The Spurious Value of Intelligence

Intelligence is a dangerous concept…

For many years I had a nagging feeling that I was living a contradiction. I truly wanted to teach our children to see things from different perspectives, and I truly wanted them to understand that everyone is worthy of respect and love – but that message was in conflict with the life we were leading.

Don’t get me wrong; we weren’t doing anything unusual. In fact, we were model citizens – two parents working ourselves ragged with good jobs, children devoting all their energy to school and sports, homework discussions every night, meals at the kitchen table, soccer practices, after-school care, summer camps…We were doing everything expected of upright American parents raising good, successful children.

We were excelling.

We were proving our worth. We were proving that we had that abstract quality needed to succeed.

We call it intelligence – and I still kind of believed in it as a quantifiable quality. I’d struggled with the concept, and struggled to find my place on its bell curve, ping-ponging between the pride of being “above-average”, and the shame of never being quite good enough to really feel secure. I recognized that using numbers and graphs to describe this thing we call intelligence was ridiculous. I didn’t want to believe it, but I couldn’t stop judging myself, and everyone else, by its suffocating standards. Years of being evaluated, judged, compared, embarrassed, punished, rewarded, shamed, and flattered, left me feeling that my worth, or lack of it, could be measured by scorekeepers.

This line of thinking goes back to some pretty ugly roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Actually, it goes back much further, but the social changes from this period, when public school was undergoing its great expansion, are still with us in very concrete ways.  Schools were developed by people who believed in good breeding and who were used to seeing people of a certain manner and background in positions of authority. The job of schools was to educate the population in the manner conceived by those people. The aristocratic model of society carried across the Atlantic by the country’s founders hadn’t disappeared. It had just evolved.

This is the same period of time when Darwin’s very real observations were twisted into the service of those who believed that some discrete groups of people were objectively, scientifically, and measurably superior to others.

One indication of how this distinction of value in family from family, class from class, and race from race had worked its way into popular culture was the appearance of things like Fit Family contests, and the easy acceptance of laws allowing, or even requiring, sterilization of the unfit. These ideas were also behind the trend in the early 1900s for mapping out family genealogies. Some of my family’s ancestors had commissioned one of these. I’d heard about it, briefly, but with such intrigue that the characters involved took residence in my mind like characters in a novel I might get to read someday. Eventually I looked into it and found a published family history, but it only had a couple of weak links to my branch of the family. So I opened an account on and did my own research, using documents and census forms to trace the lines back to the boat that arrived here in 1636. From there I continued working my way backwards and found a clear line back to royalty! This was exciting. These links depended more on other people’s family trees than on actual documents, but the links were so prevalent, appearing in the family trees of so many people, that it was easy to assume they were accurate. Often the links included references to the original genealogy work my ancestors had commissioned in the early 1900’s. I started thinking about that original family tree and decided to look into the genealogist.

This illustrious family tree, which served as one of the foundations for a published family history, and which has been used in countless family trees of remotely related people, and which leads back as far as the Norman conquest, was created by Gustave Anjou. Gustave Anjou, it took me very little time to discover, was convicted of fraud for inserting false links to prominent historical figures into the family trees of his wealthy clients. I laughed out loud when I found this out. I guess he thought a little embellishment was good for business.

I imagine many of the families who commissioned his work still identify with their royal roots.

While people were busy documenting their superior family breeding, academics were busy developing tests to measure the results of that breeding. The Binet intelligence scale was translated into The Binet and Simon Tests of Intellectual Capacity in 1908, and variations on it have been a staple of our culture ever since. Yes, people argue about them, but the result is generally a retooling of the tests into ever more variations and interpretations. IQ tests are still used as a diagnostic tool by our schools. Rather than seeing the evaluation of human potential for ranking and sorting as a morally corrupt idea, academics and psychologists keep trying to perfect the practice.

Neither IQ scores nor family trees indicate anything of real value.

I knew this, but for a very long time I struggled with it. I had a hard time being clear in the values I demonstrated to my children because I was having a hard time being clear with myself. This need to be validated by my cultural institutions couldn’t be logicked away. I still kind of believed in this thing called “intelligence” that we have been using as our yardstick of personal potential. I still kind of believed that some people have more of it than others, and that having more of it made you better. I still wanted to believe that my family truly had a greater than average share of it. Sure, I wanted my children to avoid judging people and focus instead on knowing and respecting them, because my heart knows that’s the right way to navigate this world. But pride and shame were still linked to this conflicting belief that ranks people according to ability, and I was having trouble leaving that belief behind.

