Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Contributor

Prof Sternberg criticized the commonly held western views of intelligence.

November 13, 2019

Professor Ridicules Standardized Tests, IQ, Western Intelligence Ideals in Talk

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What do climate change and college admissions have in common? Intelligence, according to Prof. Robert Sternberg. At a Tuesday evening lecture, the human development professor argued that flawed Western notions of intelligence are responsible for ingrained social structures and world destruction.

Sternberg critiqued the emphasis that “the West” places on seemingly objective measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

He said that although IQ can predict a person’s success, its emphasis in the West, along with other standardized measures of intelligence, is “taking down humanity.”

“It takes intelligence — as we define it in the West — to create nuclear bombs, manufacture poisonous chemicals, create then misuse antibiotics, build polluting factories and do all the things that are harming adults and children,” Sternberg told the Warren Hall audience, using cartoons and images as springboards for his ideas.

“People couldn’t have done that if they weren’t really smart,” he continued. “The irony is that their IQs are being used for stupid ends, and worse, humanity keeps doing the same things over and over again.”

According to Sternberg, “destructive” technology — including the industrial world’s carbon emissions responsible for the climate crisis — exists because the Western understanding of intelligence emphasizes short-term individual gains over society’s long-term losses, undervaluing the common good and creativity that are embedded in many indigenous and Eastern definitions of intelligence.

What’s more, he said the “alphabet of [standardized] tests,” which Cornell and most of the Western educational system embrace as measures of individual success, nurtures a limited skill set and contributes to harmful group outcomes.

“The risk is that by putting so much emphasis in our educational system and in our society on the IQ, SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, GMAT,” Sternberg said, “we create hyper-analytical people who are good at critiquing and criticising, but who do not meaningfully create, because they never really learned how.”

These tests, originally designed with meritocratic intentions, can also have adverse consequences across cultural and socio-economic groups, he said.

Sternberg said that “people from different backgrounds just have different skills,” meaning some groups are socialized to perform well on these exams, while others acquire different abilities from their environments. Standardized testing also correlates with socio-economic status, portrayed as meritocratic while instead perpetuating the existing class structure.

Recognizing the limitations of standardized testing, the College of Arts Sciences stopped requiring first-year applicants to submit SAT subject tests because of their financial burden, The Sun reported in September. Cornell’s biomedical engineering department also dropped its GRE requirement for graduate admissions this fall to promote diversity.

Absent from standardized exams is a broader, more adaptive view of intelligence, which values creativity, common sense and wisdom, Sternberg said. He told the audience that the West must adopt these three components of practical intelligence, which remain critical to adapting to situations that “nobody teaches you.”

These findings originate from Sternberg’s cross-cultural studies of conceptions of intelligence from regions varying from rural Kenya to Jamaica and parts of Europe.

“The West has gone off on this garden path with IQ, forgetting about things that are more important,” Sternberg said.

The talk was sponsored by Raising Education Attainment Challenge, a service-based organization that sends Cornell tutors to local schools.

REACH president Abhirami Ramakrishnan ’20 said she appreciated Sternberg’s emphasis on creativity and practical knowledge.

“It was refreshing to be reminded that we too often take established systems such as the standards for education at face value, and that developing and encouraging the skill of critical thinking is in our hands,” Ramakrishnan told The Sun in an email.

Ramakrishnan added that his comments on intelligence relate to REACH’s goals to encourage tutors and their students to practice various teaching and learning styles — something Sternberg finds pressing.

“I think we’re running out of time,” Sternberg said, flipping through slides of wildfires and projections for coastal flooding. “If we don’t do something, we are going to end up with a world that is non-viable.”