Hard Work and Intelligence

Intelligence is judged differently here. We noticed this first, a few years ago, when chatting with our teenage friend Ruru. Westerners tend to believe that smart people don’t have to work too hard. If you are intelligent things come easily.

Ruru and her friends, however, assume the opposite. It is the kids that work the hardest that are smartest. When pushed, she will sometimes, reluctantly admit, that some subjects are easier for some people. For the most part, however, Ruru rejects the idea of natural ability. The smart kids are the one’s who study most.

In his new book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell makes much of this point. Though I am suspicious of Gladwell’s underlying constructivist ideology, I found his chapters on Chinese education fascinating.

Gladwell links the Chinese emphasis of hard work to the relentless effort required in the cultivation of rice patties. He compares this mode of agriculture – in which increased cultivation leads to increased fertility – with Western methods, which intermittently leaves the earth to lie fallow and rejuvenate (a practice he ties to long summer holidays). “ A mind must be cultivated. But not too much, lest it be exhausted,” he writes, of the prevailing idea.

Intriguingly Gladwell argues (convincingly to my pathetically innumerate mind) that hard work is especially important in mathematics, where patience and persistence are key. “We sometimes think of mathematics,” he writes, “as an innate ability. You either have “it” or you don’t.” Instead, for Gladwell – and I suspect Ruru would agree – anyone can solve a math problem as long as they are willing to work hard enough at it.

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