The Webster dictionary definition really hits the nail on the head when it defines “Intelligence” as successfully learning through experience and adaptation. The naturalist in me respects how this brings learning back to it’s animal roots: intelligence stems from an ecosystem which demands keen awareness and sensitivity to one’s environment to survive and thrive. Our environment isn’t what it used to be, but our instinct to adaptive learning is now more crucial than ever. Though the contemporary of cognitively acquisition of knowledge through books and words (compared to skills learned physically, in immediate circumstances) has tremendous value, a return is needed to the experiential, physical, responsive learning of our instincts. This will be necessary to ameliorating many of the ills of our modern educational system.
In the discipline of “book-learning” is the elitist attitude of ridiculing “street-smarts” as a somehow lesser form of “smarts”. This experience-based learning is assumed to only be relevant to the roughest city streets of disenfranchised youths. It is not respected as a way of learning so essential for survival as complete humans. Comfortable Americans maintain this misunderstanding because this instinctual way of acquiring knowledge arises naturally in people who must remain aware of their immediate physical environment to survive, such as in inner-city neighborhoods, unlike the privileged who are accustomed to living in their heads (or tuned-out in their head-phones) all the time.
I want to acknowledge, however, that the stresses of living in embattled environments should not be romanticized. A hostile environment can compel those on the edge of survival to use their energy for more immediate demands, such as escaping a physical threat, thereby leaving less room for softer sensory awareness. Yet this can also, paradoxically, be a direct link into greater environmental sensitivity.
To grow up with intelligence and awareness, of any useful kind, is to come to terms with the world. To face adulthood is to leave the teenage time of endless battles and accept which struggles are worth your morning coffee. If I ever get the great honor and privilege of mentoring teenagers, I will try to put this understanding into their minds without overpowering them, but encouraging them to discover these truths. A good teacher or mentor is to lead them in reverence for the path, with wisdom to alarm them of unseen snakes in tall grass, as was the way of all ancestors for their young initiates. But a good teacher accepts that these young ones must necessarily be wounded –the old primal wound of the psyche coming to terms with the harsh and beautiful way of the world– to “die” to their childhoods. Elders must protect and defend the young while yet getting out of their way. The young people are to be put in charge for a change, which too many adults live in fear of acknowledging, and so put their children in trouble on the road ahead. But if the young are taught well, and learn intelligence by experiencing and witnessing the living, active wisdom of the old, we who are older should have nothing to fear when it comes time to hand them the wheel (the driving wheel, or the wheel of life!).