One of the Internet ads of the past election announced that Barack Obama's IQ was 130. It was the sibling of ads that let us know that John McCain's IQ was 125, George W. Bush's IQ was 120, and Sarah Palin's IQ was once one of those little voice-mimicking chips from a talking birthday card.
I made that up about Sarah Palin. Sorry. The ads were misleading enough as it was, and not just because the next president of the United States better have an IQ that's way over 130 if he's going to get this country out of the mess that it's in. The ads also supported the nasty cultural myth that intelligence can be measured and graphed on a bell curve.
If you clicked on one of the ads, you could take a quick test and see how your own intelligence stacked up against everybody else's. I suspect that after that test, you were offered another one, and another, until you were finally introduced to the widow of a Nigerian finance minister who wanted to marry you, you being so smart and all.
After 30 years of teaching, I've come to understand that the only valid intelligence test is how well you are able to tell the truth about your day-to-day experience. Intelligence is when you can put into words a hefty combination of reason, intuition, and empathy, all seasoned with an ability to tolerate ambiguity.
My smarter fiction students use the characters they create for personal exploration, investigating their own moral and intellectual gray areas and holding contradictory ideas in juxtaposition until a bigger picture emerges. It's not surprising that they believe in their characters as real living and breathing people.
My less-bright students tend to identify real people as liberal or conservative, jock or nerd, gay or straight, saint or sinner, and even moron or genius. Naturally they create their characters as one-sided cartoons. As writers, they have banished ambiguity from their lives and from their stories, and that's the sort of life decision that forever identifies a person as a rock in the box, even if they've self-identified as a genius.
That these students have placed people into faceless categories means they have given up their God-given intelligence and replaced it with knee-jerk responses to a black-and-white world, where all moral dilemmas are easily solved, either by a quick look at Leviticus or by prejudices learned at the family dinner table or, worse, from listening to talk radio. The vicious platitudes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly may have brought millions to moral certainty, but they haven't made anyone any smarter or kinder or less twitchy.
I tell my students that preconceptions are learning disabilities. Some of them, the very best of them, take this idea and use it to create stories in which characters who try to do the right thing end up having done terribly wrong things when the big picture is revealed. It's a plot they've ripped off from Sophocles and Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others, but it makes for good stories that are all too relevant to our times.
This country ends 2008 facing economic and political collapse. We are seeing a far bigger and less comforting picture than we ever thought existed. Many of our own and our elected officials' actions are beginning to look unutterably stupid, however well-meaning they started out to be. The haunted look on George W. Bush's face suggests that he's getting a better glimpse of the big picture than he had even a month ago. There's hope that he might end up more tragic than stupid, but that's because his tragedy will be global rather than personal.
In any event, nobody's going to be wondering much about Bush's IQ in the years ahead, although there will be speculation about his willingness to understand his part in the tragedies of the rest of us.
The rest of us, writers or not, can decide if our intelligences will be fluid, expanding attempts to greet and comprehend the enormous changes 2009 will bring, or hardened, shrunken, quantified little things that reduce all the world to their tiny frightened grasps.