Cameron Wyllie: Education isn’t all about intelligence

Hannibal Lecter was intelligent but he may have benefited from an education that stressed the importance of kindness
Hannibal Lecter was intelligent but he may have benefited from an education that stressed the importance of kindness
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After writing that some children are cleverer than others, Cameron Wyllie was accused of being elitist, but he argues that education is about more than intelligence.

So I have been retired for nine months now and the time has blown by pretty quickly; there are things that I have missed, which don’t include rising at 5.50am on winter mornings, or bundles of papers marked “Finance Committee” but instead focus on the pleasure of walking across a school playground at a sunny, blustery breaktime and being greeted with raw enthusiasm by seven-year-olds and more guarded communications from S3.

One of the things which I’ve liked best is writing these columns; I see myself as a charming old gent (The World Health Organisation says I’m just middle-aged, but hey) producing harmless copy for your amusement and thus had been the case until my last piece. This was the one where I suggested that some young people were cleverer than others. This seems to me to be completely self-evident, just like saying that some people are taller, or sing better, or have blue eyes.

READ MORE: Cameron Wyllie: Face the facts, some kids are just smarter than others

However, it received more reaction than all the other pieces put together, ranging from praise – describing me as “brave” – to others who felt my points were “not helpful” or “elitist”. What’s going on? All I said was something which we all know.

What I didn’t say was anything about what causes some young people to be more intelligent. I think it’s probably something genetic and something to do with upbringing and if I had to state a more definite view I’d go with a 60/40 split, having observed plenty of parents and their kids over the years. But that wasn’t my point and I doubt if there’s anything like a definitive answer.

Also, what I didn’t say was that intelligence was the be all and end all. I really, really don’t believe that. Even in the unashamedly academic school I worked in, we spent all our time encouraging the students to work hard and to be kind to each other.

We didn’t make hierarchical gods out of clever boys and girls any more than we did of the best football players or the most talented trumpeters. It was very clear indeed all the way through my career that lots of other factors apart from intelligence affected young people’s performance.

In his book in the “All That Matters” series on “Intelligence”, the Edinburgh academic Dr Stuart Ritchie makes it clear that intelligence is quite definitely not all that matters: “Being bright is critically important [to educational achievement], but so are other characteristics like conscientiousness, motivation and self-control, as well as various social skills.”

Dr Ritchie is a wee bit scathing about the idea of other “intelligences” but we know the kinds of things its proponents are talking about. I would say I was quite clever but a car engine, say, is a thing of which I am deeply frightened. I greatly admire the ability of someone who can fix them and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to see it as a different ‘intelligence’ even if it doesn’t help in getting Higher French. Similarly with “emotional intelligence”, though I’m not very sure how you measure that ...

Another thing I didn’t say was that intelligence made you happy. Anyone who has taught or been a GP or a lawyer or a social worker or a minister of religion has met loads and loads of miserable clever people.

If there is a recipe for happiness, I can’t think it would involve a high IQ, rather than, say, lots of friends, several units of alcohol and a high-end doughnut shop. I’m not good at working out visual-spatial problems (like finding a door, for example) but I can’t really say it’s ever made me unhappy, apart from the odd bumped nose.

READ MORE: Cameron Wyllie: SNP seems to think school is like a Coke advert

No, I didn’t say any of these things. I said that some people were more intelligent than others, and I think the education system isn’t diverse enough to cope with the range of abilities it’s presented with. I think that Scotland needs to examine, radically and soon, the way we educate the cleverest and least clever children in our society, because currently the former are bored, unstretched and not reaching their potential and the latter are struggling with meaningless work, and they are also bored and not reaching their potential.

Again, this is not because of teachers, who almost universally work very hard and really care about their charges. It’s about education policy and the wish of government, over a long period, to see education as a social experiment rather than education.

The other thing is that parents really worry about their children’s intelligence but they don’t say so, whether their child is Stephen Hawking or, well, let’s say, “someone less intelligent” in order to avoid unpleasantness in the comments section. I well remember my Parents’ Night interview with Professor and Mrs Lecter, about their son.

“To be honest, this has not been a great term for Hannibal. It began with that unfortunate incident in Home Economics, where he brought the wrong ingredients for the recipe and also failed to tidy up properly. Then in Biology where he misunderstood the instructions during the dissection; we are all very lucky that the injury to the other boy was only superficial, and we have taken on board your views on risk management. Really his relationship with the other pupils is fraught, and we are very concerned about his diet. His Guidance teacher had his work cut out and the situation has not been helped by Mr Smith’s extended absence from school and the difficulties wee have had getting hold of him ...”

I paused to take a breath.

“But Mr Wyllie, will this affect Hannibal’s chances of doing medicine at Cambridge?”

Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa