Monday, February 6, 2012

"School Smart v. Street Smart" An Abnormal Discussion Week 3: Academic Non Ability, The Street Smart Solution

Question I

What is the difference between being "school smart" (doing well in school) and being "street smart" (doing well in the real world? Do you think a school smart person would be more or less likely than a randomly selected person to be street smart as well?

It easier to define "school smart" than "street smart," because school "smart" refers to an isolated location (school/academia) whereas "street" refers to any and perhaps all other areas of life. Making a comparison would be easier  and more balanced if we were comparing one dimension of "street life" (to an isolated skill area associated with physical health or home life, for instance). How do we define "school smart" and "street smart?" I know the phrase refers to differences between academic success and non-academic success, but it's still hard to define success in either area. Academic success can be simply defined in terms of grade point average; however grade point average doesn't always give us an accurate or entire picture of academic success. If you were successful in one subject but not another, are you successful, on the whole, or not? If you do well in a course that requires only the minimum of you or you do moderately in a course that requires the maximum of you are you or are you not successful? How much of success is in how we define it for ourselves and how much of it is determined outside of ourselves (by criterion, grades and evaluations)?

Even if we determine our level of academic intelligence based an external appraisal (such as a grade point average), we still have to contend with the way in which we define non-academic intelligence. For the purposes of this discussion, I define non-academic intelligence very broadly as including life skills and practical knowledge. The interesting thing is that when we think of "school smart," we often think about a form of intelligence that includes the ability to retain information, relay information, successfully show a comprehensive understanding of various bodies of knowledge, express ideas in writing and orally, and think critically. Our concepts of "school smart" is likely to vary across the spectrum, but not as much as our concepts of what it means to be "street smart." "Street intelligence," or practical knowledge and survival skills (what might, perhaps, include personal hygiene habits, ability to take care of the many dimensions of running a household, having the ability to live independently or to live in and contribute to a community, to perform vocational tasks, to problem solve intellectually-and-physically) can include anything that contributes to the functioning of an individual. "Street intelligence" may even include or draw upon "academic intelligence."

It's also important to consider the context in which we consider differences between and among various forms of intelligence. It is likely that concepts and types of intelligence vary across cultures - in a ethnic community that values communal living, members of the community might break off into task groups. Each task-oriented group, whether selectively organized or randomly assigned, carries out an important function in a community-centered society. There might be individuals who care for children and prepare food (who take care of domestic tasks) in one group formation and individuals who procure food and shelter in another. There might be groups committed to interacting with outside communities and groups committed to organizing important community events. There might be a group of individuals or simply one individual whose task it is to provide spiritual guidance and support to the community. What if this person or group of individuals is expected only to carry out spiritual duties in the community while relying on other members of the community to perform roles in other specialized, functional groups - would this spiritual group or spiritual individual (such as a shaman) be considered "street smart?" Well perhaps not, in a Western sense. As a Western concept, the concept of "street intelligence" is only applicable to those who live within a society that upholds values of personal responsibility and independence. But even in Western societies, there are many communities that do not exist or function as individualists. In a community that values co-dependence, the development of a particular type of intelligence and group of special skills related to that intelligence would assist in the functioning of the whole. In this way, the focus of each individual would not be on individualism (the development and maintenance of their own individualism); it would, instead, be the focus of each individual to work with others within the community and to participate to their fullest in playing a functional role in the community.

The difference between a mindset of individualism (individualistic coexistence) and a mindset of communalism (community-oriented coexistence) determines to a large extent the way in which we consider differences between academic and non-academic intelligences. While on a simplistic level, it is easy to understand and claim that there exist in the world many different types of intelligences and skills. Is one form more vital and necessary than another? That depends on the organization and functionality of the community in which these intelligences exist. Across cultures, are there certain survival skills that each individual person needs? Each person needs to survive - needs whatever knowledge and skills allow them to survive (and hopefully) thrive in a given environment.

There certainly are people who possess a body of knowledge in one area and lack it in another. There are successful and brilliant artists who lack social skills. In such cases, the artists may have successful art-based careers and terribly vacant social lives. Their impaired social skills might be so benign that they are able to function successfully on the whole. Or their impaired function might be so prominent and debilitating that it interferes with their ability to function successfully on the whole (perhaps even preventing them from utilizing their artistic abilities in a meaningful and gratifying way). It depends on the individual just as much as it depends on the environment in which the individual functions. Based on this rationale, it is not likely that an academically intelligent person would be any more or less likely than any randomly selected person to possess other non-academic skills and forms of intelligence.

