June 10, 2014

Let Down By "Living With a Wild God" by Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m a big fan of Ehrenreich. I like her reportage, and her social experiments, and her writing style. 

But I heard that this book was a little different, I thought I’d let it slide until I was personally recommended the book by Tim Noah (Author of the “Great Divergence,” check it out). He liked it and I liked his stuff, so I thought I would check it out.

I think my first instinct was right. This wasn’t for me. It is basically what I would call an intellectual biography, detailing the development of a bookish child. I can relate to that.

But there’s the thing that was emphasized. Ehrenrich is on my team, cheering for the big A, or so I thought. Here she details some sort of mystical experience she had when she was a teen and the life-long ramifications and search for just what happened to her (the world caught fire in a way that fire doesn’t burn – with spirit). For me, that part isn’t that interesting. I remember thinking that she should have just looked up her William James and moved on. 

She didn’t look up William James – until later. I don’t know. This thing just left me cold, and it felt unresolved. I kept creeping towards the last pages, and the answer to how she defined what happened was left in the air (unless I missed it, which is possible but doesn’t say much for your climax as an author). I can’t really recommend it. I don’t know who’d be interested in it.

June 5, 2014

Against Emotional Intelligence

I had a student when I was teaching English 101 who wrote a paper about the idea of multiple intelligences. This was ten years ago, but I still remember it because he was an intelligent student and the topic was novel. All I was aware of as a measure of intelligence was the IQ, and having a high IQ myself, I knew that that couldn’t be the end of personal quantification, nor a great indicator of success.

We’ve been talking about Emotional Intelligence in class and in the readings and it sound like a good concept, but if you unpack it a bit it feels troublesome.   

For me, the biggest issue is about self-reporting. On an IQ test, the whole bit is about pattern recognition. There is a right or wrong continuation to the pattern, and you’re timed. These tests are often given and scored by professionals. I was tested once I was a child and theoretically at the time it was a pretty fixed number.  All I was ever told that it was more than two standard deviations beyond average.  At the time I wanted a number, but it was quite obvious I was generally one of the smartest students in the room.  You lose this with self-reporting. First, there is no right answer. Secondly, it is bounded on a spectrum. Thirdly, people lie. The fact of taking a test allows your mind to think of what may be the right answer and what may be the best that will give you the highest score. It’s a Heisenberg thing, I suppose. I can’t give myself a 180 IQ even by guessing against the administrator.

Then there’s this. I took the tests. I was highly emotionally intelligent. I think I am good at naming the feelings I have, and being able to control them in the situations in which they arise. However, if you asked me, in general, how I was at reading people’s emotions and reacting to them, I’d say I was horrible. Specifically I didn’t have a problem with it. Am I less self-aware than I knew, or was I gaming the test on some level. The problem is that there is no right answer when it comes to emotions. It is a highly subjective thing that is given the illusion of exactness by drawing numbers from a spectrum and then averaged and averaged again. I think it might be fair to talk about someone being more or less emotionally intelligent, but the quantification is a bridge too far. 

Finally, the problem with numbering is that emotional intelligence can change within the person on a short time period depending on the subject’s cognitive load. Basically, the less you have going on with your own life can free up your mind for being open to other’s existences and what they have coursing through their limbic system. This brings me to mind of a thought I had in class: what is the EQ of a psychopath? They are able to get by in society by performing the emotions that they feel are supposed to feel, but have none of their own. Therefore their mind is clear and they can read people, but they lack empathy. 

Overall, I like the idea of multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence being one of many axes that we can use to judge ourselves and improve ourselves. However, I would not put too much stock into it until we can solve some of the glaring issues with it.