The dirty secret of intelligence

The valedictorian at my high school worked hard to earn his GPA. He spent several hours a day doing homework. He always did the reading and started papers days before they were due. In class, however, he rarely made the most profound comments or asked brilliant questions. He didn't read philosophy for fun. He wore preppy clothes, and lacked any hint of rebelliousness or social discontentment.

My less studious friends and me indignantly and arrogantly commiserated over our lower class rankings. It was the failure of the grading system, in our minds, to so heavily reward hard work and discipline, while not grasping the less tangible quality of genius that we possessed.

In retrospect, it was purely envy that created this rationalization.

Yesterday I bought The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002. In it is an article by Malcolm Gladwell* about Stanley Kaplan and the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (The full article, "Examined Life", is available online.)

"When it comes to a relatively well defined and structured task — like playing an instrument or taking an exam — how hard you work and how supportive your parents are have a lot more to do with success than we ordinarily imagine."

"The S.A.T. was designed as an abstract intellectual tool. It never occurred to its makers that aptitude was a social matter: that what people were capable of was affected by what they knew, and what they knew was affected by what they were taught, and what they were taught was affected by the industry of their teachers and parents."

Except in cases of rare genius, hard work and natural ability are indistinguishable. Whenever I've accused a hard worker of lacking natural talent, it has been because of a bias against that person0ˆ9s character. They did not fit my notion of natural talent. I thought the valedictorian should be more interested in deeper questions and display some fiery passion towards an ideal. But that's not the way the world is.

*Gladwell has published many articles in the New Yorker. I especially like his article about facial expressions.

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