Monday, April 28, 2014

The Morality of Achievement vs. the Reality of Aptitude

I try not to write about things that annoy me too often. When I do, I try to limit it to the things that annoy me most. Probably beyond the point of what could just be called annoyance.

I weigh 140 pounds. I will never play football in the NFL. This doesn't annoy me, though, for two reasons: The first is simply that I never dreamed of being a professional football player. Second, and much more significantly, people do not view my lack of aptitude to be a professional football player as a moral failure.

It's a shame. If you'd put in more time at the gym and increased your protein intake, you'd've made it.

If you'd only applied yourself in high school sports, you'd have been a great safety.

If you'd just learned to focus, you'd be making at least six figures right now.

––Are all things that no one ever has said to me, because they are obviously entirely and outrageously absurd. That's good, because if someone I cared about at all ever said that to me, I would probably feel somewhat hurt. And if I knew that everyone I know thought those things, I would probably be downright despondent about life.

Yet, I frequently do hear all those things said, not in reference to my body, but in reference to my mind.

When I was five or six, I did dream about being a scientist. Unfortunately, then it took eight years of struggle, tears and summer school just for me to learn to read. That was because of an actual learning disability. My complete failure at any form of higher math in high school despite summers of private tutoring by math majors and tons of supposedly cutting-edge learning programs, I can only attribute to the fact that––like many people––I simply don't have a brain that was built for it. I did well in biology, but then died in chemistry, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, it was painfully apparent that someone with my mind would never be an astronomer, geologist, chemist, biologist––or for that matter engineer, medical professional, financier or programmer––any more than someone with my body would ever be an outside linebacker.

Regardless of what the PC Police may say, IQ––just like muscle mass––is a real thing. Both can be enhanced slightly through effort, but the enhancement is only ever a tiny percentage of the base, and the base is entirely a function of heredity.

Yet, for some odd reason, there's a moral stigma around mental performance––or the lack thereof––that isn't found in other areas. To hear teachers, parents, relatives and people who do excel academically talk, you'd think anyone who struggled in school is a lazy pothead who isn't getting anything out of life because she doesn't want it.

If he'd just put in the hours studying he'd have passed.

If he'd just apply himself, he'd be a success.

If he'd ever just focused, he'd be the one with the high paying job.

For some strange reason––perhaps some lingering remnant of my childhood dream––during much of my college experience, most of my friends were math or engineering or pre-med majors. Once, while I was out for coffee with a number of them, the wide-ranging discussion turned from theoretical physics or the future of medicine to our schedules that semester and from there to study habits. After explaining how much time I spent on homework outside of class, they looked a bit askance and then––almost sheepishly––explained that they always finished all of their assignments during class. And why not? It's bad enough that you're even forced to attend class when you could pass the midterms and finals without it.

That's an entirely anecdotal observation (although its one I've made again, and again, and again of different people in intellectually demanding fields of study) and it's not to say that most successful intelligent people don't work extremely hard when it counts. On the contrary, I've been very close with some brilliant people who devoted themselves with discipline I could never claim to possess to using the gifts they have. It's just to say that there's something innately different at play in it.

There are those of us who will spend six months lifting weights for an hour a day and taking lots of things we probably shouldn't just to gain seven pounds of muscle––and then there's the kid who puts on 170 pounds just by hitting puberty. And that's just seen as a genetic difference.

There are those of us who took remedial courses multiple times, endured humiliating hours with tutors in the "learning center" and spent vacations watching video tutorials online in a desperate attempt to understand a subject––and there are the people who skimmed the textbook, showed up for the final, and won a scholarship.

Yet the message that gets sent is always somehow a moral one. The College Board changed "Scholastic Aptitude Test" to "Scholastic Achievement Test" when all research suggests the first title was correct. Parents and teachers give pep-talks about "motivation" as if it were the source of potential, and "application" as if we all have something to apply.

I would submit that we don't. Perhaps there's a handful of Wernher von Brauns out there throwing their lives away for want of the motivation to be rocket scientists. And for them, the moral degradation may be constructive.

For most of the rest of us, though, I think it just adds insult to injury.

1 comment:

damaris said...

AMEN. it is sometimes not physically possible to study more, and sometimes one's best is an 85 or lower. but we've been trained to think our best will always be perfect and we're being lazy somehow if it isn't. just not true. everybody has different strengths, and some of us don't have genius IQs. pretty glad wisdom & maturity are things not dependent on one's intelligence!