This topic is relevant and interesting, especially in light of the intelligence-centered forms of psychological testing that we read about in Chapter 3. In the chapter, Halgin and Whitbourne speak to the issue of the difficulty of defining "intelligence." The focus of the use of intelligence testing as a psychological assessment tool is on individual functioning. Intelligence testing might not consider as much the individual's role in the functioning of the community, but it might asses the individual's functioning as part of a whole community with certain standards and expectations of normal behavior and average skill levels. The concept of "street intelligence" sounds very similar to Charles Spearman's concept of "g" ( or, level of general intelligence).

Intelligence tests provide us with a standardized concept of intelligence, which is helpful when used for the purposes of clinical assistance, support and treatment. However, the standardization of intelligence is problematic in that it is confining and narrowing and might fail to consider alternative, non-mainstream forms of intelligence. This is highlighted in Halgin and Whitbourne's acknowledgement  that computer scoring of intelligence testing does not account for the originality or creativity of thought (it does not consider the thought process behind the answer, it simply uses the answer itself as the determinant of intelligence. Psychologists, not the testing process itself, are responsible for considering factors outside (or behind) the testing process (such as emotional or psychological issues that are causing intellectual impairment or socioeconomic and ethnic factors that might be affecting the process and results of the tests). Psychologists cannot, unfortunately, change the fact that the tests themselves are likely developed through a white middle-class male form of "standardization."

Question II

In 1999, after a number of dog attacks, Spain’s Agriculture Ministry proposed a law requiring the owners of potentially dangerous pets to undergo and pass a psychological test. Is this a good idea? Is the field of clinical psychology equal to such a task?

I'm certainly leery of the use of one psychological test (Chosen and developed by whom? Who gets to decide?) as an act of prevention. Anything that involves government regulation is a slippery slope. I think government regulation can be and is a very effective way of protecting the safety of a government's citizens from harm; however there is always the invisible line that can be crossed easily that indicates that the government has gone too far and encroached upon individual rights to privacy. The tough part is figuring out where that invisible line exists. In a democracy in which a constitution is used to draw the lines between personal and political powers, psychological testing enforced by law would likely only be constitutional if it were performed on prisoners. I don't know what rights of criminals and prisoners possess, and I am not well versed enough in constitutional law to be able to argue the finer points of any dimension of the constitutionality of enforced psychological testing. If I were interested in making an argument for or against enforced preventative psychological testing for the purposes of decreasing the number of dog attacks, I would construct my argument by drawing upon specific constitutional laws as well as by drawing upon works of philosophical and literary theories on morality, individualism, community responsibility, criminality and personhood. Preventing dog attacks from occurring becomes, not simply a psychological issue but more so, an issue of ethics. Some people might argue that it is unfair (and therefore unethical) to punish the whole of a society because of the dangerous behavior of a few. Others might argue that a psychological test is for the common good of the citizens of a society and is not punishment for all but rather a preventative measure against a dangerous minority. If the problem of dog attacks was so bad that I could no go outside without fearing for my life, then I would look to my government to put in place measures that would ameliorate the problem. If the problem were increasing yet still isolated, I would look to my government to provide help and information (without necessarily passing a law). I'm not opposed to regulatory laws, but I it depends on the law itself (in this case, the content of the psychological test itself).

Regardless of whether or not the issue is one the government should address, I find the use of a psychological test as a preventative measure to be off-base and inappropriate. The decision to use a psychological test implies that ALL people who deal with psychological issues and disorders are unfit to be caretakers of (certain breeds of) dogs. What will this psychological test determine, anyway? Will anyone with any hint of mental illness fail? If not, which mental illnesses affect one's ability to care for and control a pet and which do not? Can you assume that just because someone experiences a psychological dysfunction or strays to some degree at some time or another from optimal mental health (as determined or dictated or discovered via a government implemented psychological test) they are incapable of being a responsible dog owner? Can you assume that just because someone does not experience a psychological dysfunction or does not stray to some degree at some time or another from optimal mental health (as determined, dictated and discovered by a government implemented psychological test) they are fit to be a successful dog owner? No, and no. I find the clumping of all the individuals into one of two categories (either a psychological success and, therefore, likely to be a responsible pet owner OR a psychological failure and, therefore, unlikely to be a responsible pet owner) to be illogical and disconcerting. I find this characterization to be dehumanizing of people who experience psychological dysfunction, especially given that most of us experience some form or another of psychological dysfunction during our lifetimes. Is the "logic" at work that all individuals who are irresponsible pet owners are also, invariably, psychologically unhealthy? I hope not. And worse is the idea that people who experience mental dysfunction are incapable of being successful (responsible) pet owners. That's mythical thinking, at best. In my own experience, I have witnessed several people, living with varying degrees of psychological dysfunction, who were excellent, above-average and incredibly responsible pet owners. I don't know the contents of the psychological test itself, but if it's a pass or fail test - it's likely that these incredible pet owners would not have been able to own a "potentially dangerous" pet.

