Intellect and Fish

October 9, 2013

For a class, I was asked to write about the whether or not intellect is a social and cultural construct, based on the Einstein quote in the picture below.  The quote reads: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  Below is what I wrote on the subject.  

Poster from RedBubble.com

I believe that intellect is partially – but not entirely – a social/cultural construct. As in the Einstein quote, we are to some degree a product of our environments and our ability or inability to fit in to them. However, I believe there is also a natural, inherent potential in each of us. Some people, no matter what their environment, will simply never develop intellectually beyond a certain point. They simply aren’t “wired” for it. Likewise, there are some people who take Einstein’s fish analogy and (pardon the pun) blow it out of the water by becoming a tree-climbing fish. (Note, this is specifically regarding intellect, and not the various types of intelligence. We may use intellect and intelligence interchangeably, but they are actually quite different concepts.)

Obviously, a supportive environment increases our chances of healthy intellectual environment. Strong communication and literacy skills in the home, as an example, are likely to increase a child’s capacity for understanding language. This is one type of intelligence, but I believe it is also a piece of the intellect puzzle. However, if that child has a learning disability, a biological impairment, or even a lack of interest in this type of learning, he or she is still never going to excel in the area of language arts and literacy. The fish must have the desire as well as the ability to climb the tree.

Conversely, a child who is always told that he or she is stupid is likely to give up before he or she can even come close to reaching his/her ultimate potential. If you tell the fish he can’t climb the tree, maybe he won’t even try. If you encourage him to try his best, then maybe he will somehow manage to defy all logic and expectation.

Does this make the fish crazy? Does it make the fish-parents also crazy for encouraging the impossible? I suppose by some definitions it does. There can sometimes be a fine line between seeing the world a little bit differently than other people do, and being mentally unstable. Does that mean that a healthy and active imagination is just a slip away from schizophrenia or other dissociative diseases? After all, if you’ve seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, sometimes extreme genius and mental illness do in fact go hand in hand.

Mind you, this is not to say that mental illness should just be ignored because it can be a sign of great intelligence, imagination, or intellect. True mental illness should certainly be treated appropriately. My point is simply that sometimes the line is less clear than others between what is a matter of “thinking outside the box,” and what is truly unhealthy.

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