making some of them feel thick. Put the two facts together and it's hard not to arrive at the conclusion that no child should be identified as being any more or less intelligent than anyone else.

This squeamishness about difference is unique to intelligence. A child who excels at sport, art, crafts or music is considered neglected if his or her talent is not acknowledged and nurtured. Nor do we think children's self-esteem will be crushed by having to accept that they have two left feet or are tone deaf. But when it comes to cleverness, we dance around the truth as much as possible.

We have several ingenious means of performing this cognitive waltz. We can deny intelligence has any real meaning at all, citing the supposed unreliability of IQ testing. However, though IQ may be an imperfect measure, it is simply not very clever to conclude that therefore there is nothing real to measure at all. Another move is to talk of any ability or talent as a form of intelligence, so everyone can be equally bright in their own special ways. But calling people emotionally, musically or spiritually intelligent seems motivated mainly by the wish to strip away from the word all its offensive associations with cleverness.

The ideology that leads us to hide from the truth about intelligence is so blinding because at its heart there is an important moral truth: children's worth should not be measured solely by their intellectual capacity. The answer, however, is not to pretend intellectual differences don't exist, but simply to make sure other factors receive due attention. Measure people in only one way and they will eventually reject the validity of the yardstick.

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