On the other side of this, I can see why we would want only the most responsible pet owners to own certain breeds of dogs that are more prone to aggression. Would you want a violent person to be the owner of a violence-prone dog? No, but how can you prevent this? A violent person is probably just as much of a threat to society with a dog as he would be without a dog. Is an aggressive dog in the care of a violent person the same as a loaded gun in the hands of a violent person? What else, aside from certain dog breeds, are you also going to deny the violence-prone individual without depriving him of his freedom (especially if he is violent-prone but has no official history of violent behavior). Psychological dysfunction and irresponsibility are not intrinsically related. There are responsible and irresponsible individuals with psychological disorders, much as there are responsible and irresponsible individuals without psychological disorders.

When my partner and I lived in Buffalo, NY a few years ago, a couple moved in next door to us and we soon realized, soon after they moved in, that the male member of the couple sold mastiffs at an inner city location for a living. That would not have affected us at all were it not for the fact that he was also breeding mastiffs. In his backyard (which was virtually in our back yard). He had a fence up and kept the pregnant mastiffs chained up all day. After they moved in, the yard became an unsightly, muddy mess. Every time we went outside (and even while we were inside), the mastiffs freaked out - they shook the fence and growled and barked. Now I don't know much about that particular breed of mastiffs (I'm assuming they were American Mastiffs), but they did not EVER seem happy to see us. They did not seem like they wanted to come over and say hello. They definitely seemed as though they wanted to break the fence and pin down the intruders (us, their neighbors). Sometimes, when their owner was not present, I would stand across from them and try to reason with them, saying things like "Hi, I live next door. I don't want to hurt you. You can stop barking. And, please, if you do happen to escape, don't eat me." Most of the time, though, I tried to ignore them (Yeah, RIGHT) and went about my business.

The incessant warn-growling and barking made our outdoor experiences significantly less enjoyable. I was very concerned for our aging sheltie, Cydney, who ran over to the edge of our yard and barked back at them. She had quite a yap and an independent little fighting spirit, but, much as I hate to think about it, they would have made her into a snack in less than two minutes flat if they were to break the chains. The same probably goes for me, except I would hope I would have the sense to play dead. Although mastiffs are said to be great with children, these mastiffs were locked up all day and were not trained. They were there to breed and only to breed. They weren't walked. I never saw anyone play with or talk nicely to them. It was sad. I did feel compassion for them. Still, I did not want them locked up day in and day out five feet away from me. I hoped that the dog breeder would move to a rural area (or to I Don't Care Where). Luckily, we moved first (I'm shocked someone bought the house, actually). What could we have done if we wanted to stay? I'm not sure where was much we could do. We could have inquired about it and talked to our neighbor, Earl. We, my partner and I, talked about it. We decided that if we ever had children that we would move for our own sense of security. While having a mastiff for a neighbor might have been acceptable to us (if we had been introduced by the owner and witnessed that the dog was well-mannered around small children), having a disgruntled prisoner mastiff for a neighbor was not acceptable to us. I can't say that I blame Earl for breeding mastiffs in his backyard (okay, yes I can), but I can blame him for not doing what it takes to care for and train his mastiffs. Was he mentally ill? Who knows. Would knowing that he experienced mental dysfunction have had any effect on his irresponsible breeding non-policies? No, knowing probably wouldn't. It wasn't the state of Earl's mental health that we cared about (although given his perpetual face of madness - as in anger, we did wonder...), it was the quality care and level of ownership of his dogs that we cared about.

Psychological tests are not the best way of monitoring and controlling owners of potentially dangerous pets. There are other, less obtrusive, ways of preventing dog attacks from occurring. Making specialized training for certain, dangerous breeds a requirement for pet ownership might be a more effective alternative. That way, the focus would be on controlling the problem (dog attacks) rather than on controlling the owner based on some unrelated criteria. A government could make training mandatory or could offer free training if the issue is of such importance to the people represented by it. I think the best preventative measures are education - making it accessible is one step forward, and if that isn't working, then making it mandatory is the next step. The bottom line: in the best case scenario, preventative measures (rather than reactionary ones) would be devised and implemented to address the problem of dog attacks. I do not consider the psychological testing of dog owners to be the best and most relevant (or effective) measure.


Kristin Davis said...

In response to your answer for Question 2, I totally agree with you. Preventative measures are best, and honestly, psychological testing really does not help a person learn how to take care of a dog better, neither does it help the dog. Sure, it helps weed out those in dire need of therapy, but overall it doesn't really help the situation. I think a better solution would have been making dog training classes mandatory. The people would then know how to properly take care of the dogs. and the dogs would benefit from the discipline and have less of a chance of attacking people.

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