During a recent chat with some friends, one of them recalled a high school teacher who embarrassed him in class by saying “you aren’t living up to your potential.”
Not living up to one’s potential—an arresting and, for me, rather dubious notion. What does it really mean, and who decides what your or my or anyone’s potential might be?
Let’s start with this teacher’s basis for 1) assessing my friend’s potential, and 2) deciding he wasn’t living up to the mark. Was the teacher comparing his classroom performance with his prior academic record? Measuring the gap between his output and his score(s) on academic knowledge tests like the Iowa Assessments, or IQ evaluations like the Stanford-Intelligence Scales?
Are there other factors outside the school setting that might have influenced how this teacher thought about my friend’s potential?
What Do Standardized Tests Really Measure?
The term “IQ” (intelligence quotient) was coined by German psychologist William Stern in the dawn of the 20th century. It was almost immediately adopted by Alfred Binet who, together with Theodore Simon, created the Binet-Simon intelligence scale, the first modern test of its kind. Rather than measuring what a child had learned, the test assessed mental abilities through such items as the child’s reply to an abstract question or their verbal definition of a known object such as money. The child’s IQ would then be calculated as a quotient of their mental age (estimated by the test) divided by their actual age and multiplied by 100, e.g., a six-year-old who performed at the average level for six-year-olds would score 100. If that child performed at the average level of a nine-year-old, their score would be 150.
In everyday parlance, one’s IQ quickly became a shorthand for classifying people as brilliant, average, or not-so-swift—labels that can color teachers’ attitudes toward a child, especially the low performers, and prove difficult to shake. But Stern and Binet both cautioned against using IQ as a sole means for categorizing intelligence. They felt that intelligence is multi-faceted, individual differences are highly complex, and comparing two people in any qualitative way is a near-impossible task. Perhaps most significantly, Binet, who intended his test as an aid to identify kids who need an extra boost in the classroom, believed that intelligence is not fixed or inborn.
Despite these disclaimers, the then-new and rapidly growing eugenics movement (Hitler would become a big fan) seized upon IQ testing as a method for identifying the “feeble-minded” who they hoped to eradicate by preventing such people from “breeding.” Indeed, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, Sir Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics, suggested in his book, Hereditary Genius, that these people be sent to celibate monasteries or sisterhoods in the interests of improving the race.
Tests of Knowledge. Whose Knowledge?
On even shakier grounds in defining a child’s potential are knowledge-based tests like the Iowa Assessments or the Stanford Achievement Test. These tests are designed to measure specific skills and track a student’s progress. But what is knowledge really? It can only be what we have been exposed to, not what we are capable of achieving. And the experiences of American children (indeed, children everywhere) are so widely divergent as to make any truly meaningful comparisons, let alone pronouncements on a child’s potential, ludicrous. Though testing companies—responding to criticisms of bias—are quick to assure us their updated tests are more culturally inclusive, can you truly compare the scores of students from an underfunded, overcrowded school that lacks many basic materials with the scores of kids in an affluent suburb where the schools have state-of-the-art science labs, a fine arts wing, and the latest textbooks?
All children have knowledge, i.e., every child has experienced, observed, and taken in a ton of info about the world around them. But the child who shares a one-bedroom flat with three siblings and a single parent doing the Mickey D shift has a very different understanding of how things work than the child whose financially-secure family provides dance lessons, visits to science museums, and trips abroad. Both have knowledge. And they both know that the social order values one kind of knowledge over the other.
Even if we remove economic inequality from the picture for a moment, the child whose experience is a sprawling family farm in Idaho has a very different view of the world from the child growing up in New York City whose daily life is the subway, skyscrapers, and a rainbow of diverse cultures. Even Binet acknowledged that measures of intelligence were not easily generalizable and could only apply to children with similar backgrounds and experiences.
The Many Shades of Intelligence
The brain is a many-splendored thing. As Yasemin Saplakoglu, writing for livescience.com, says, “The brain tells us what to do, how to act, what to think and what to say… We depend on this organ to live and learn, but much about this organ still remains as mysterious to us as the inside of a black hole.”
One of those mysteries is what motivates each of us to pursue certain paths and reject others. We now know a lot about the brain’s neurons and synapses, its frontal lobe and the amygdala, but that “thing” that is each of us, what drives it, how it manifests itself in our individual capabilities? Our “test score” on that is about zero. So, how can we measure a child’s potential? Yet, there is something in our collective society that always wants to measure stuff—gender norms, quality of life—quantify it, label it, then tuck it away all neat and tidy. No confusions. No uncertainties.
Yet, human beings are full of mysteries. For example, I can make good connections between seemingly disparate events, I’m fluent in literature and history, facile with words, creative, but I could never have invented the computer. My head just doesn’t work that way. Does this make me less intelligent than someone who dwells in the land of IT? Turn it around. Is a geneticist who understands human genome sequencing but can’t read music more or less intelligent than a composer who writes symphonies but barely passed biology in high school? Or are they simply different?
The theory of multiple intelligences, proposed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983, comes closer to admitting the immense complexity that is each of us, but even it cannot predict or codify how these various types of intelligence—combined with our individual experiences and that undefinable thing that makes you you—stamp us with a potential that can be expressed in numbers, percentages, grades. The thing that made Van Gogh paint in the way he alone painted; the “spark” that inspired Alan Turing to build the Bombe machine that broke the German Enigma code, a major turning point in the Allies’ road to victory in World War II.
The First Rule of Status Quo: Thou Shall Not Buck One’s Social Class
Those “other factors” I mentioned up top that influence our beliefs about a child’s potential? In my experience as both student and educator, none is more likely to bias a teacher’s (school’s or community’s) assessment than the socio-economic status of a child’s family.