I was also driven by my desire to be a respected parent in this society I live in, which requires a constant accommodation to the daily demands of school. I was deeply ambivalent about the whole process, but I believed, as most of us do, that I would be damaging my children’s futures if I didn’t do my best to help them be successful in school. I couldn’t separate it from my longing to be worthy.

Ambivalence bore inconsistency. I wasn’t trucking my kids to a constant string of manufactured “community service” activities that seemed artificially created for the quest of good citizen awards – until I learned that the school required hundreds of community service hours to graduate. I wasn’t looking up National Honor Society requirements and making sure my kids were on track for membership – until my kids realized that their friends were being lauded for their acceptance and they didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t pay thousands of dollars for premier soccer teams, or celebrity soccer camps – until we learned that the coaches used the lists from those teams as their starting point, before the first school team tryouts ever happened… and we’d already missed that boat. I didn’t send my kids to SAT training courses – but I worried that I was making a mistake, because it undoubtedly would have raised scores.

I didn’t do these things because they seemed artificial and out of balance, but then I felt guilty for not doing them because today’s competition requires killer credentials. Killer credentials require devotion to the quest. My family identity required a certain educational path. I was struggling just to keep up with work and chores and wasn’t even aware of most of these things until they were pushed on us by the school, or until my kids started asking about them because their friends had already done them. I didn’t want these things. But once I became aware of them, I worried that I wasn’t doing enough, and redoubled my efforts

Academic success often depends as much, or more, on the efforts of parents as it does on the kids. I had deep conflicts with everything about this way of life, but I was terrified to stop. Stopping would mean facing the enormous void it was obscuring. So I’d ask my children about their homework, and let them work into the early morning despite being exhausted. I’d leave work early and fly down the highway to get them to their games. I’d forego family outings and explorations for yet another group project. I’d spend our money on overpriced school supplies and sacrifice everything to the next test, the next game, the next assignment, the next book, the next struggle to motivate, the next struggle to believe. I’d complain, but could never quite figure out why it all felt so wrong.

So, it does not surprise me that I became addicted to the lotus fruit of honors and accolades while struggling to avoid the truth.

People who look at the absurdities of schooling and the damage it does to our children often blame parents for this escalation. I am guilty. But those who blame parents are only partly right. They don’t realize how much of this striving is pushed on us by our towns and schools in the effort to raise their ratings, earn their federal funds, and prove their worth. They don’t realize that this striving is pushed in the name of character, virtue, and community spirit. Opting out isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s like being a conscientious objector to war in the middle of a military training ground. And while it’s up to parents to do the objecting, it’s the kids who take the fall. The messages are everywhere – parents are supposed to be involved in their children’s education, and education has been branded as the most important ingredient for a successful future, both individually and as a Nation. Stepping out of this crazy race isn’t allowed; it is branded as negligence. Most parents actually believe in the merits of school. Some of us doubt, but we follow along because our need to belong outweighs our ability to stand alone. So we do our part as upstanding members of our community.

I was pulled into this escalated competition because I was afraid to stand outside it. I feared that not opting in would be choosing failure. I was afraid not to keep our kids on par with their peers, especially when it was clear that our children were so eager to join in and prove their worth as respected members of their community. They were so eager, so competent, so filled with life. They also had the skills, or training, for academic challenges. Of course we wanted them to be successful, so we tried to work toward that end, but the whole process left me conflicted and drained. The story told in school is that we are all this together, but that’s not really true. We are all competing against each other. My kids aren’t the kind who jump into the limelight and get noticed. Even when they were noticed, it seemed they weren’t actually seen. I found the entire process disconcerting. Eventually I was just trying to keep our conflicted and overstressed lives from a fatal crash – and every little bump in the road threatened to veer us out of control.

School culture actively teaches kids to subvert their own needs and just work harder. It’s the wrong message. Unfortunately, I was telescoping the same message. I had burned my own candle at both ends for years, trying to earn respect at work from one end, while also trying to meet some abstract standard of American parenthood from the other. Whose standard was it? Good question. Whose respect was I trying to earn? Another good question.

It took a crisis to wake me up. I’m no longer agnostic to the gods of  intelligence, I’m a full-out atheist. My children, on the other hand, have grown up in this religion. They have their misgivings, insightful people that they are, but they still need to find a way to belong. I see them, and love them, and despair at the void that exists where meaningful alternatives ought to be.

We’ve cleared a single path to success, marked that path as mandatory, and covered it with signs declaring it virtuous. People have begun referring to a college degree as the “entry ticket” to the middle class, creating more and more pressure for people to stick to this path. Stepping off it is seen as failure. Intelligent people stay on the path.

What we really need to do is create more ways to allow people to successfully get off that path without being damned. Community shouldn’t require an entry ticket that costs half a lifetime of devotion to false gods.


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