Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maybe She's Born With It... Maybe It's Maybelline!

Born Secular - Jenny Lewis + the Watson Twins (mp3)
When Your Mind's Made Up - Glen Hansard + Marketa Irglova (mp3)

At a school I know, the following occurred.

Two administrators stood backstage as the school recognized the top 25% of the graduating GPAs. These nerds were being inducted into a Phi Beta Kappa/Cum Laude kind of organization, a group that does nothing, that exists solely to recognize good GPAs. Sadly, it's the one way some of these kids get recognized for what they do well and what they contribute to the school culture. Kind of like earning a letter just for sitting the bench and keeping stats for varsity baseball.

One administrator, arguably the second most-influential person at this particular school, leaned over to my friend and said, "I don't applaud for something a kid's born with."

Then, as the nerds were walking off the stage with their pieces of paper, acknowledging their good grades, this administrator said the following to them: "Congratulations on your genes, ladies and gentlemen!"

This story was relayed to me because, obviously, I was one of those nerds in high school who made Cum Laude and was never even good enough to sit the bench for an athletic team.

Apparently, how much work and time and effort I put into becoming academically successful was irrelevant, because I was born with my intelligence. Apparently, neither Shaquille O'Neal nor Adrian Peterson were born with athletic gifts or, as they say, "natural talent."

Any nerd would be understandably haunted by this story. The jock administrator just gave our entire geeky way of life a philosophical wedgie (or if you prefer, a swirlie), proclaiming that good grades don't deserve recognition like good tackles or good dunks or good golf shots. And this man, this fan of "genetic" intelligence, is the man who hires teachers and shapes the culture of the school where he works in vast ways.

Then I read the following excerpt from a NYT Book Blog about DRiVE by Daniel H. Pink:

For example, in the chapter titled “Mastery,” Pink presents the research conducted by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford. One of her theories is that there are (once again) two kinds of people when it comes to intelligence. There are those with an “entity theory” of human intelligence, viewing it as “a finite supply that we cannot increase.” Then there are those who subscribe to an “incremental theory,” believing that intelligence is something you continuously build and shape over time. Pink breaks it down nicely: “In one view, intelligence is something you demonstrate; in the other, it’s something you develop.” It’s a useful frame. Is life a stage on which you constantly must perform, or prove, your intelligence to others? Or is it a library, where you gain knowledge and skills from what surrounds you. How you answer such questions, Pink argues, determines how you will react to setbacks, and how serious you are at mastering a set of skills. It might also influence how you react to books like “Drive.” Do you consider the arguments dispassionately, looking for ideas you can use? Or do you bristle at the suggestion that you need to make some changes? (I've been bristling. Now I feel bad about that bristling, and so am bristling about that.)

Reading this didn't cool my anger, but it's given me a way to diagnose his myopia, to see intelligence the way this administrator sees it. To this guy, intelligence is demonstrated, not developed.

You'll have to forgive the snootery here, but this was clearly a guy who attended a shitty high school, the kind of guy whose workload in high school consisted of work that could be done on a school bus or while Mom was getting dinner ready. I know this because intelligence never felt remotely inherited for me. I worked my ass off for it. I obsessed for it. I fought like hell and competed with gritted or grinding teeth to push my way into the top 20% of my graduating class even though I'd been told in seventh grade that I'd done so poorly on the entrance exam that I was one of the last two boys admitted to the school.

I'm not asking for you to be impressed; I'm only asking that you don't tell me I was innately born with it. My ability to see through brick walls? My prehensile tail? My 14" penis? Yes, I was born with all those. But my intelligence? No, motherf*#ker, I P90X'd the hell out of my feeble brains as a lad, and I just can't think of many things more personally insulting to me than to suggest otherwise.

My oldest daughter is friends with a brilliant Indian girl at her school. Twice now Avery has said to me, "She's so smart. Everything's easy for her," and both times I stopped everything to lovingly correct her. Her Indian friend is smart because her parents expect her to master academics like Southern parents expect their kids to master a sport. She trains. She works. She reads. For every hour that my studious and modestly intellectually curious daughter puts into her school work, her Indian friend puts in two, three, four hours. It doesn't come easy. Nothing comes easy. Allowing Avery to say or believe it does insults the Indian girl and insults my daughter.

If someone believed intelligence cannot be nurtured, cared for, built up, why would that person work in education?

I'm just grateful it didn't happen to me, at my school.



Daisy said...

Sounds like a scene straight out of revenge of the nerds!

troutking said...

I can't imagine where this school is.

Anonymous said...

Nice wang!

goofytakemyhand said...

It's expanded to Top 25% now? Yeesh.

Hank said...

Go ahead and put us down
One of these days we will turn it around

Tockstar said...

I also bit, clawed, and scratched my way up to the top tier diploma category at my school. Before that, I bit, clawed, and scratched my way into the gifted/talented program at my elementary school. I feel like I've always had good powers of observation, but developing that into "intelligence" (such as it is for me) was not innate.

Another aspect of this argument is why I bite my tongue when parents try to dismiss their kid's negligence by saying, "School is really a struggle for Junior." Of course it is. School is really a struggle for everybody who's doing it right. As sports-obsessed a society as we are, I don't understand why we don't carry those lessons of persevering when everything aches and you've been kicked in the face back into the classroom. (not that I would kick anyone in the face for a bad thesis, but I hope you get my metaphorical point...)

cinderkeys said...

I was a mediocre high school student and an A student in college. I thought I became more motivated in college, but apparently my entire genome changed. Who knew?

Do these teachers fail to cheer at the kids' basketball games because all that athletic ability is inherited?

Billy said...

@Tock -- Agreed. It's ironic that most basketball programs expect their players to take at least 100 free throws a day, but we then complain that doing 10 math problems is boring and redundant, as if repetition isn't one of the key ways we get more comfortable and familiar with numbers.

It's taken me years of poker playing, but I can now tell you almost instinctively what my odds are against other hands and what percentage of the chips in the pot make for a smart bet or a foolish one. One page of "everyday poker math" would not quite do the trick.

Struggle and repetition are essential to learning. ANYTHING.

@cinder -- I've been pals with the witness to this comment for a long time, and he's pretty sure this administrator believes athletic skill is developed, while intellectual skill is just about how high God filled your brain on Day Zero.

Anonymous said...
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Abbie said...


I haven't stopped by your blog in a while, so I'm just catching up. Usually I'm just a lurker here, but this story is infuriating enough to inspire me to write a few disconnected thoughts.

As others have written above, I received no academic honor without significant sacrifice.

When I was a kid, I figured that outright ridicule for being nerdy was a small, temporary price to pay for the opportunities that might be available as a result of doing well.

How would a nerdy type work with that person as a superior?