Friday, July 8, 2016

Making room for people of normal intelligence

This is an article that really made me think.  It discusses how we have shaped society in the US, and frankly in much of the world, such that people with high intelligence (or at least the academic credentials that we regard as intelligence) amass great advantage while the bulk of people are left out of society's bounty.  It's a new variation on an old theme of allotting society's resources and its value of human worth to certain people possessing a certain trait, and excluding others.  This has been done with race, socioeconomic status, gender...and now intelligence.

I somewhat shy away from the author's uncritical use of the term "intelligence", though he does say very clearly that he is defining intelligence as the type of SAT-measured, college-grades-earning ability that our society rewards handsomely.  He acknowledges that there are many other kinds of intelligence, but that what our society values is sheer academic skill.  (And while the use of "stupid people" in his title is eye-catching, he's really just talking about the rest of us that aren't ultra-brilliant, in other words people of normal intelligence or academic credentials).  For the purposes of the article, perhaps the distinction between intelligence and academic credential-acquiring ability is moot, but it's very important for me.  I have in fact met very few people I regard as unintelligent.  Many of those that I do consider as such are in fact society's winners, the supposedly intelligent, often white, middle- to upper-middle-income overachievers that are great at striving and parroting, but not necessarily very good critical thinkers.  In fact, by the mere dint of belonging to a hegemonic group within society, many academically "intelligent" people are less capable than others to challenge their own assumptions and think outside the box.  Conversely, many of the most witty, critical, brilliant people I've met do not have a very good formal education, have not scored well on tests or in school, and are deprived of the approval and the wealth of the society at large.  These are the people who manage to survive in conditions that would overwhelm many others, that are able to question dominant narratives that are so clearly inapplicable to their lives, and that can identify and name like few others the barriers society has erected to them and others like them.  That for me is intelligence.  In addition, kindness and solidarity have to be an element of intelligence.  I can't rightly call someone intelligent if they are mean, destructive, too small-minded to perceive the common struggle of humanity that all of us are called to contribute to.

Even in a less extreme example, I think most of us who work in offices can relate to how silly it is to reward people professionally for how academically intelligent they are.  In my case at least, and I'd assume in most people's cases, I have coworkers I consider really good, and those I consider as not being very good workers.  I define this based on how they work in a team, how agreeable they are to be around and collaborate with, and mainly just whether or not they do what is required of them by our office.  It hasn't even crossed my mind with most of these people whether or not they'd do well on the SAT test, but I would imagine that some would and some wouldn't, and how well they did on a test would probably have little correlation to how valuable and productive a member of the team they are.  This simple example gives the lie to the common practice of only hiring the academic standouts for many jobs.

In any case, the article framed things in a way I hadn't before.  My own reflection after reading is that, whether intelligence (especially in the academic sense that gets you a higher salary) is inborn or acquired, in either case it's unfair to discriminate based on it.  If it's inborn, it's not right because all people should be entitled to a dignified, fulfilling life, regardless of the traits they're born with.  If it's acquired, then it's unfair to penalize those who haven't had the same opportunity to acquire intelligence.

I feel that the author captured in words a set of values I've long possessed without having an explicit name for them.  I have always been repulsed by the disdain of the intelligent for others, especially as expressed in ironic, mean-spirited satire like the Darwin awards.  My wife has sensitized me to how ugly the word "stupid" is.  In Spanish it's almost profane, unlike in English where we throw the word around casually.  Nowadays we prohibit our kids from using "stupid" in the house, and we do the same.  In fact, the only time I use the word, and the only case in which I truly believe someone is stupid, is when they oppress or bully or hurt others.  The inability to accept other people, the desire to belittle or even eradicate them, shows such a lack of imagination and mental capacity that I have to call it stupid.  Ironically, those that most often draw my ire in this sense are usually people who deride or dehumanize others precisely because they believe they are more intelligent, and thus entitled to keep everyone else down.

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