Tuesday, May 21, 2013

From each according to his ability ....

I often find myself troubled by the emphasis we place on our children being "smart," on how much pride parents take when their kids seem to be "smart," etc.  Why should someone be deemed more valuable because she is "smart"?  What is the merit, if any, in simply being born smart?

Let's assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that intelligence is largely driven by inherited factors.  Studies appear to place the heritability of intelligence at 0.7 to 0.8, out of 1.0, with 1.0 being an entirely genetically determined outcome.  (I know that this is obviously a disputed point -- and I'm not saying I necessarily agree that intelligence is largely inherited.  I'm not a genetic determinist by any means.  I do think educated -- and therefore informed and likely affluent -- parents tend to replicate themselves in their offspring through private schools, their own involvement and interactions, their examples and influence, etc.  But that's another discussion, and one I've touched on before.)

If intelligence is in fact largely inherited (again, see caveats above), what is the merit in being born smart?  I can't see any.  It's just another outcome in the genetic lottery that Victoria's Secret model Cameron Russell was talking about.  Why should those who were born smart, who did nothing to earn or deserve their fine cognitive abilities, earn more, have more comfortable lives, better access to medical care, etc., than those who were not?

The only justification I can think of is that we reward these people in the hopes that they will use their abilities to aid others.  The brain surgeon is paid in recompense for her years of training, etc.  But, looking at our example here in the U.S., that largely does not seem to be the case.  Those who are born smart, who are able to obtain the finest educations and qualifications (again, factor in class and previous generations of success), appear to largely use that success to enrich themselves and ensure the replication of their success in their offspring.  See, e.g., the financial sector.  Many of our finest minds go to places like Goldman Sachs, where they make fortunes, which they pass on to their children, who go to Choate and Stanford.  Repeat as necessary.  (Side note: isn't the whole premise of a place like Stanford or Harvard built on genetic superiority?)

It seems to me that if you consider it, to value being born smart is, really, to endorse a form of biological hierarchy, which is what our system of capitalism in the U.S. sometimes appears to be.  Putting aside professional athletes, cognitive ability is the key to professional success in the U.S. today.  If cognitive ability is largely something we're born with, and if it is in fact largely inherited, and these people who've inherited fine cognitive ability make it into these fancy schools (with the aid of their successful parents), marry and have children with these inherited abilities, it does seem as if wealth, intelligence, and education begin to get hoarded among an elite class, especially as the wealthy and educated leave behind public education to the masses.  Hence the neurotic anxiety of parents we all know (including myself), about getting their children into the right schools from age 3 and up.  No one wants to be left behind.

It's an anxious awareness of competition in our society that lies behind the parent's admiration for the child who is "smart."

I'm not sure what there is anyone can do about this.  Humans are, it seems, in the main, self-interested.  Our choice of the type of society we have constructed likely helps determine this, sure.  But in this society, freedom appears to mean that those who are born able will get ahead.  Those who are not, will not.  And that's just how it is.  Perhaps that is the state of nature, the magic of the market.  But society is not a state of nature, as much as we might pretend it might be.  It is what we choose to make it.