In this issue, I am going to allow myself the pleasure of making some off-the-cuff observations about the subject, intelligence. This word as understood by the common man has several meanings and frankly, its meaning is as varied and numerous as the people who try to explain it. In most people, it is an indefinable attitude of superiority over others, (“Oh, Yes. He does not know”) although some of them are refined enough to sound less arrogant. (“I really wish he knew”) Some people regard themselves intelligent, just because they happen to be different in certain ways and habits from others. But to the multitude, intelligence primarily consists in the yellowing, dog-eared certificates, gilded medals, laminated degrees and faded photographs of forgotten performances.
If we rid ourselves of these vanities and complexes, we will discover that intelligence is merely one of the faculties like seeing and smelling: the faculty like your Disc Operating System that coordinates different parts to function in an organized way. It is nothing but sheer ignorance to think that intelligence is the exclusive trait of human beings. A monkey that hangs upside down by its prehensile tail from the branch of a tree, a hawk hovering over its prey, and a German Shepherd that surprises the stranger with a volley of loud barks are all said to posses a certain degree of intelligence, not very different from that of a student mugging up an essay on the 'Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire'. A terrier or a hound that charges at its quarry is more consistent and sure-footed than a XII grader struggling to identify a salt or a botanical specimen. Of course, I don’t mean this as an insult. Far from it.
The point I wish to drive home is that human intelligence is essentially a free and free-wheeling power, at times shaky, inconsistent and fallible, but always keen on doing something different, better and interesting. The boredom that we feel and the mistakes that we commit are too often an indication of a mind tired of repetitive work and craving for novelty. But what is saddening and sickening about the whole business is that our educational system is relentlessly trying to whittle down and trim human intelligence in order to make it perform as efficiently as an unerring mongoose or a falcon.
Intelligence is, then, the drive power, the kinetic energy, but it is not an entity by itself. In fact, it is controlled and steered by another quantity, another factor like the arithmetic sign before a number or the coefficient of an algebraic letter. It is with the study of this quantity that the rest of this letter is concerned. Broadly speaking, this quantity operates at three levels as the determiner of the focus and direction of intelligence. At the first level, it exists in all birds and animals in its primitive form known as instinct. A crocodile devouring its prey is performing an intelligent act of orchestrating its visual, aural and olfactory senses along with its stealthy and cunning moves; but the entire act is directed by the coefficient instinct. The instinctual intelligence of the reptile would not allow it to entertain any other thought than masticating its food until its hunger is gratified.
At its second level, this quantity is far more evolved and we shall, for want of a better word, call it interaction. The student memorizing a lengthy passage on the 'Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire' is very likely to declutch himself from the painfully monotonous task, and indulge in a fantasy of Pompey’s flight to Egypt, Julius Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate House or the passionate love affair of Mark Antony with Cleopatra. You see, the human mind has the propensity to interact not only with the living, but also the legendary and historical ones. The ability to disengage oneself from an obsession with the object of attention and to view it from a different perspective is the essence of interactive intelligence. It is this intelligence that is predominantly operative in every sphere of human life as I shall try to illustrate.
Let us take, for instance, the teacher student relationship. A teacher’s status in the society is beyond question as he is supposed to be engaged in what is traditionally hailed as ‘the noblest profession’. Placed unreservedly, more often undeservedly in this lofty position, the teacher is always at his best trying to bring the best out of his wards. His hard labour to deliver the goods is grudgingly admired even by the most uncooperative students. Another example that comes to my mind is the parent-child relationship. Elevated to the status of demi-gods, parents spare no efforts to ensure that their children’s lot is a lot better than their own. The sacrifices they make can become a box office storyline!
