Monday, January 16, 2012

Smart is unAmerican

re: smart kids

I went to mostly working-class schools where having a 3-digit IQ was social suicide. Kids would routinely accuse me of cheating on tests because I aced them and they couldn't imagine anyone acing a test unless they'd cheated. The benefit of such a schooling is that you get to see what people are really like before they get socialized enough to conceal their feelings, which remain, under the hood, under all the rationalizations and fake "concern."

Of course many people don't suffer from the sin of envy, regardless of their own accomplishments or lack of same. But there's a streak of what I call "leveler" thinking in America, running back to our rejection of the claims of England's royalty that they were innately superior to the rest of us.

Unfortunately we went to the other extreme, often claiming that everyone is exactly the same except for accident of birth/education. To this day we spend billions on vast special ed programs with an infinitesimal return on society's investment, while gifted student programs with a proven high rate of return are the first to be cut if they existed in the first place. (Not that we should kick handicapped people to the curb--but neither should we waste vast sums of money based on pretending that we can educate their handicaps out of them.)

And both liberals and conservatives are often infected with leveler-ism--many liberals from an overreaction to racism and ethnic stereotyping, many conservatives from anger at scientists for telling them things they don't want to hear. And recent political campaigns have attacked politicians for being financially successful (Romney) or patrician (Kerry). Not to mention how many new prisons are being built while higher education funding withers and becomes out of reach for more deserving people every year. (While at the same time at least a quarter of students who do go to college are unable to learn at the college level, usually dropping out, wasting time and social resources.)

A great litmus test for leveler-ism can be found in reactions to a cheerful, polite 11 year old girl who happens to also be an interpretive musical genius: Jackie Evancho, from Richland Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Because of leveler-ism, everywhere you turn you find people quick to deny that Jackie exists--that is, claiming that the real Jackie can't exist (AutoTune!), or if she does, it's with a built-in expiration date (she's ruining her voice!) that lets us feel good about our little Mary not being able to sing like her (much less ourselves). Call her a genius and watch the reactions. For way too many people, "genius" is un-American.

No wonder our math, science and language scores are so poor compared to most other rich countries.

And, getting back to politics, for many, being intelligent is an automatic knockout factor for a presidential candidate. Huntsman's nuanced positions doomed him with the GOP primary crowd; Romney only gets the grudging support he does by constantly repeating idiotic bumper sticker slogans I'm sure he knows are false. Clinton had to overcome the stigma of his Rhodes Scholar track record, while Bush II's academic mediocrity was a big plus for him.

We haven't had to deal with the royalty claims of the Hanovers for over 230 years, yet we're still getting our knickers in a twist over them...

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