Expectations flow from certain well-defined “norms” (a word that, in my opinion, one must always approach with a certain wariness), e.g., a “bright” child from a “comfortable” home, “of course” dreams of a degree from Harvard, Princeton, or MIT, and a future in medicine, law, investment banking, engineering, or IT. They would “naturally” aspire to a large airy home, a yacht, and a vacation house in some trendy beach area (where one can hang out with all the other people who have lived up to their potential).
The affluence a family commands is no small lever in the world. Just look at George W. Bush. Dumb as all get-out, but rich and once the most powerful public figure in America. Did he ever dream of anything other than politics? Was he ever allowed to even have dreams that were driven by something other than his social status, family connections, and dynastic wealth? It’s worth noting that such factors in determining potential are all slanted toward the white, the Christian (or at least the non-Muslim and non-Jew), and men. A woman may choose to seek a high-status position. But if the “little lady” decides to stay home or volunteer her time or make bracelets to sell on Etsy, she’s not deemed a failure. We didn’t expect that much from her anyway. And society rarely asks of the Black man running the gas pumps if he has other aspirations or talents.
The (Hidden) Tyranny of You Can Be Anything You Want
“You can be anything you want to be.” Sounds like a great thing to tell a child, right? And to be fair, many parents and teachers who say this mean it simply to be an encouragement, an ego boost. But sometimes there are hidden parental agendas. You can be anything (I want you to be). You can be anything (appropriate to our family’s social class). You can be anything (that has prestige/earns big bucks—a neurosurgeon, a corporate CEO—and if you’re not, then you’re a royal f#&k-up).
It can be difficult for a child to see this hidden agenda until the backlash comes. I wanted to be a writer from the start. I penned my first poems at age five, my first short stories at six. But the first time I pitched an article to a magazine at age 19—and yes, I made many mistakes in that initial effort—my mother (without even reading the pitch) said, “Oh, they won’t want that.” It was discouraging, confusing—and angering—for me. Why was she trying to crush my first attempt at giving my dreams flight in the larger world?
Sometimes the efforts to direct a child’s dreams involve more than simply maintaining the family’s social status. Several years after I pitched that first article, college over, I took a job waiting tables while I wrote my first novel. That’s when the hidden agenda really emerged. “You could be anything you want!” [Mom again] “If I’d had your intelligence and your opportunities…” Yadda, yadda, yadda. It emerged through many painful repeats of this scene that what I could have been—what she wanted me to be (because she gave up a career she loved at my father’s insistence)—was the CEO of a prestigious marketing firm. Never mind that I loathe the whole corporate thing. I was born to live out her dreams. I was her “second chance.” Sadly, I think this is more common than many parents would like to admit.
Getting Encouragement Right
Encouragement is great when it’s for goals the person being encouraged has freely chosen. Not being allowed to feel okay about our own choices and dreams is a set-up for frustration, anger, depression, and pain. Parents and teachers need to step back, take the time and effort to discover what floats a child’s boat—and this can change many times as kids grow up and become adults—and provide opportunities/support for those young dreams. This is never wasted. Supporting a child in their search for who they are and what matters to them—providing materials or lessons (if that’s feasible), introducing them to mentors, or just simply learning more about the things that engage them—can have rewards that last a lifetime. For the child, for the parent, for their relationship.
For the adults in the room who refuse to do that, I can only paraphrase Bob Dylan: Please get out of the way if you can’t lend your hand.
Upward Isn’t the Only Kind of Mobility
For a world that offers a breathtaking array of possibilities in life, from dog surfing instructor (yes, this is a real job in California) to rocket recovery technician, robot tester to alligator wrangler, it seems a bit myopic to assume that the only definition of a well-lived life comes down to a prestige title, a corner office, and a high six- or seven-figure salary. One size has never fit all. Thank god.
I know more than one person who has turned down promotion to a high-level management position at their company—said no thank you to the increased pay, perks, prestige—because they did not want to manage people. They did not want the endless rounds of meetings, the oversight of resources and personnel. They just wanted to continue doing the job they already enjoyed. A well-known children’s author once told me that many editors at publishing houses dread a promotion because it takes them away from the work they became editors for—to read manuscripts, discover new talent, and edit books.
Are these people not living up to their potential, or are they exactly where they should be—honing their skills at a job they love? Of course, turning down a promotion usually means you have to look elsewhere for a job—so “unimaginable” a thing, so damning, is it to reject “the American Dream”, you can find yourself increasingly shut out of all the good projects going, the stuff you do love, as punishment for bucking the status quo.
Coloring Outside the Lines
So, what about you? Who are you? What floats your boat? What if your dreams don’t accord with what others label your potential?
First of all, you are far from alone. John Steinbeck, the great American novelist, attended Stanford but left without a degree to pursue his writing. He picked fruit and worked on the construction of Madison Square Garden while penning his first three novels, all which sank with barely a trace. At 33, he got a taste of success with a short story, “Tortilla Flat”, but it would be another four years before the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, and he would be 50 by the time East of Eden saw print.
Stephen King served as a high school janitor, among a host of other odd jobs, while struggling to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cleaning cart through the halls, though, inspired him to write the opening girls’ locker room scene in Carrie, which would become his breakout novel. Perhaps nothing is ever truly wasted.
Only one thing seems more audacious than someone determining what another person’s potential is—and that is telling them they’re not living up to that potential. So, follow your passions whether or not they fit the pigeonhole others have pegged for you, whether or not they bring you public recognition and status symbols. We do the things we love for an intrinsic reward that has no neat, quantifiable measure. You will never be happier than being who you truly are.