September 14, 2019

Remembering Luis Machado

Simon Bolivar University

Luis Alberto Machado (1932-2016) was a lawyer who served in various governmental capacities in Venezuela. He is best remembered for his conviction that intelligence is not innate but instead acquired and thus can be taught. From ancient times until the twentieth century the opposite belief was accepted without question, and though Machado was not the first to challenge it, he was among the most passionate. In 1979 that passion was recognized by then-President Luis Herrera Campins, who appointed Machado to a unique position—Minister of State for the Development of Human Intelligence—which he held until 1984.

InThe Revolution of Intelligence, Machado noted that science has shown that what is innate is not intelligence itself but the “capacity for acquiring intelligence,” and that the circumstances of one’s life—being born in a primitive culture rather than a developed one, raised in a cognitively nurturing home rather than the opposite, and encouraged to increase intelligence rather than discouraged—decide how much or little that capacity is capitalized on. He noted further that research shows that IQ varies over a person’s lifetime.

Invoking the old saying about giving a person a fish versus teaching the person how to fish, he argued that over the centuries educators “have been giving us fish and have not taught us how to catch our own,” noting that “nowhere in the world is intelligence taught as such, methodically, and on all levels of education.” Elsewhere he observed, “[nowhere] does the present system awaken any type of curiosity and when is does it is not capable of satisfying it.”

In The Development of Intelligence—Politics or Science? he defined intelligence as “the specific ability that allows human beings to relate ideas.” Also, as “the capacity to solve problems.” This definition underscores the positive, optimistic view that intelligence is not, as cynics have believed for centuries, fixed and inflexible, but is eminently pliable.

Machado also made a clear distinction between the indirect approach of cultivating intelligence and the direct approach of teaching it. In his view (which I share), most teachers do not understand the distinction and thus need training before they are able to actually teach it. This important realization led him to champion training in the concepts and principles of logical thought throughout the Venezuelan education system.

In The Democratization of Intelligence Machado emphasized that “In order to master any discipline, certain mental processes [are] necessary for the assimilation of knowledge . . .” And for this to happen the processes need to be systematically and deliberately practiced. As he wrote elsewhere, “It is possible to stimulate and increase in a deliberate manner the cognitive dimensions of every individual, regardless of age or educational level.”

In The Right to Be Intelligent he argued that society’s “mission” and the “primary obligation of its leaders” is to create conditions for people to realize their potential for intelligence. He also offered these insights:

  • “Perhaps the most dangerous prejudice of all [is] that intelligence is transmitted genetically.”
  • “No one is born civilized or primitive . . . The child of a primitive man and woman will become civilized, if he is educated to be so. The difference between a primitive man and a civilized one is not biological; it is educational.”
  • “What good is freedom of thought, if people are not given the facilities for learning to produce their own thoughts?”

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Luis Machado in the mid-1990s when I was helping the faculty of Simon Bolivar University in Caracas improve their strategies for teaching critical and creative thinking. He and I quickly understood that our “causes” were compatible. His was persuading educators that students are capable not only of memorizing information, but also of evaluating it and producing ideas of their own—in other words, capable of thinking for themselves; mine was providing strategies for helping students reach that goal.

Alas, Luis Machado’s accomplishments in Venezuelan education and culture did not survive the socialist agenda of Hugo Chavez and Maduro. How could they have when excellent schools and a 95% adult literacy devolved to three-quarters of the schools lacking food, water, and electricity and a school dropout rate of between 58% and 80%.

Much has been written about the way Socialism turned Venezuelan prosperity into abject poverty, and that tragedy is certainly worth communicating to the world. But Socialism’s undermining of the country’s education system is every bit as tragic. (Bloomberg News describes Simon Bolivar University as “a forgotten piece of a once prosperous nation.”)

Yet despite the stifling of Venezuela’s education reforms, Machado’s ideas about intelligence and human progress live on in the memories and hopes of the country’s educators, as well as in the efforts in other countries who have profited from his insights. And though it may take decades, or even centuries, I believe his vision will one day be recognized around the world as the best and surest hope for the future of mankind.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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1 comment
  • You always have something fascinating to say! Consistent with the theory expressed in your article, I have always recognized that “being smart” requires lots of hard work plus training in how to analyze issues. It isn’t difficult to learn HOW to think: My Father (who had a classical education) never gave me the answer to a question. Instead, he would say, “well, let’s analyze this”; and then he would walk me thru the reasoning process.

    But in the American public schools, people have long been conditioned to uncritically regurgitate whatever absurdity their teachers told them. We see the results of this abomination all around us today. Perhaps this is why God told parents to educate their own children – He never gave the civil government this power.

    I can assure you that the American law schools are hot beds of such mindless indoctrination.

    However, God does specially gift some people – look at child prodigies such as Mozart; and people like Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, & James Madison! But for the rest of us, hard work + training in how to think gets the job done.

Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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