Define “stupid.” Really try to define the word “stupid” or “dumb” as you would use these words among friends. If your definition includes some variation on “the opposite of intelligence,” then try to define intelligence as a follow-up.

Unless your verbal prowess is more precise than most intelligence theorists and psychologists for decades, you probably can’t exactly define “intelligence.” The best we have may be early 20th century psychologist Edwin G. Boring’s dictum: “Intelligence is whatever intelligence tests measure.”

Reflect on that for a moment. It may sound silly, but it’s actually an accepted explanation of intelligence in psychology. After all, intelligence really is a purely human and social construct, and therefore it is judged by human standards. Boring is saying just that.

Do you remember when your 1st grade teacher told you there’s no such thing as a stupid question? I would agree. There are many alternative explanations for what might make a question a bad one, but I can’t think of anything that might make a question stupid. You might be misinformed about the content of the course, or perhaps your question was just ill-timed. But neither of these things makes you stupid. They are errors and we are humans.

Many people struggle with self-esteem and think of themselves as stupid. We’ve developed a culture in which failure in school means failure as a member of the most highly rational and thoughtful species on the planet. But reason is one of the most historically prized faculties of the human mind throughout all of history, from Aristotle to the endearing Forrest Gump.

And there is sometimes an idea of hierarchy associated with it as well. If one person calls another stupid, they are implying that the other person is inferior. Historically, those of higher order have consistently tried to divorce themselves from the lower classes. But rather than their intelligence, their education is what truly set them apart from the others. Their intelligence had nothing to do with it. “Intelligent” is in many ways a buzzword, an adjective devised to make them feel intellectually superior because they were better educated.

The words “stupid” and “dumb” are also buzzwords. We use them to distance ourselves from things that do not seem like valuable contributions to society. But even this idea exists only under the assumption of Western culture. Of course, culture isn’t inherently bad, and while we can prize contributions made that greatly advance Western society, we should never diminish those that don’t work. The concept of intelligence is fine, as long as we do not negate contributions. In other words, don’t say something is stupid.

Take autistic savants, for instance. Many people might characterize autistic people as being conventionally “unintelligent.” Yet many autistic individuals exhibit remarkable talents. Their skills of day-to-day function don’t align with the norms of our society, but they are capable of incredible and profound things when confronted with a piano, canvass or mathematical proof.

And what about children? I watched a lecture online by one Adora Svitak, a well-known author. In her lecture, entitled “What Adults Can Learn from Kids,” she states that we are short-changing children and their creativity. By the time they are old enough, they want to be just like everyone else, Svitak says. They no longer want to think outside the box. All this because, as it was once put by someone I know, “You can’t listen to the things children say.”

Did I mention Svitak turned 13 years old this year?

What does this tell us about the word “stupid”? If Svitak had been less creative or successful, if it had been any other child, would you have listened? Or would you have dismissed what the child said simply because you believe their mental capacity to be inferior to yours?

The word “stupid” is simply empty. It’s like saying, “I’m bad at math.” Well, there are a lot of different aspects to math that you might be bad at. Are you bad at computation? Algebra? Geometry? “Stupid” tells us nothing in the same way that “bad” tells us nothing. Inflicted upon the self, it’s an excuse. I’ve used it many times, as have my friends. But instead we should speak up. We should say something in class because it’s not stupid. It can’t be. Nothing is.

Then again, perhaps there is one thing in the world that is actually stupid — the very idea of stupidity.

Eric Szkarlat can be reached at eszkarla@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.