Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Book Review Mashup

Books are usually reviewed one at a time, but I personally never read only one book at once. In fact, I usually have six or seven going at various speeds, and at least two fairly intensely. Not only does this better accommodate various moods and various locations in the house, the ideas tend to feed off and illuminate each other, even in very different books. So it makes sense to review them together.

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, by Scott Barry Kaufman--a book on the ways schools and society define, measure, and predict intelligence. I've been reading it slowly for the past few months and finished it at the library at the end of its renewals.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen--which needs no explanation, and which I was rereading for the umpty-eleventh time after watching the 6 hour miniseries, because even 6 hours has to leave out so many good lines.

Ungifted was particularly interesting because it was written by a man who spent most of his childhood in special ed due to a delay in language processing, yet who went on to become a cognitive psychologist. His look at the limited and self-fulfilling nature of intelligence testing and classification is therefore both deeply personal and thoroughly supported. The book examines many of the variables that go into achievement independently of intelligence (such as grit and passion); the obvious limits of many gifted programs that base massive outcomes on the strength of a single test at a young age; and looks at what intelligence tests are good at (predicting overall scholastic outcomes) while questioning whether that is really measuring intelligence or just shows that school is tailored to a few factors. If there was anything that disappointed me, it was that he didn't come to proposing his *own*, broader definition of intelligence until the very end of the book.

However, here it is: "Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals." This is a pretty intriguing starting place, and I immediately thought of the people in the P&P world: How would their intelligence be evaluated by this standard?

Mrs. Bennet: Mrs. Bennet has one of the most baldly stated and consistent personal goals of any character in literature--she wants to get her daughters married. Her engagement in this task is high. She thinks and talks of little else. But what about abilities? Here she flounders--most of what she does in hopes of furthering her goal works against it and, most damning of all, she never notices. Her blatant and empty-headed speech, her bad manners, her nurturing of Lydia's wildness, nearly scare off the truly eligible. It is in spite of her that her older daughters get married at all. Therefore, we must concur that by this definition (as by nearly any other), Mrs. Bennet is of low intelligence.

Mr. Collins: Now, Elizabeth describes Mr. Collins as "the stupidest man in all England," but is this fair? What is his personal goal? A respectable and comfortable living. What abilities does he engage to achieve this goal? Blatant and unrelenting flattery of Lady Catherine. It may not be a particularly noble goal, but it is certainly one he is fully engaged in and he knows very well how to use his abilities to achieve it. However, it does not require much adjustment or growth to continue achieving, so, although we cannot concur with Elizabeth that he is the stupidest man in England, we do not need to rate his intelligence very highly.

Darcy: Darcy's goal, at least as it evolves through the book, is to win Elizabeth. He starts out on completely the wrong tack, of course. However--here is the great point--he recognizes what doesn't work and tries again with something else. Abandoning the method of insulting her family and presuming any woman would accept him (and as one of the richest men in England and looking like Colin Firth, it was not necessarily an empty presumption), he remains fully engaged with his goal but tries civility, hospitality, humility, and using his money to get her family out of a terrible jam without presuming anything in return. It's a brilliant change of strategy, and when you combine it with the less-prominent but still obvious in the background abilities he uses to manage his personal business, it is evident that Mr. Darcy is a very intelligent man.

Elizabeth: I admit, I'm rather challenged here. Obviously Elizabeth is intelligent, but how is it manifested? What is her goal? (And if one of the most beloved protagonists in English literature doesn't have a clear goal, what does *that* say about writing truisms?) Marriage is not really her goal. Mostly she seems to want to observe and understand people and avoid being excessively embarrassed by her family, but the latter is one she cannot do much about. She does exercise her abilities extensively and in varying ways in coming to understand more about other people, but somehow it just doesn't seem to capture enough. I feel like either the definition of intelligence or my understanding of her motivations are too weak here.

Edited to add: Perhaps I have it. I think Elizabeth states her goal to Lady Catherine: to secure her own happiness. Stated as that, it seems a rather selfish and narrow goal, but I think Elizabeth's choices and behavior indicate that she means it in the broadest and best possible sense: to live well; to attain happiness through virtue and wisdom. The philosophers would approve. And part of pursuing that goal is observing and learning from others; part finding out her own wishes; part simply learning to enjoy and make the best of the moment she is in, even if it is at a ball with too few men. She remains engaged, flexible, creative, and charming in her pursuit of a worthy goal. Intelligent indeed.

Wickham: Mr. Wickham's goals appear to be to get as much money and as many girls as possible. Unfortunately, since he plans to marry for money, his two goals are in conflict, but he drifts along trying to accomplish them both. His failure to see the conflict clearly and hew to one course or the other marks him as considerably less intelligent than he manages to convey at first blush.

Lydia: Lydia appears to have but one goal, she is fully engaged in pursuing it, and she achieves it. That her goal is quite limited in scope and very easy to accomplish for an uninhibited 16 year old girl at a military encampment in any era prevents us from forming a very high estimation about her intelligence even so.

After evaluating these characters, I do think the definition has potential, as long as you allow for the intensity of abilities needed to pursue a goal--successful pursuit of goal that is easily achieved cannot indicate as much intelligence as even failing at a difficult one. Worthiness of the goal is another concern, but not strictly an intelligence one--obviously an evil mastermind will have unworthy goals, but that does not indicate he is unintelligent in his manner of pursuit.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

This is great! You need to finish it, though. What about Bingley? Mr. Bennett? Lady Catherine?

Also, I too am a multi-book reader...

Queen of Carrots said...

Bingley: Main goal seems to be to keep everyone happy with him, which he seems to work hard at and mostly succeed. He's a little too easily dissuaded from more definite goals, though. A moderate but adequate intelligence.

Mr. Bennett is plainly high in g, the whatever-it-is that intelligence tests capture, but as his goals for many years have been limited to enjoying his library in peace and observing the follies of his family and neighbors with detached irony, we must downgrade him considerably in the practical demonstration of intelligence, which is shown by his utter helplessness when a true crisis arrives.

Lady Catherine has everything she wants and needs do nothing but express the opinions she has acquired by chance in the assurance that nobody will contradict her. She has only one goal, getting Darcy to marry her daughter, she does absolutely nothing to further it (it does not seem to occur to her that anything she desires might not come about) and when it is threatened reacts in the most absurd possible way. We can safely relegate her to the same level of intelligence as Mrs. Bennett. It is not, I think, coincidence that Darcy is finally prodded into a declaration after spending time at her house--were it not for her wealth and title, she would be just as embarrassing of a relation as Mrs. Bennett.

thejoneshome said...

Now I'm going to have to figure out what Elizabeth's goal as a protagonist is. Because she's a real presence, not just an observer to let the reader see what everybody else does. So there's got to be something we're all hoping for her. Obviously we want her to get the guy in the end, but mere marriage -- even marriage to Darcy -- isn't why we're so happy for her.

-- SJ

Wendy said...

I never noticed the Mrs. Bennet/Lady Catherine connection, but you are spot on!