One the serious disadvantages of getting a secondary education in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is that one was exposed to the first wave of “hippie radicals” to escape from our institutions of higher learning with a diploma. In the intervening years the subsequent waves have been merrily doing their damage to the system and the students. Only now are these people either retiring and/or dying in their sins, but the damage is done, as our culture’s current state will attest.
One of those was my freshman and sophomore English teacher. He was, sad to say, enormously influential in my life. I had him for two years as a student and one semester as a coach, and it took about five years for the damage to be undone. (One silver lining: he did introduce me to Tolkien). I knew that what he was saying was depressing, but in the climate of the time it was hard to refute, especially in the milieu I was in. Only when I left that milieu could I make my escape good.
My parents had a far lower impression of this man, and much of that came from the first parent-teacher conference they went to. The basic problem (although he wouldn’t put it this way) was that I was insufficiently deconstructionistic to suit his fancy. Somehow he conveyed this to my parents, who came back with their idea that I was very intelligent and did well elsewhere. His response: yes, but geniuses commit suicide.
I am sure that many of my friends, especially on the left, find me frustrating in that I’m not an activist. That was in part the result of my years in prep school; stuff like this will definitely sour you on the left. The other part is that, in the following years, my contemporaries haven’t done anything but go from one unintrospective volte-face to another, and the subject of human intelligence is one of those.
One of the persistent whines we’ve had to listen to is that our schools have dumbed themselves down and are not producing what they should. I read somewhere that the decline in SAT scores which started in the mid-1960’s wasn’t due to some instantaneous recess in our educational system, but due to the really smart people/achievers basically gave up due to social pressure.
As I’ve documented before, the 1960’s were a revolt against many things. They were anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, certainly anti-“establishment”, and they were also anti-achievement. The basic problem with human intelligence–and to some extent with motivation–is that is isn’t evenly distributed throughout society, and thus is inegalitarian as a result. In a country where all men are created equal, that’s a problem, which explains much of the anti-intellectualism that has existed in our culture. That fact has also bedevilled the left’s quest for equality here and elsewhere, but social pressure is a powerful tool, and you can beat the nerds down if you can get a critical mass of people to do the beating. Those conditions certainly existed in those times.
Sometime in the late 1970’s another critical mass of Boomers came to the realisation that their slouchy ways would guarantee future poverty, something they weren’t ready for. Jimmy Carter had the bad taste to be in office then; they threw him out, elected Ronald Reagan, began the long march of deregulation and tax cuts, and the gifted gravitated towards the financial sector where they proved they were too smart for their own good and everyone else’s.
Today the pseudo-egalitarians have the upper hand, but instead of clarity we have more duplicity. One the one hand we have the endless quest for “equality”: same-sex civil marriage, flattening of income distribution, and our endless fixation with socialisation, which is a way of levelling and controlling people without having to do any work. On the other hand we’re obsessed with raw intelligence, its cultivation in people, and packing those with it off to the “right” schools (assuming they can swing the student loans) so they can use this intelligence to lead a people that no longer have to be led but herded.
We as Americans have never figured out whether we value intelligence or not, so we send mixed signals. Today, the question is whether it’s worth the effort to really apply intelligence and achieve in an honest way in the face of the Byzantine legal, regulatory and “gotcha” culture. That’s one reason why we have the mediocre political leadership we have. And that’s why I, as much now as in the day, find it supremely problematic to make progress in our political and social systems given their equivocal nature and potential for unintended (and potentially disastrous) consequences given the duplicitous nature of the system itself.
Well, there’s one good thing now. Geniuses don’t have to consider suicide any more. They can just go on the dole.
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