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  • Steven Delpome

Measuring Adultness

Through every endless debate on whether or not it’s possible to measure learning and if we can’t will we be able to, rarely do we consider the larger concept.

First off I’ve got to thank Chuck Klosterman’s new book, But What If We’re Wrong for directly inspiring this thought, in which he ruminates on the possibility that we as a race are wrong on what intelligence is entirely. It brought to mind a reality about school at which we often don’t look closely, if we do at all.

School does not measure how smart we are. It measures adultness.

By any measure in our society this is true: our general measures of intelligence (and most of our scientific ones) are almost uniquely measures of how like an adult a being is. A dog is considered smart if he can help out with human tasks, like guiding the blind or fetching our newspapers and slippers. Of late we marvel that we’ve underestimated the humble octopus because we’ve found they can open jars and perform other such human tasks to solve problems. Because we’ve deemed ourselves atop the social order of the world, we’ve taken the right to say that humans are the standard by which intelligence is measured.

And with children, because adults have deemed themselves the superior type of human over children, we’ve deemed knowledge and skills that are most adult like as intelligence. (this sounds blatantly obvious and not at all dangerous, until you consider that both “white” and “male” humans deemed themselves the superior type of humans and placed highest value in society on all things white and male.)

All that is expected of children to learn are measures of concepts that have been deemed useful in the adult world. Using English class as an example. Children are born making inferences and evaluations and connections (see footnote below). We say we are measuring children’s ability to do that, but what we really measure is how well children can express those things in words. This is not a bad thing. What it is though is simply a measure of vocabulary acquisition and having an increasingly larger vocabulary is an adult trait. With behavior, we punish loud, rambunctious, “childish” behavior, while rewarding quiet, orderly behavior that shows children are “growing up.” We express this to children all the time when they resist. “You’ll need this when you get older.”

(at this point, I could go into a musing about how damaging it is to constantly live in a world where you are being shown you are inferior, or how overvaluing adultness leads to children to jump into adult behaviors (drinking, drugs, sex, gambling) before they are ready, but those are for other posts)

If we just consider for a moment that we’ve created and continue to perpetuate our systems for our own good as adults, raising children to be just like us, so our comfortable world has a chance to stay as it is as we get older. If we could just see simply that, yes, we are measuring children for adultness--literally measuring them by their ability to be something they are not. (“If you measure a fish by his ability to climb a tree…”) If we could just stop valuing adultness so much. See that all adult traits are not good, and that many “childish” traits are. Well, I don’t know what the possibilities could be. I’m cursed with a limited, rigid adult brain that is not good at imagining realities that are completely abstract.

Maybe we should ask a child.

1. ”For example, a newborn's brain expects faces: even when they are less than ten minutes old, babies will turn toward face-like patterns, but not to scrambled versions of the same pattern. By two and a half months, an infant will express surprise if a solid object appears to pass through another object, or if an object seems to disappear, as though by magic, from behind a screen. Infants show a difference in the way they treat animate versus inanimate objects, making the assumption that animate toys have internal states (intentions) that they cannot see. They also make assumptions about the intentions of adults. If an adult tries to demonstrate how to do something, a baby will impersonate him. But if the adult appears to mess up the demonstration (perhaps punctuated with a "Whoops!") the infant will not try to impersonate what she saw, but instead what she believes the adult intended.” (From David Eaglemen’s Incognito)

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