Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Life as Jamie Knows It @3QD, with some remarks about intelligence

I was half-considering tacking “aka writing about a retard” to the end of my title, right after “3QD”, but the word “retard” is just too ugly and there’s no way of indicating that I’m not serious about it. And yet in a way I am, almost.

Jamie, as you likely know by know, is Jamie Bérubé, who has Down syndrome. His father, Michael, has just written a book about him, Life as Jamie Knows It, and I’ve reviewed the book for 3 Quarks Daily. Writing this review is the first time I have had to actively think about mental disability.

The word is “actively.” Sure, back in secondary school there were “special ed.” classes, and the students in them had educational difficulties. But those classes were somewhere “over there”, so those kids weren’t really a part of my daily life. Beyond that, I am generally aware of the Special Olympics and this that and the other.

Moreover I was already somewhat familiar with Jamie’s story. Michael ran a blog between 2004 and 2010, which I started following late in 2005. Jamie was a frequent topic of conversation. There are stories in Life as Jamie Knows It that I first read on Michael’s blog.

Still, all that is just background. To review Michael’s book I was going to have to think seriously about Jamie, about Down syndrome, and about disability more generally. And then I would have to write words which would appear in public and which I would therefor have to own, as they say. When I asked Michael to have a copy sent to me I didn’t anticipate any problems at all. I knew he was an intelligent man, an incisive thinker, a good writer, and a bit of a wiseguy. I was looking forward to reading the book and writing about it.

But, I hadn’t anticipated Jamie’s art. I noticed that Michael had posted a lot of it online and I started looking through it. Pretty interesting, thought I to myself, why don’t I write a series of posts here at New Savanna as a lead up to the review over there at 3QD? And that’s what I did. The penultimate (aka next to the last) post was about work that Michael termed “geometrics” and I had decided to call “biomorphics.” I concluded that those biomorphic images were interesting indeed. And so I found myself writing:
Does this make Jamie a topologist? No, not really. But it makes it clear that he’s an intelligent human being actively exploring and making sense of the world.
That word “intelligent” brought me up short once I’d typed it. Did I really want to use that word? I asked myself. Yes, I replied, without thinking about it.

And THEN I started thinking.

The notion of intelligence is deeply problematic in our culture. An extensive regime of testing has been built around the notion of intelligence, as operationalized in IQ tests. These tests, and a whole range of allied tests, pervade our educational and vocational systems. They’ve become central to discussions of race–and there is nothing deeper about America than the dialectics of race relations, nothing.

In that particular context Jamie doesn’t do well. When tested at six years Jamie’s IQ was in the low 60s (Life, p. 97). The tests are normed so that a score of 100 is average. You need 130-150 or so, depending on the test, to get into Mensa. By this criterion, measured intelligence, perhaps I was overstating things.

Except that that’s NOT what I had in mind when I typed that sentence. What I had in mind, as I wrote, is that Jamie is “actively exploring and making sense of the world.” In this case, through his art.

And now things get really tricky.

For we also use the notion of intelligence to distinguish between humans and animals and humans and computers. As Michael points out (101), however, we’ve conducted a lot of research on animal behavior and mentality and they seem to get smarter and smarter with every test. Do not animals actively explore and making sense of the world"? Yes, they do.

At the same time we’ve created digital computers and we’re worried, at least some of us, whether or not they’re going to overtake us and, you know, outsmart us on a cosmic scale. Is artificial intelligence possible? Who knows, but if it is, well then, maybe we can salvage human dignity by pointing out that we have emotions and the machines don’t. Emotions, you know, the things that drive those dumb animals that turn out to be smarter than we thought.

You see where this is going, don’t you? An intellectual swamp, a swamp filled with the rotting remains of old attempts to define ourselves.

What’s the relationship between that particular swamp and global warming? For they are related, but I’ll leave that discussion for another post, another day.

But do take yourself over to 3 Quarks Daily and read my review of Michael’s book, We’re All in This Together: Life as Jamie Knows It.

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