Just because I’m smart doesn’t mean I’m good for anything
July 12, 2009
I’ve been meaning to post this eventually almost since I started blogging. Then Amy made her comment on my Dynamic Reality post, and then I read this post about IQ, Temperament, and Meritocracy, and I decided the time was now.
In most human societies, elite status is conferred by birth or wealth or some combination of the two. In the early 1900’s, some educators at prestigious universities in the U. S. A. decided this wasn’t very democratic and began pushing a program to replace traditional elites with a new class based on intelligence. For example, consider this (from an article about the history of the SAT):
The SAT was born in the 1920s-the product of a growing desire by American educators, led by Harvard president James Bryant Conant, to open up their universities to the best students across the country.
America’s elite universities-Eastern establishments such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton-selected students who were the sons of previous graduates or had attended New England’s finest boarding schools. Conant envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” taking the place of the old elite.
Lemann writes of Conant’s ideas, “The new elite’s essential quality, the factor that would make its power deserved where the old elite’s had been merely inherited, would be brains.”
This program was a complete success: today most people in America take for granted that smart people should be the ones to run things. Every president since Ronald Reagan attended an Ivy League university, as well as all of the current Supreme Court justices. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that this new “natural aristocracy” is an improvement over the old kind.
Now, for anyone who doesn’t know me who might be reading this, I should point out that I have most of the qualifications to be a member of this new elite. I was measured as having a high IQ when I was a child; My SAT and ACT scores were in the 97th-99th percentiles; I got my current job by acing a “programmer aptitude” test. Yet I know that if I ever tried to run anything involving humans I would probably not do particularly well. These tests do measure something, but my own experience suggests that it has little to do with successfully managing things in the real world.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the talents and personality traits that go with success on these tests can be detrimental when trying to solve problems in ordinary life. For example, a predilection for abstract reasoning clearly helps one to score well on IQ type tests, but people like me who enjoy dealing in abstractions can easily become enamored of complicated, obtuse theories to the point of ignoring concrete facts that contradict our theories.
Another problem is that the new elite is still an elite; replacing the criteria used for determining who belongs in the elite doesn’t make it any more democratic. Many intellectuals today are as confident of their right to be in charge as feudal aristocrats were when the divine right of kings was the official ideology. This breeds the same kind of arrogance and abuse that has always been the characteristic of a self-proclaimed noble class.
So if intelligence isn’t a good criteria for deciding who should be in charge, what is? The basic principle is that, as much as possible, everyone should be in charge of himself. Where we do have to put someone in a position of authority—presidents, legislators, justices, and so on—we should look less at their aptitudes and more at what they’ve actually accomplished. This is why I thought Sarah Palin was a good choice for Vice President: as governor of Alaska, she had reduced corruption, balanced the budget, and successfully negotiated deals with the oil companies to the benefit of her state. These accomplishments said much more about her suitability than her IQ scores or where she went to school.
Well, it’s getting late and I think I’m starting to ramble. Read the article on meritocracy that I linked at the beginning of this post. Before we can deal with the problems caused by the new elite we need to recognize the implicit assumptions behind its formation, and I hope this post has helped to do that.