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Can Intelligence Be Measured? (1922)

   Can Intelligence Be Measured?

by Ernest McCulllough, The Survey, December 15, 1922

SOMETHING in the mental equipment of man has an important bearing upon his ability to hold his own in the struggle for existence. By some psychologists this quality is called intelligence and is defined as the degree of capacity one has for quick and effective adaptation to any situation that may suddenly arise. Others frankly decline to define it and say that it is only tentatively called intelligence for want of a better name.

We are told that there is a mental quality known as “natural intelligence” and that it is possible to develop mental reflexes which are called “acquired intelligence.” The sum of the two is intellectual power. Here an interesting question enters: Do psychologists measure intelligence or something else ? Added to this is a practical question: Is it wise to proclaim broadcast that this mental quality is intelligence? Is it common sense to say that there is such a thing as natural intelligence and another thing known as acquired intelligence?

What does the average man understand by the word intelligence ? The average man does not care to look critically into abstract things, nor speculate over fine shades in meanings of words or the turning of phrases. To this man the word intelligence does not convey definitely enough the idea he has when he reads about the army mental tests, or hears them discussed. He knows a great many men who might rank low in a mental test who have made a fair, even a considerable success of the business of living and rearing their families. This average man considers intelligence and knowledge as being essentially synonymous. Intelligence is to him the sum of all the mental attributes, natural and acquired, that improve one’s chances to achieve success. Success is popularly believed to be one-half opportunity. Given opportunity, any one can have success if possessed of gumption and special training. Gumption is supposed to be a mixture of energy and common sense. The formula for success is supposed to be,

Opportunity ……………. 1/2 part
Gumption ……………….. 1/3 part
Special, training ………… .. 1/6 part

Gumption is said to be that quality which enables a man to conceal his ignorance and keep going. It is twice as valuable as special training, a belief that explains why so many children go to work at an early age, even when their parents can afford to give them more schooling. They feel that to much stress has been laid upon the utility of education as a tool for the making of a living. They see plumbers who have not completed eight grades in a common school and plasterers as ill-educated able to earn twice as much as college-trained men who cling to technical professions.

THE average man does not consider education and knowledge as synonymous. Education he looks upon as something to be gained in school during childhood and adolescence; but knowledge is something one continues to acquire day by day. Now we are told that this thing the average man regards as intelligence is intellectual power. This is confusing. He simply cannot see why intelligence is not bettered by every increase in knowledge through experience. Intellectual power means nothing to him, but intelligence has a distinct meaning. Then why does the psychologist make such fine distinctions?

There is in all human beings, no matter in what classification the mental tests put them, a belief that education and freedom of opportunity can increase intelligence. Should this belief be disturbed? Some psychologists say positively that there is no possibility of improving the intelligence. The average man believes otherwise. In support of his belief take a paragraph from page 30 of “Army Mental Tests,” by Yoakum & Yerkes (Holt): ” The comparison of Negro with white troops reveals markedly lower ratings for the former. A further significant difference based on geographical classification has been noted in that the northern negroes are mentally much superior to the southern.” What but the better educational advantages and the preferable environment of the northern Negroes can account for this? The distribution of white blood in the Negroes is as general in the South as it is in the North; so we must believe that better opportunities and freer life of the northern Negro accounts for his slight superiority.

It is wise in dealing with the average man to consider that the literary usage of words counts for more than the usage of the scientist. Intelligence in common, or literary, usage means information or the result of instruction and experience. An intelligence office, for example, is a bureau of information. The intelligence service of the army is the service charged with the collection and dissemination of information about the enemy. In the philosophy of Kant the intellect is distinguished as being possessed of two faculties, understanding and reason. Understanding grows with experience. Here is an idea which clears up the attitude of the average man towards intelligence. In a dim way he regards it much as Kant did. Hence, in his opinion, no psychologist is able to measure intelligence. The thing that is measured is only that part of the intellect that reasons. When understanding aided by experience is added to reason, then and not until then does one have intelligence. The average man finds it hard to believe in two kinds of intelligence, natural and acquired.

