Friday, January 18, 2008

The value of intelligence

Bobby Fischer, Cold War chess champion and enigmatic recluse, died in Reykjavik, Iceland yesterday. Like Ayn Rand, he was intelligent, abrasive and Jewish, although he developed a strong antipathy towards Jews and America. His fate, rather than the unrealistically happy endings of Rand's novels, is typical for people with a high IQ who remain stubbornly inflexible and refractory to change.

Time Magazine article "Are we failing our geniuses?" contends that America is not doing enough to support gifted children in education. Ayn Rand would have agreed that it is an outrage that we spent ten times more on special education programs than on gifted education programs. I personally think it's kind of excessive too. There definitely is an anti-intellectual trend among school age children. Only in America is it ever cool to be dumb and smart people are thought of as freaks (like me and my boyfriend Victor were when we were in school, and no doubt all the misunderstood Randian geniuses). It would be good if that could change. Other countries seem to have less of that problem.

However, I totally disagree with the notion that being "gifted" (or thinking you are gifted) makes you more important and deserving of special treatment, or precludes you from having to learn to function and contribute to society. Barbara Branden said that Ayn Rand placed great importance on being intelligent, almost to the point of worshipping it, as do many immature, socially isolated teens. I used to be like that too, probably because school was the one thing I consistently succeeded in and managed to validate myself that way to overcompensate for other things that were lacking in my life. Thanks to Victor, and also other life experiences, I no longer think that way. Often in our arguments he would say that he doesn't see himself as better than other people just because he is smart, that intelligence in itself isn't necessarily a virtue. I never understood it and would even get offended. But I've since come around.

I still respect and value intelligence highly, and it is definitely a great trait to have to succeed in the world. But it is far from the only, or even the most important factor of success. Members of Mensa come from all walks of life. While I was still in college, my dad told me that it has been shown that success in one's career only depends 15% (i dont know how he got that number) on your technical skills and qualifications. I was shocked, even outraged. But after having more experience working in different environments, I understand first hand how important it is to be able to get along with people and have a positive environment at work in order to succeed.

When I was a kid I had a plaque that said, "What you are is God's gift to you. What you become is your gift to God." I no longer believe in God, but this statement has a meaning even aside from the God stuff. There are two components to a person, your innate characteristics you were born with, and what you choose to do with it. No matter how brilliant you are, you still need to put in effort and be humble enough to learn in order to actualize yourself and your potential. I knew someone who was brilliant and creative but became bitter, withdrawn, delusional and ended up alienating a lot of people, and finally killed himself. A friend remarked that, well his gift to God was a lump of coal.

Intelligence is a tool that can be used to achieve great ends, rather than a end in itself. As Greg Nyquist said, one might as well worship a mop or a hammer rather than intelligence. I guess some tools are pretty impressive, and maybe there is an emotion approaching awe when one regards a particularly nifty invention, but to worship the Hubble telescope or a confocal microscope is just odd. Maybe its possible and aesthetic to admire intelligence for its own sake, but for Rational and pratical purposes it is far more important what one does with one's intelligence.

Maybe some of these people, Bobby Fischer included, can't help being that way, strange and socially awkward, or that's just their personality. Maybe in a perfect world, everyone would be recognized for their gifts and be able to contribute according to their abilities and recieve according to their needs. But I'm not holding my breath for it to happen.

The article describes a precocious little girl.

"People are, I must admit it, a lot of times intimidated by me," she told me; modesty isn't among her many talents. She described herself as "perfectionistic" and said other students sometimes had "jealousy issues" regarding her."

This isn't something anyone should tolerate, make excuses for, or much less encourage. This sounds almost Randian:

"Often the kids are wasting away in average classes, something that drives Bob Davidson crazy: "I mean, that's criminal to send a kid [who already reads well] to kindergarten ... Somebody should go to jail for that! That is emotional torture!""

Can anyone say Entitlement Complex?? Expecting special treatment just because you're "gifted" is expecting people to do you a favor for nothing in return, which is omg... altruism.

It would be good if more could be done to help talented people achieve their potential rather than becoming unfulfilled and antisocial. It would be good for the country and economy. That's why our graduate schools, especially in science and engineering, and our research labs are filled with foreign nationals, because people in America are just too dumb and lacking in educational rigor. But until that happens, we of superior intelligence just need to hang in there, and make the best of it. The universe isn't always fair and benevolent, so there's no point waiting around for it to be. An elitist attitude adopted by the people in that article, and Objectivists only confirm the image that smart people are freaks and incapable of social function.

Many teenagers go through a phase of being arrogant about their intelligence. Although there is no need to fault or criticise them too much for it, because it is part of growing up, it is not an attitude that should be encouraged from people old enough to know better. When I was a teenager I ran around saying "I am the most intelligent person I know! I am the prettiest! I am the Cosmos, I am the Universe and my aura encompasses everything!" Rand, and Marx, never progressed from this stage.

Maybe some of these people, and maybe Bobby Fischer, couldn't help being eccentric. I'm not blaming them. I'm even kind of eccentric myself. But an inescapable reality of life that you can't fake or evade is that being excessively eccentric makes getting along with people and getting by in life rather difficult. Therefore is in one's best interest to try to not be so weird if and when it is possible.

RIP, chess champ.

1 comment:

Michael Prescott said...

My reading of Fischer is that he was mentally ill. I doubt his fate had much to do with his IQ. Not-so-bright people can go crazy, too. It's a chemical thing.

I do agree that intelligence can be overrated, especially when it's as narrowly defined as it is in our society. Maybe if intelligence were understood to include "emotional intelligence" (people skills, street smarts, introspective ability, etc.), there would be fewer problems.

Still, overvaluing brain power seems like a minor issue in a country where quarterbacks and heiresses receive far more adulation than physicists and neurosurgeons.