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Not so smart now, eh?
It's a shame that we don't have a better vocabulary for describing human intelligence. Our shortage of words is holding us back.
We live in a world awash in the word "smart". We have smartphones, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart homes, and even smart refrigerators. The word is everywhere. And yet, when it comes to human beings, we don't seem to know how to call people anything other than "smart".
■ That's more than a mild linguistic curiosity. Language shapes how we think about subjects. Consider the scores of words Icelanders can use to describe "snow". The breadth of word choices available makes it possible to describe the subject with precision and detail.
■ So, what is "smart", at least in a person? Educators and psychologists talk about Gardner's multiple intelligence types (linguistic, mathematic, spatial, musical, and so on), and that concept certainly has a useful broadening effect beyond a flat understanding of general intelligence (sometimes called "g"). Yet it's still not enough.
■ Even within the "multiple intelligences", different people can be smart in different ways. Some can process information quickly. Some can retain lots of knowledge. Some synthesize with ease. Some learn quickly. Some test well.
■ Failing to broaden our vocabulary for "smart" unnecessarily constrains us in thinking about what makes individual human beings "smart". That also keeps us from appreciating the differences in why we consider individuals smart (or less so), and more importantly, it constrains our vision of how we can leverage each individual's intellectual strengths and accommodate their weaknesses.
■ That's a real unforced error to make at a time when educational attainment levels are rising and outcomes like lifetime earnings track, on average, very closely with education. If we, as a society, want to pave the way for people to freely make the most of their own potential, then we need to take account of all the ways people can make the most of their inborn potential. That also means taking obstacles out of the way when they are artificially imposed by a narrow view of what makes people "smart enough" to pursue more education.
■ How much we value something should be reflected in the richness of our vocabulary for describing it. It's not intimidating to consider chip speeds, the number of cores in a CPU, the speed of a graphics processor, the transfer speeds of an Internet connection, or the number of terabytes in a hard drive. All of these computer specifications have parallels in human intelligence, yet we have a more vivid lexicon for describing the performance capabilities of a laptop than for a person. In a world where "smart" is used as often to describe a device as a person, we ought to put a little more care into making our language smarter.