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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

No need to mind your own business, intelligence is intelligence

Published: February 17, 2012
Section: Opinions

A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about intelligence. We were discussing neuroscience when she told me that she’s not very good at it. This confused me.

I know that neuroscience is an intense subject to study, but my friend is intelligent and does well in her classes. Yet she described herself as being “dumb” when it comes to learning and understanding neuroscience. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard comments like this from friends of mine who are humanities or social science majors, and every time I hear that I cringe. Who or what convinced so many people that neuroscience is incomprehensible? I’ve come up with a few reasons, all of which stem from misjudgments about science and learning.

First, many people are afraid of science classes and think that they’re somehow harder than other kinds of classes. This isn’t true! Science classes and humanities classes are structured differently, but that doesn’t mean one is harder than the other. Science classes require a certain amount of work every day—taking notes, writing lab reports, reviewing concepts, etc.—while humanities classes have reading that often isn’t read. If you want to get a B in a science class, you still have to do all those things every day, but if you want a B in a humanities class you can skip most of the reading and write a paper the night before it’s due. But this is only if you want a B. If you want an A in a science class or a humanities class, you have to do the same amount of work, no matter what subject. Science students like to complain about how much work they have to do, but it’s primarily a pity party to make themselves feel better and does not reflect the difficulty of the class or the class material.

People also have a fear and dislike of science that I think partially stems from the general bias that humanities people can have against it. In a psychology class I am currently taking, when the professor spoke about neuroscience, she would say, “I know this is boring … are you still awake?” and many other things to that effect.

A teacher’s job is to engage students in subject material, not put down other material for the sake of connecting with her students. It is criminal for a teacher to disparage any sort of learning or any subject material. Not only does it make it completely impossible for students to learn the material themselves, but it subconsciously tells them that this information isn’t for them or is something they cannot do or with which they shouldn’t be concerned. Even if the subject material is difficult or boring, it is the job of the teacher to teach and not to pass judgement. If you wrote the syllabus, you obviously think material pertains to the subject of the class. To discourage a student to learn about a certain subject actively—whether consciously perpetrated or not—is to rob them of their intellectual curiosity, which is the worst thing a teacher can do.

Another annoying complication of the humanities/science divide is that it leads to individuals who separate themselves into “science-minded” or “humanities-minded” categories, as if some people are simply “dumb” when it comes to a certain subject (their words not mine). When I hear people say that they are unintelligent when it comes to a subject, it reminds me of what a neuroscience professor once said about intelligence. He said that any subject can be learned and that there is no inherent ability required to learn a subject, unless that subject is math or music. I can’t say whether or not math and music require innate abilities, but I can say that he is right about learning in general. Most times when I talk to somebody who thinks they can’t learn a subject, I tell them that the issue isn’t whether or not they can learn a subject, but how much time it takes them to process the information. Some people grasp certain subject material faster, but that in no way means that you are “dumb” when it comes to a subject. Saying that about yourself is limiting your potential.

Keep in mind that this in no way applies to everybody. These situations have occurred enough that it seemed to be a phenomenon worth addressing. Obviously it seems hypocritical of me to criticize peoples’ judgments of science while I make judgments about them; however, I hope that what I have to say encourages people to think more about what they study and what is possible for them.