Sunday, September 16, 2012


How we value intelligence! Think of how often we include it in descriptions of people—smart, bright, brilliant, sharp, first-class mind, and all the others—and it’s nearly always meant to be positive. We have almost completely suppressed the earlier notion of “cleverness” being a substrate for a certain mistrust. It’s true that Americans are traditionally suspicious of “eggheads,” but the tech revolution has ensconced the successful nerd in the pantheon of American heroes—brains now translate into money, and money is, of course, unambiguously wonderful.

The people good at the intelligence we chiefly prize, which is the ability to handle quantitative data and abstractions and to write and speak about them fluently, do seem to get the top rewards in our society. Our whole education system is geared to finding these people and sending them off to get the credentials that will validate their having this single quality in abundance. And we debate endlessly about whether this quality, and its presumed representation, the IQ score, is distributed equally among our population, or whether some identifiable classes of people naturally have more of it.

When we do this, we are using intelligence as a surrogate for success in the world. Smart people are given the good jobs they deserve and the dull are left to move the heavy objects around on the earth’s surface. But when you actually look at the people with the good jobs, this does not seem to be universally the case. The state of the world, for example, does not seem to reflect the presence of high intelligence running it. Greed, yes, and aggression, and the ability to manipulate others, but not that, not obviously. And when we look at those whose intelligence is certified, as for example the graduates of Hunter High School in New York, whose doors no one may pass who has not scored at least 150 on the IQ test, or members of Mensa, an organization of the super-intelligent, we do not find among them an unusually high proportion of world beaters. It seems that the production of extraordinarily reasoning ability on a test does not automatically translate into substantive measures of success.

At one time, I had occasion to mingle with some of the people who run the world-- high government officials, White House staff, and the heads of Fortune 500 companies—and naturally some were highly intelligent. But not all and perhaps not even a majority. To them, brilliance was a commodity that could be bought, like electricity, or so it seemed to me. What all of them did have in common, as least to my passing eye, was the ability to get along with other people, to make themselves agreeable to others, especially others situated above them in a hierarchy. Because what often goes along with super-intelligence is a lack of just that ability. The super-intelligent tend to develop impatience with slower people, which does not improve their chances for popularity and success in life. Also, very smart people tend to drop out of the rat race early (sometimes after making a quick fortune) and pursue their own interests, more or less alone. We may lament that we have stupid leaders, and this is so, but it is an error to associate this stupidity with lack of intelligence. Stupidity, as Paul Goodman once said, is a character defense that has little association with abstract reasoning ability. In fact, a lifetime of being rewarded for abstract reasoning ability almost guarantees the sort of restrictive arrogance that underlies acts of stupidity by the great among us.

My own experience with all of this occurred after I took my first and only IQ test, at the age of, I suppose, eight or nine. I can’t recall if it was a city-wide Board of Ed affair, or something private, but in any case, through some fluke or other I vaporized the test, coming out of it with an absurdly high score. Now, I was a reasonably bright kid. I read early, and kept reading, but I was not doing major scientific or literary achievements. I was collecting comic books and baseball cards, and not advising rocket scientists. But the score got my parents all excited and it was arranged for me to interview for admission to a special school optimized for kids with super-high intelligence, as measured by the Stanford-Binet metric.

My mom took me to this place, perhaps it was a university, and there was a hall there where all the small geniuses and their moms waited to be called into a room for an interview. I looked at the other kids, and I can recall, even after sixty years, my visceral repugnance. I did not want to associate with these pale, soft, bespectacled creatures. I wanted to go to a regular school, where I could be dreamy and coast, and not be bothered, and learn, if I could, how to be tough.

I got called for my interview. The interviewer was a professorial type, such as I had never encountered in real life, but only in the movies. He had on a tweed jacket, which was how I could tell he was a professor. He asked me a number of questions, of the type that a very bright kid might have been able to answer. Could there be snow on the equator? Why does a feather drop more slowly than a b-b? How about in outer space? Why? What’s a volcano and what produces its heat? I knew the answers, but purposely answered enough of them wrong not to make the cut, and so continued my career in the NYC public school system, and learned enough to be at least semi-tough.

In later life, I understood that this was a counter-narrative to what the culture expects. The kid from humble and non-intellectual surroundings is rescued, given elite opportunity and flourishes. But it turned out that back in the day you could get a public education in regular elementary and high schools that I suppose is almost unobtainable under modern conditions, except privately at huge expense. The teachers who taught us had gone into teaching during the Great Depression, when public school teaching was like bond trading is now—nearly the best job going for a college grad--and they were definitely not, as now, from the lowest quintile. They were really smart and really good. So I never regretted my juvenile instinct, although I probably surrendered the transcendent greatness to which my score entitled me.

Now, I’m not so smart, it seems to me, although I avoid like the plague all those brain teasers the papers print, which are supposed to demonstrate smarts. I don’t do crosswords, or play Scrabble, or Rubik’s Cube. I think inside the box. As I get older, pure smarts seem less valuable than character: decency, focus, hard work, and the ability to give and receive love. And wisdom, which is not at all dependent on pure intelligence. And toughness.

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