Life as a non-genius: the lot, by definition, of almost all of us. There’s a Mozart in most professions, and the rest of us Salieris have to accept that, even celebrate the products of what nature doles out to the very few, the little miracles of body proportion and metabolism that make an Olympic athlete or the uncanny ability of a gifted politician to remember every name and conversation she’s had since age 20.
But within the normal range of functioning, we place a lot of importance on innate qualities like intelligence (whatever its definition) at the expense of other characteristics that are likely to make us effective students, workers and creators. College recruiters and employers look for the “best and the brightest” but the first word in that pair is often overlooked.
In introducing TED Global last year, host and curator Chris Anderson had the audience raise their hands if they’d been passed over for the gifted program in their schools. A large percentage of the audience raised their hands. Then, in classic TED self-congratulatory style he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the gifted class!” This left me with a lot of questions. Is “gifted” not simply a special educational need, redundant as a descriptor in adults? Surely high achievement in the area of “ideas worth spreading,” TED’s motto, would be more a function of intellectual curiosity than of intelligence, per se, with which it is often conflated.
Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, in an interview included in his latest Some Remarks, described his genre as “idea porn” and goes on to distinguish iconic sci-fi characters as those who attract their readers through obvious intelligence – think Data in Star Trek – speaking to the intelligence in the readers, or their high valuation of intelligence. But I wonder whether the sci fi has less to do with the measurable quality of quick thinking than with a sci-fi reader’s identity. Revolving centrally around their self-perception as intelligent people, science fiction ghetto denizens sustain themselves on the idea that they are surrounded by cretinous hordes who misunderstand them.
Spectra along which humans discriminate – gender, age, sexual orientation, and race, among others – become cruxes of identity. However arbitrary as determiners of acceptance, they form some of the most central items on our list of self-descriptors. Most of us have a pretty strong sense of ourselves in relation to our intelligence. For some our personal narrative is that of an underdog who always had to work harder to understand things, perhaps dealt with a learning disability, but used tenacity and organization to overcome the disadvantage. For others, their sense of inferiority of mind – perhaps instilled by a damaging sibling relationship or hurtful teacher remarks – leads to learned helplessness and a perpetual victimhood.
A meritocracy is supposed to circumvent arbitrary discriminators in favour of hard work and achievement, but of course there are factors beyond our control that affect ones worth in this system as well – ill health, for example, or an interest in obscure, unmarketable fields.
Very occasionally, a job might actually require a level of “g” — the raw cognitive processing speed that strongly correlates with all types of intelligence psychometrics. But usually the minimum bar for this is actually quite low, provided other skills sets are in place – self-discipline, say, or an ability to take direction.
Is it legitimate to discriminate based on intelligence if the job does not require it? I honestly haven’t made up my mind and would be interested to hear your thoughts.
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