Darnel Degand @darnel25 | December 16, 2015

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Discussions about social success skills (e.g. social intelligence, grit, noncognitive skills) are common in the United States. Some individuals in the U.S. believe that these skills can be nurtured in students. Others believe that these skills are innate in successful individuals and cannot be taught to everyone. These ongoing debates and conversations concerning how to define these skills can be better understood by examining the historical contexts that influences our views on social success skills. I will provide a contextual summary of the article that popularized the term "social intelligence" in the United States. My definition of a contextual summary is a comprehensive, yet concise, synopsis of an article, book, or any other work of literature that also explains the set of circumstances and historical period that surrounded and influenced the author(s).

The term “social intelligence” was first defined in 1909 by John Dewey. However, Edward L. Thorndike is often mistakenly credited as the first American to define it. Nevertheless, Thorndike popularized the term when he re-introduced it 95 years ago in his January 1920 Harper magazine article titled Intelligence and its uses. I will briefly discuss the social and academic contexts present in the United States at the time of its publication. Afterwards, I will provide a short introductory bio about Edward L. Thorndike. Once these historical contexts are established, I will review the content of his article and discuss how it relates to today’s American society.

Social Context


According to estimates and data collected during the 14th United States Census, the population across the 48 states was 105,710,620 at the time of Thorndike’s publication on “social intelligence”. Whites made up 89.7%, Blacks were 9.9%, and the remaining 0.4% was composed of all other groups. Woodrow Wilson was completing the end of his second term while Warren Harding and James Cox were campaigning against each other to become the 29th president.

The Roaring Twenties

Credit: Wikimedia

The United States was entering what is now often referred to as the Roaring Twenties. The country had recently transitioned from a wartime economy into a peacetime economy after the end of World War I and it was on its way to becoming the richest country in the world. Henry Ford’s assembly line of affordable Model-T automobiles began to congest the streets, telephones became increasingly common, books were a popular form of entertainment, and moviegoers enjoyed silent films played in theaters. Broadcast radios were not yet a household item at the time of the article's publication but the first radio news station would be launched later that year. A stylized cinematic glimpse of life during this time can be seen in the 2013 film, The Great Gatsby.

African Americans

Some African Americans experienced success during the Roaring Twenties, especially those who were part of the National Negro Business League; a network of successful working professionals and businesses founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900. However, most African Americans were unable to partake in the prosperity of that time. Jim Crow laws from the previous century continued to promote segregation between the races and limited the types of quality opportunities that were made available to African Americans.

Furthermore, race riots from the previous summer continued into 1920 and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise again. President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration had led the effort to crush the first Ku Klux Klan in the southern United States approximately 50 years before this time period. However, in January 1920, they were well on their way to becoming a national organization that would reach its peak in the mid-1920s. The Great Migration, the movement of many African Americans to the northern parts of the United States, was well underway at this time due to all of the racial violence occurring in the southern states.

Credit: hti.osu.edu

Minority Populations

The vast majority of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic/Latino Americans were also unable to partake in the prosperity of that time. The already low number of Native Americans was being reduced even further when they were forced to either assimilate and take on White culture or stay on their reservations. Their children were often sent to boarding schools in an attempt to make them reject their religions, languages, and clothing. The Asian American population was also small at this time. Asians who wished to immigrate were often denied entry due to the Immigration Act of 1917. This infamous law had been vetoed several times by Woodrow Wilson and previous presidents but the United States Congress eventually passed it. It was also referred to as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act because it included a list of Asian and Pacific Island countries that individuals would not be allowed to immigrate from.

However, extreme anti-immigration sentiments did not apply to Hispanics/Latinos in 1920. Mexicans were allowed to freely travel back and forth into the United States at this time. Hispanic/Latino Americans eventually experienced discrimination once they settled in the United States but they were exempt from the taxes and literacy tests enforced on other immigrants by the Immigration Act of 1917. The United States economy attracted Mexicans because the salaries offered to them were greater than what was available in Mexico at the time. However, they were paid much less than European Americans. Eventually, the Border Patrol was founded in 1924 and restrictions on free travel between Mexico and the United States were enforced.

Women's Suffrage

Likewise, women were also fighting against inequality. Prior to 1920, the International Women’s Suffrage movement had achieved multiple successes abroad as well as some victories on the domestic state level in their fight for women’s voting rights and the opportunity for women to stand for electoral office. Still, in January 1920, women in the United States had not yet attained the right to vote in all states and on the federal level. Fortunately, they would succeed later that summer with the ratification of the 19th Constitutional Amendment which prohibited sex-based voting restrictions on the state and federal levels.

Credit: pbs.org

Prohibition Era

Additionally, the Prohibition Era had just begun when the 18th constitutional amendment took effect on January 16, 1920. This ammendment made the production, transportation and sale of alcohol illegal. Speakeasies, establishments that illegally sold alcohol, would soon become popular during this era. They became a major part of American culture with citizens of all colors and backgrounds enjoying the musical entertainment and the illegal beverages served inside these venues. Boardwalk Empire, a television series that aired between 2010-2014, provides an entertaining portrayal of life during this period. The first episode is set in January 1920 on the eve of the Prohibition era and the show was often praised for its attention to historical accuracy.

Jazz Age

In addition to being known as the beginning of the Prohibition era and the Roaring Twenties, January 1920 was also the start of the Jazz Age. Jazz musicians often performed in the many speakeasies that had proliferated throughout the United States with Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City being among the most popular Jazz scenes. Blues, Ragtime, and Musicals were also popular forms of music at that time. Yet, Jazz stood out because of its rising popularity among the youth of that time and because of the infamous reputation it received because of its indirect association with speakeasies.

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement, was also occurring. It included new cultural expressions in theater, literature, fashion, music, and visual arts from Harlem and numerous other Black communities in the United States. This movement also influenced works from other artists in Africa, the Caribbean and France. The Harlem Renaissance had not yet peaked at this time; however, Du Bois was a major figure in the movement and he was involved in multiple notable contributions in January 1920. He was editor and founder of the hugely successful journal, The Crisis, which had 100,000 readers, he was publishing his first autobiography, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, and he was launching a new monthly children’s magazine, The Brownies’ Book, because he felt that American textbooks ignored Black history and culture.

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