IT is time psychologists used some other word. The literary usage of the word “intelligence” has caused the trouble. Why not call it mental acumen? All parents know whether their children are “bright” or “slow.” Few will admit that their children are “dull,” and the writer is inclined to think the parents are right. There are not many dull persons, but there are many who take in ideas slowly. Persistency and ambition count for a lot. The writer knows a man who has been classed pretty low in several mental tests but who worked his way through college, taking seven years at it. He is regarded highly by his business associates, who say he is slow but right when he does give an opinion. His former teachers are amazed that he is so well thought of, for to them he appeared frightfully dull. This man won out because he gained the habit of winning. The habit of winning is the best habit one can acquire.

“The stairs of time are hollowed by the wooden sabot going up and the velvet slipper going down,” said the French philosopher. This is the fact we must keep ever before the eyes of the average man. The classification of young children according to mental acumen should not range them in classes determined by mental strength, but in classes determined by mental age. That some minds mature more slowly than others is the thing the average man must be told; not that development entirely ceases in some cases at an early age, thus condemning the child and its descendants to occupy permanently a certain situation in society. Such teaching is like the outworn doctrine of predestination and fore-ordination.

Brand children as being low in intelligence and the knowledge will hamper their development. Brand their parents as being mentally inferior and a curse will descend on a large portion of the population. What do we know about the effect of heredity? The Mendelian law shows such a splitting off of dominant and sub-dominant types and characteristics that the segregation of those found to be actually feeble-minded will in time improve the stock, provided healthy bodies are insisted upon for those who breed. What we must avoid is over-stating the effect of heredity in shaping destinies in the wrong direction.

There are men who must be privates all their lives. That does not mean their children will occupy the same status. The father and mother may inherit from ancestors certain desirable traits which, joined in their offspring, may make those children leaders. We all know brilliant men with stupid brothers and sisters. This simply shows the truth of the Mendelian law. Our mission is to transmit to posterity sound bodies in which sound minds may develop: to breed descendants who will believe in the ability to win out in the struggle of life and who will never despair, no matter what obstacles may be encountered. The discovery that mental acumen may be measured should not be used to establish “an aristocracy of brains and a mentally subnormal proletariat,” but to show how the ideal of a common school education for every citizen may be brought about.

The writer had an experience fifteen years ago which will never fade. He was in charge of a piece of construction work on which there were employed between three and four hundred men. The men sent to the job by employment agencies were foreigners, very few of whom understood any English. There were a number of distinct languages among them and a number of local dialects, so that men of the same nationality found difficulty at times in understanding each other. An inspiration seized him to call in a man who knew Esperanto. Within less than ten days the men began to converse in this language. It was not imagination that made all of us believe that their eyes became brighter and their step more sure. That crowd of dull men was transformed. Opportunity had come, the environment was changed, they became intelligent. They were a different lot from their fellows who were working for other contractors in the neighborhood and who were dull and stupid because they were so classified by the men over them.

Let mental measurements mean an opening of opportunity to the general run of mankind, not a condemnation of masses and an exaltation of classes. Let us remember that many quick thinking men do not always display great common sense, while many slow thinking and slow acting men have a wonderful amount of it. Mental acumen alone will not serve to classify men, for there are other qualities which are needed. Mental acumen plus education and experience form intelligence and, even if the scholar is sure he chose the right word, let him show himself to be a good psychologist and abandon it for another, the literary usage of which is not going to mislead the simple into condemning a large proportion of the well-known human race as numskulls.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): McCullough, E. (1922, December 15). Can intelligence be measured? The Survey. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10867.

Source: Disability History Museum,

2 Replies to “Can Intelligence Be Measured? (1922)”

  1. eds103arsaldua says:

    […] I just want to share this article that I stumbled upon. There were 2 points that struck […]

    • admin says:

      In reply to your question, I am pleased to be able to inform you that within a week I will have an entry about Dr. Gunnar Dybwad who was a professional who worked with policies and programs concerning the intellectually disabled population. I will also post an article about Dr. Dybwad that speaks to the measuring of intelligence. Regards, Jack Hansan

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