Hold on a minute! Not so fast! While the sincerity and the commitment of teachers and parents can never be doubted, we cannot be blind to the limitations of their interactive intelligence. In the first example, suppose a student turns out to be an intellectual rebel, who wants to go beyond the frontiers of curriculum to engage himself in a liberal and untrammeled pursuit of knowledge, how comfortable would the teacher be with him? Some of you might recall the embarrassing moments Albert Einstein’s physics teacher had to go through in the classroom. Most of the teachers are well aware that their pre-set goals and programs are always at odds with the intellectual aspirations of the students. There exists between them a kind of jockey-horse relationship, the former trying to tame and mount and the latter waiting to kick. I am yet to meet a father who would grant his sons and daughters the freedom to explore and understand life on their own terms. When a father’s beliefs and convictions are not implicitly followed and accepted by his children, the result could be disastrous. A blind rage swells and sweeps across, and interactive intelligence degenerates into instinctual intelligence. You can extend the argument underlying these examples to political, moral, religious and social spheres.
Interactive intelligence is ubiquitous. It is an invasive, intrusive and insidious force; it dictates, it dominates, it drives the people to act in obedience to a doctrine, more often a mistaken doctrine; nay, an evil one. The scientist who spends his time and energy inventing weapons of mass destruction has sold his soul to the devil of a dictator. The shields and certificates conferred upon a student are but war memorials erected upon the grave of his slaughtered intellectual curiosity. The festival freebies and generous gifts are but a bribe to drug young minds into accepting superstitions and follies. There is something of a false note, something hollow, something hypocritical and something selfish. That is why the world, for all its shine and sheen of intelligence, is a horrid place where people are in shackles and bondage. Interactive intelligence is a kind of emotional and intellectual vampirism. It is the intelligence of Dracula who charms his victims first and goes for jugular vein at last.
We have now before us the third coefficient called empathy. The Oxford dictionary gives the meaning of this word as the 'power of projecting oneself into a work of art or other object of contemplation.' It follows as a rider, that empathy is one's capacity to lose one's identity in another entity in order to fully understand it. Precisely, it is this ability that forms the basis of a meaningful relationship between two individuals. To understand is to accept; accept someone with all his plus and minus, accept him for what he is and not for what you expect him to be.
The white American boy who saw a black slave being scourged must have vicariously suffered the whiplash. The boy grew to become the president of the country and fought the Civil War for the freedom and dignity of the Negroes. Eventually he paid for his ideals with his life. This is empathising intelligence that lifts you far above others. It registers your name in the hearts into which you have walked. It makes you walk out with your consciousness widened and your understanding deepened. You no longer live in fear or anxiety, for the world around you is your domain, your hometown, your own home. It sets you free from the self-consuming passions and obsessions in which others are condemned to live. You begin to feel that you can form a wonderful relationship with anyone, as Eva did with Uncle Tom. You begin to see the world as a beautiful place with beautiful people and beautiful things.
Empathy is the highest form of intelligence and the hardware required to operate this intelligence is sensitivity of very high order. Education should, as its primary goal set out sensitising young minds socially, aesthetically and intellectually. Universities should start thinking seriously of redefining its priorities and revamping its curriculum. We can no longer afford to continue with this kind of shallow and skill-oriented education that produces only qualified craftsmen, of course decked with diplomas, degrees and doctorates.
In 1961, the most respected philosopher and mathematician of our times Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled "Has Man A Future?” Four decades later we are convinced that the chances for mankind to survive have dwindled, even as man's capacity to lead the world to annihilation have exponentially increased. Empathy is the need of the hour. Someone ought to give a wake up call. Is any one out there?
Your English Sir
Original Post: Dated Saturday, the 23rd of September 2006
PS: I thoroughly enjoyed reading your responses to my first viewsletter. I am glad that it has appealed to you. Some of you spoke to me over the phone to say a few nice words about it. I would like to thank every one of you for your genuine appreciation particularly some of the seniors like Venkat, Siva and Kanaks for making text related comments, by culling out passages which they have found quite stimulating. My special thanks to Harish for neatly editing the text to suit Orkut format and Nivedan for advertising and publicity.