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Charles Murray response: teaching wisdom

I decided to read some other responses to Charles Murray's WSJ pieces before writing my own, and unfortunately most of them have focused on the whole IQ issue, which I believe is a red herring. Murray should have used something else to hang his hat on, if he wanted people to seriously act on his ideas. And people are getting caught up in his "college isn't for everybody" talk, which is undeniably true.

In his last piece, Murray touched on two bits, which boil down to teaching wisdom to the intellectual elite and teaching duty to the same.

For what it's worth, everybody needs "wisdom teaching" which I also call teaching of perspective. I agree with whichever of the Greeks said that the basis of wisdom is self-knowledge. If one lives long enough and pays attention, one can gain wisdom...some people would rather not pay attention, though.

In any case, though all people need some wisdom, or perspective on their lives, those who are more intellectually smart need explicit training in it the most. Some may think this is counterintuitive, but it's because these are the people least likely to get some very important lessons.

Here are some important lessons, some of which are explicitly noted by Murray:
1. Smart people did nothing to merit their intelligence
2. Being smart does not mean you're better than other people
3. One needs to have some humility over one's intellectual abilities
4. One needs to appreciate the work done by others
5. To excel in anything you have to work really hard

Item #1 -- Murray says something about smart people being lucky to have been born that way. There is a reason for the tag "gifted" -- high intelligence is a gift, whether you think it given directly by God or by fortunate shuffling of one's parents. I know that learning many things is much easier for me than it is for other people, but it's not because I have superior virtue (though doing a bunch of work at studying has made amassing even more knowledge ever more easy for me).

It calls to mind the distinction of Old Money and New Money. People of Old Money know they have done absolutely nothing to earn said wealth except to be born to the proper family. I'll come back to New Money in the second item.

It's not that most smart kids think they did something to deserve it, it's just that they rarely think about how it was a matter of luck for them.

Item #2 -- just because you're smarter doesn't mean you're better than other people. Let's return to New Money; these are people who have through their own efforts attained wealth. Unfortunately, this often has a bad side effect of wanting to flaunt their supposed superiority over the hoi polloi, which has some real bad political effects. Yes, it's nice for you that you made a lot of money, but money is not the measure of a man. And if you smear it in other people's faces, especially when said people outnumber you, prepare for some politics of envy.

Then there's the intellectual snobs, where those who achieve tenure at a top university look down on their past confreres who are running businesses. Again, the amount of "brain power" that goes into a job is not a measure of how useful it is to the rest of society.

The short bit is that all people want a certain level of respect for who they are and what they do. Oftentimes, those of higher intelligence who go in for jobs as engineers or lawyers sneer at those who build houses or take care of small children.

This one is tough, because a child's world is often centered at school, where teachers will laud the smart kids, and you've got adults always telling you how great you are. This is not a good lesson for character - let's look at where this shows up in item 3.

Item #3 -- humility. This is a tough lesson for everybody, but the average kid will run into plenty to be humble about, especially in school. However, if you're really smart, it can be too easy to wow your parents and teachers, and never get the intellectual ass-kicking you truly need.

Now this is something I've seen at close range, because I've dealt with very smart kids who have never met anybody better than them at their preferred academic subject (especially adults), and are taken aback when they run into peers who are actually better or run into teachers who know quite a bit more than they do. I've seen this in two contexts: Mathcamp and NCSSM. It was interesting to see kids who had always been at the top find out they were in the middle or even the bottom. For some, it was a huge shock, but for others, it was a cause for relaxation and happiness ("You mean I'm not a lone freak? Hurray!").

But still, there are people who will still be at the tippy-top, so they're not going to run into this problem, and just be reinforced in their superiority.

True humility does not mean having a gauge of how one stacks up against other people, but how one stacks up against reality. In a religious context, it means realizing that you are finite in understanding and knowledge whereas God is infinite. In practical terms, it means that no matter how smart you are, you can be very wrong in your ideas.

This is the beauty of the foundation of science: the possibility that your theories are wrong, no matter how beautiful a system you have concocted. Unfortunately, too many scientists in actual practice forget that bit, but the scientific community as a whole has no problem with the concept of falsifiability for the foundation of science. Sure, one can entertain non-falsifiable theories, but they're not science (which is why such silliness as Creationism and ESP have not made real headway -- their response to negative results are something that prevent falsifying their theories. Isn't that convenient. But not the least bit convincing.)

I really enjoyed being at NCSSM, because it was the first real time I had the possibility of being wrong about something (this was mainly in physics class). I had stopped answering questions at my old schools, because I knew the answer and I knew I was right. What, then, was the point of participating in class? Let those who were unsure answer.

Item #4 -- One needs to appreciate the work done by others. This goes back to #2, but it needs to be more explicitly stated. There is dignity to work, and people would like to have that dignity recognized. Do not be snarky about the garbagemen or the secretaries. You should be even more deferent if these people are doing jobs for you that you don't want to do.

