On Being Of Only Average Intelligence

Around the time that my teen years were to commence, I took an IQ test. My brother had stumbled upon one of HJ Eysenck‘s famous IQ books–it would have been either Know Your Own I.Q. (1962) or Check Your Own I.Q. (1966)–and after testing himself, insisted that I do so too. Intrigued by this mysterious entity called ‘intelligence quotient‘ and possessed of a–what else?–childish trust in the power of quantification to reveal reality’s contours, I took the test.

The scores were humbling. I emerged with a 120 (on a scale of 200, if I remember correctly). Eysenck’s scale informed us that this score placed me in the ‘average’ category. Well above the ‘deficient’, the ‘retarded’, the ‘mentally infirm’ but well below the Mozarts of this world. And certainly well below some pesky teenager the Guiness Book of World Records had anointed the world’s IQ king. I had arrived at the same score as my brother, so at least he hadn’t bested me, but this was scant consolation; I had been hoping to show up–in this cerebral domain–someone who was certainly my physical superior.

My score was mortifying. I had been assured by many around me–my parents mostly, but also many of my aunts and uncles–that I was ‘very smart’, that I was ‘so bright,’ destined for bigger and better things. This assessment of my intelligence was, I think, based on two factors: one, I read a great deal at a rapid pace, and two, my spelling was impeccable, the closest I’ve come to achieving perfection in any walk of life. But now, this strange test that asked me to–among many other species of mental trickery–manipulate shapes and find patterns in numbers, all the while keeping one nervous eye on the clock, had rudely brought me down to earth. I was one of the lowing, bleating herd; I was unexceptional; I was a follower, not a leader.

Unable to fully reconcile myself to this demotion on the grand totem pole of human worth, I resolved to take the test again. I did so. My score unblinkingly returned to the same point on the scale. Distraught, I told my mother the bad news. Contrary to her suffused-by-motherly-love assessments, I was only ‘average.’ My mother told me to not worry. A little later, when I conveyed my grim tidings to my father, I received much the same instructions. (I do not know if I invited them to take the test; perhaps my anxiety about finding out that my parents too were merely ‘average’ stayed my tongue.)

It was with some relief therefore that I greeted the skepticism directed at these quantitative assessments of a supposedly monolithic entity: I was suitably receptive to the arguments that scorned the crude shoehornings of something quite as indeterminate as human intelligence into a neatly marked off numerical scale. Such claims fell on fertile ground; I was ready to receive reassurance all was not lost, that I could hold my head up again and hope for vindication on some other intellectual battleground.

I’m still waiting.

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