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Jim Porter: Studying the history of intelligence

March 2, 2016

Jim Porter was once an elementary school teacher and taught English and literature at the high school and undergraduate level. Now, he is a sixth year doctoral student in the Department of History. Porter’s area of study grew out of the interesting conversations he had with fellow educators on the topic of intelligence.

How is intelligence assessed, and what can our history of assessing intelligence teach us about making such evaluations in the future?

“We all know that different people can display an amazing range of skills and competencies across different bodies of knowledge and in different kinds of performances,” Porter says. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but the sorts of comments and conversations [I had with] teachers seemed to assume that differences in skills or abilities, or ‘intelligences,’ had to do with fixed, inherent and inherited biological differences. The schools I’ve worked at all sorted students into groups based on ‘ability’ — or even denied students admission based on test scores — as if the question of ability had already been set and decided within the individual a priori.”

Porter has focused his dissertation on the theorizations and beliefs about intelligence in the United States during the Cold War, specifically from 1945 to 1975.

“I’m looking at how psychologists and educational policy-makers in this time period framed this question of intelligence: What was smart — how did we define it? Who was smart? And how did we try to measure or identify it in people? What subjects allegedly required the most smarts? And then — most importantly — how did these theories and definitions get used to structure and justify differential educational opportunities?” Porter explains.

During his graduate studies to address the topic of what makes someone claim a student is smart or not, Porter says learning to think like a historian is what he has enjoyed the most. The process has been “mind expanding” and made him realize the so-called stable truths aren’t so stable after all.

“From a historical vantage point, things that looked like stable truths from the perspective of any individual’s lifetime turn out to look not so stable, and maybe even not so very true, when you trace their shape over generations or centuries,” he says. “And from a historical vantage point, you become even more acutely aware of how you are, in a basic sense, more or less just like anyone else who has ever lived: stuck in the amber of the norms and beliefs of your particular time and place. I’m not at all saying that we all have lived out the same lives and that everything is fair and unproblematic; certainly not.”

“We’re all stuck in different places relative to each other, and some of those positions afford easier, readier opportunities than others. And some of those positions can be outright inimical to a person’s well-being and humanity. But we’re all stuck in the amber together. And at the very same time, just like anyone else who has ever lived, we’re all possessed of a capacity to let go of those beliefs to some extent — to see the amber that we’re stuck in. Studying history helps us do just this very thing, and this gives us a chance to imagine a way toward alternatives.”

Porter says through his research he has concluded “that theories of intelligence, and the uses to which they were put in the Cold War, were deeply influenced by the politics and culture of the time period. But more than this, they were influenced in ways — and by people and institutions — that I simply hadn’t anticipated. And the ramifications of these influences extended in directions I hadn’t expected. I have been not only reaffirmed in some of my original thinking, but also surprised, challenged and forced to reevaluate the shape of my study by what I have found.”

Reprinted with permission from the MSU College of Social Science

Written by Robert Bondy, MSU journalism senior

To aid in his graduate studies, Porter has received a number funds, including a University Distinguished Fellowship from MSU, a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant used to travel for archival research and, most recently, a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation fellowship. Learn how you can support student success.