This puts to mind a scene from Martin Chuzzlewit, where Tom Pinch visits his sister Ruth at the home where she is governess. First, he notes the doorman (or whoever) is snarky about Ruth. Then, he notices his sister in tears, after which the mother and daughter of the house enter with complaints as to the daughter's total disrespect of Ruth. Mind you, Ruth isn't complaining about this, but the mother is. The daughter had called Ruth "a beggarly thing", and the mother thought this low behavior (which it was). Of course, during the mother's speech, her total contempt for the position of governess shines through. Oh sorry, the father is involved in this, too. The father, by the way, is New Money, being in the metal processing industry. Obviously, he has hired himself a full retinue of servants, and treats all with contempt.

Tom, after his break with his old employer Pecksniff bringing him further perspective on life, responds to this in righteous indignation. Here is what Tom has to say (as he takes his sister from the house):
‘I speak without passion, but with extreme indignation and contempt for such a course of treatment, and for all who practice it,’ said Tom. ‘Why, how can you, as an honest gentleman, profess displeasure or surprise at your daughter telling my sister she is something beggarly and humble, when you are for ever telling her the same thing yourself in fifty plain, outspeaking ways, though not in words; and when your very porter and footman make the same delicate announcement to all comers? As to your suspicion and distrust of her; even of her word; if she is not above their reach, you have no right to employ her.’

‘No right!’ cried the brass–and–copper founder.

‘Distinctly not,’ Tom answered. ‘If you imagine that the payment of an annual sum of money gives it to you, you immensely exaggerate its power and value. Your money is the least part of your bargain in such a case. You may be punctual in that to half a second on the clock, and yet be Bankrupt. I have nothing more to say,’ said Tom, much flushed and flustered, now that it was over, ‘except to crave permission to stand in your garden until my sister is ready.’
This is a piece of wisdom the rich and/or intellectual would do well to remember. Just because you may make more money, just because you may pay someone else to tend to your yard or take care of your children, this does not make you the better person.

Item #5 -- To excel you must work hard. This doesn't quite fit in with the ones above, but has more to do with school. Let me admit, I did not have to work hard at school. Schoolwork came very easily to me, and generally I had homework done before I even left school. For those smarter than others, this happens a lot, and it's too easy to become lazy. This is another of those intellectual ass-kickings that said smart kids deserve.

Going back to Murray's first piece, there are kids who will be well advanced intellectually compared to others, and these kids will find certain things much easier than others. I am glad there was tracking in my elementary schools, as it would make no sense to lump me, who had been reading since age 4, with those kids who came into first grade not being able to recognize the alphabet. It would engender no kind feelings on anybody's part. The reason the "role model" talk is such bunk is because it was obvious that the reason many of us did well wasn't because we worked harder, but because things came easier to us.

However, if we were ever to really excel in an intellectual field (or any field, for that matter), we would have to work hard. Unfortunately, I've seen many really smart kids start to fail in high school and college because they never had to work at classes at the lower levels and really didn't know how to study, much less recognize that they have to study. This is a rude awakening for many when it comes to the actuarial exams, which require a whole bunch of study, no matter how smart you are. You should hear the whining of those who zipped through the math exams and have suddenly come up against the later ones where you have to know some facts that you have to memorize.

I failed one actuarial exam because of this, thinking that if only I understood the central concept, all would be well. Alas, central concepts did not get me to the distinctions between how Canada and the U.S. treat disability insurance. Instead of bitching that they shouldn't have exams requiring you to memorize said info, I changed my study habits the next year, did flashcards, and passed. And this has worked for me thus far.

In any case, students need to be challenged as early as possible, if for no other reason for their benefit later in life. It is better to have "hardships" when there's no real consequences for it, rather than get into the "real world" and lose a job because you thought you could coast on ability alone. Gaining perspective and humility as an adult is much harder to swallow than if you had been taught that lesson all along.
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Again, all these lessons are important for everybody, but one likely has to make special provisions for those who are extremely intelligent as they're the least likely to run into these lessons in a standard classroom. It's hard to learn humility when you're constantly lauded as the best. It's hard to learn that hard work is needed when everything is easy for you. It's hard to give others their proper respect when others are always praising your results more than others.

So, in short, all kids need to have their asses kicked, but the intellectually gifted are least likely to have that done. So we've got to make sure they get what's coming to them, too.

I call this plan the No Child's Ass Left Unkicked plan.

My previous post on parts 1 and 2 of Murray's series

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SOMEWHAT RELATED: Thomas Sowell on economic ignorance. What's interesting in all this CEO salary hyperbole is any thought that those who are complaining the most have never run a business themselves. Those who complain who have run large enterprises usually complain not about the size of the compensation, but how the packages are structured, and that non-performance is not being punished enough.

Anyway, there's a good line in there by Sowell about ignorance: we're all ignorant, it's just what we're ignorant at differs from person to person. Going up to my item on humility, it may behoove some to realize when they have no clue what they're talking about. The problem is that there is a particular group of people (i.e. politicians) who have very deep ignorance in many things and have little incentive to remove that ignorance as they're not the ones who will be hurt by their lawmaking. Note how Congress usually exempts itself from any federal employment laws, for example. Ain't that sweet.

Anyway, intellectual humility is a good thing.
Tags: academia, education, for me, intelligence, kids
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