My high school counselor, questioning the value of standardized testing, defined his ideal test of intelligence as dropping someone in another country without any prior knowledge of the language, no money, and no acquaintances or other means of support and then coming back in a year to see how they were doing. At the time, the definition made a big impression on me chiefly because it seemed to have no connection to me and the way I had so far demonstrated my intelligence; up until then I had thought we had firmly established that I was the epitome of intelligence.
Since then, as we have uprooted our family to live in country after country, I have thought a lot more about this definition of intelligence. Personally, I like the wads of cash approach to living in a new country—renting nice homes in safe neighbourhoods, hiring language teachers, buying whatever food and utilities the family needs. Surviving in an unfamiliar culture and language without the money you need would be a remarkable feat. It probably would suggest a high degree of intelligence, but I think it would also suggest a high degree of personal charm, good health, and—most of all—luck.
It has also occurred to me that the scenario Mr. Adams described is not actually so far-fetched or unusual as it seems at first blush. Doesn’t it perfectly describe what happens when a child is born?—he or she is thrust into a strange, unfamiliar culture without any language skills, money, or even clothes! The fact that any of us manages to get along at all is a testament to the remarkable adaptability (and intelligence!) of humans but also points out the role that luck plays. Whether a baby is dropped into a loving, stable, financially secure home or into a tumultuous, drug-ridden, poor home has everything to do with measures of that baby’s success one and two years down the road.
I saw the role of luck when I took my babies along to volunteer at hippotherapy. The kids from the orphanage were just the same ages as my babies—one and two years old. In some ways, they were very much like my one year old and two year old. They were about the same size (though much, much skinnier even than my two rather lean children). They showed widely varying personalities—some of them quick to laugh, some of them happier in the background. But I noticed when we got out the toys, that my one year old eagerly grabbed whatever was held out to her, looked at it, mouthed it, banged it experimentally, and then happily and eagerly reached out for something else. The other one year olds wouldn’t reach out to take toys. My two year old kept trying to offer them toys. They looked at him with interest. They looked at the toy sometimes. But not one of them would reach out and take the toy from him.
I find this deeply disturbing, that already, at thirteen months, my Western child knows how to grab what she wants, but that these African orphans somehow sense that they should not presume to take anything for themselves.