Saturday, June 11, 2005


Books and Intelligence

As an educator I know the value of books. In fact, I am a bookaholic.

I cannot go pass a bookstore without hearing the luring call from within the freshly pressed tomes; hold me, peruse me, devour me, love me. My pulse quickens and a feeling of bless overcomes my very soul when I discover the latest book I have coveted. Once I have my beloved acquisition nestled in my hands, I slowly savour our first encounter. I explore the cover, the jacket blurbs, and author notes in preparation of the feast that awaits me. My appetite for knowledge, entertainment, or enlightenment will be sated once more - sated at least until my next encounter with the written word.

This is my guilty pleasure. I am a true bibliophile. Buying, borrowing, collecting, I do it all. My passion for books does not cloud my vision of intelligence, in fact, reading has taught me to value other forms of intelligence. Howard Gardner has written extensively on multiple intelligences and it is through my readings of Gardner's work that I have learned to value intelligence found outside of books.

Gardner argues one must work with their own strengths to learn effectively. For some people, books are not the answer. Knowledge can be acquired in many ways. Gardner celebrates and embraces this diversity:

Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do... Ultimately, we must synthesize our understandings for ourselves. The performance of understanding that try matters are the ones we carry out as human beings in an imperfect world which we can affect for good or for ill. (Howard Gardner 1999: 180-181)

In Earth Abides, Ish is not as enlightened as Howard Gardner. Ish looks at the other people in the community as "the bricks out of which a new civilization must be fashioned" and finds most of them to be a view bricks short of a load (138). He evaluates their worth through what he knows, book learning and scientific fact. He does not value the people who can build, create, entertain or question. In fact he considers George, a talented carpenter, to be stupid simply because he cannot read, " . . . Ish knew that George was essentially stupid; he had probably never read a book in his life" (138).

Does Ish not see the value of George's talent? It seems natural to me to want to celebrate the abilities of someone who is capable of creating when there is a need for rebuilding. Ish, like so many others, believes intelligence equals book learning. It is this misunderstanding that has led to the belief that literacy equals reading.

I certainly agree with you about different forms of intelligence; even those of us who are word-oriented still can learn in radically different ways. I have always been what they call a "visual learner," myself. And being in the academy, one hears more than enough snobbery about credentials and formal education. But as a parent, I am very anxious that my son learn to love reading, and find myself agreeing with the general assessment that we as a culture don't read enough, don't value literature enough, etc. etc. So how to reconcile these seemingly disparate directions?

To pull the question more directly back to the course, as you have noticed in Earth Abides, literacy is an important question in texts that envision some portion of human society struggling on, post holocaust. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, for example (not on the reading list), people struggled to save books by trying to memorize them, while Earth Abides and Oryx and Crake present, I would argue, more conflicted attitudes toward literacy. This is something I'm sure we will talk about.
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