Kaufman Redefines Intelligence

You might not know who Scott Barry Kaufman is, but you should.  If you ever heard him speak, you wouldn’t forget him anytime soon.  I had the pleasure of hearing his keynote address a few weeks ago at an Early College high school conference, sponsored by KnowledgeWorks, where I was speaking on one of my favorite topics:  why high school seniors can’t write.

Kaufman, who is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is as smart as a whip—and funny and insightful.  He is well credentialed (Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Cambridge, and Yale University).  But, most importantly, he graduated from my high school (Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA)—albeit a couple of decades after I did.  We bonded briefly over our admiration for a great instrumental music teacher, Leonard G. Murphy.

In his keynote address, Kaufman recounted how he had suffered through many ear infections as a child and, as a result, had ended up with a central auditory processing disorder that landed him in special education classes.  His story about how he got out of them is one for the books.  In fact, you can read about it in his own book—Ungifted:  Intelligence Redefined—and you should.

Kaufman’s personal experience as an elementary and secondary school student set him on a mission to create a new theory of intelligence—one that accounted for more than the usual components.  The definition of personal intelligence that he developed after much research goes like this:

“The dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in pursuit of personal goals”

This definition accounts for a kid like Kaufman, who managed to work his way up to winning the music department award at graduation when he had never played an instrument before he got to high school.  This definition accounts for a kid like Kaufman, who got rejected when he applied to be a psychology major at Carnegie Mellon (not great SATs), managed to regroup and get accepted as an opera major at Carnegie Mellon (no SATs required), and then maneuvered his way from there into the psychology major after all.  You really should hear Kaufman tell the story.  It’s priceless—and also exemplifies the critical importance of “engagement . . . in pursuit of personal goals” as an active component of intelligence.  The guy’s a genius.

Kaufman made a lot of other fascinating points in his keynote address, but you should read them in his book.  Let me tell you just one more, which is my favorite.  This research comes from a study on creativity by E. Paul Torrance, which looked at elementary school children over time, starting in the late 1950s, and then was followed up 50 years later.  In Ungifted, Kaufman quotes Torrance: “One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something—your dream, your image of the future” (p. 281).  Kaufman put it this way in his keynote address: “falling in love with an image of [yourself] in the future.”

My creative middle child did exactly that as a 10-year-old.  He fell in love with an image of himself as he looked about a dozen years into the future.  I didn’t understand it then—neither his image of himself nor the value of his being able to conjure up that image.  But I understand it now, almost two decades later—thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman.

Parents:  Get a copy of Kaufman’s book and read it.  Give a copy to your child’s teacher.  Give a copy to your child’s principal.  If you can put together an audience big enough for Kaufman to speak to, invite him to come tell you how parents and teachers together can nurture creative and intelligent students.  And don’t forget to ask him what the research says about daydreaming—because you probably have it all wrong.

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