Oh, Henry! Notes from a Very Conservative Guinea Pig’s Life (No. 3)

Dear Diary,

I’ve been thinking about intelligence and values. Every culture has its own value system. A professor told me that the ancient Greeks valued bravery and glory in battle, while the ancient Chinese valued scholarly achievement and proper conduct. And sociologists say things about paradigms of dominance and things like that which basically seem to be about the same thing: certain values that a culture has, which maybe some people don’t have.

Yesterday I was talking with two upperclassmen, Alaric, an Education major and Juliana, a Psychology major, and somehow we got talking about intelligence. Juliana said, “Intelligence isn’t something you can change. You’re just born with it or without it. Studies show that it’s fifty percent inherited, even!”

Alaric retorted, “Even if it is fifty percent genetic, doesn’t that mean the rest can be learned? And with more effective teaching, people can increase their intelligence.”

At this point I interrupted, troubled by a different thought: “Why do we always talk about intelligence here?”

Alaric and Julia looked at me, bemused, “What are you talking about?”

“I mean how you are arguing about intelligence and how whenever we have a discussion at some point people mention how ‘Swarthmore students are all very intelligent, so…’ such and such. Why do we pay so much attention to intelligence?”

“It’s not that important,” Juliana explained, “but it matters because so many people don’t think through what they say.”

“—and they can’t think about complicated matters clearly,” Alaric added.

“But just being intelligent doesn’t mean anything,” I protested. “You could know everything and be the most intelligent person in the world and still be a horrible person. There are things more important than intelligence, like wisdom or charity.”

To be completely honest, part of my complaints about intelligence is that I myself am not known as the most intelligent creature on this earth. It is telling that the term “to be a guinea pig” is synonymous with having people test all sorts of things on you to see how you react – and they are usually not testing your intelligence! Still, my own pride aside, I have been surprised at how much intelligence is valued here.

Guinea pigs are herd animals; we value things like group loyalty. To be dedicated to your family and friends, to be willing to make sacrifices for them, there are more admirable than mere intelligence. After all, at least according to Juliana, intelligence is just “being able to process and adapt quickly to a novel situation.” Why does quick adaptation mean you will do the right thing?

A long time ago I somehow found some of Adolf Hitler’s paintings, which seemed quite pretty to me, and the work of someone who had some talent. Conquering nearly all of continental Europe later was not the work of a dunce. But no one will say that Hitler used his intelligence well; and so I think that my friends at Swarthmore praise a little too highly our own intelligence; on the one hand, we are none of us geniuses, and on the other hand, even geniuses can be evil.

Even if Alaric is right, and you can teach intelligence (I think he is probably right, at least a little), to hear people talk, we already have a superabundance of intelligence; we don’t need more. What we perhaps need instead is critical thinking. For instance, many times I walk into Sharples or through Parrish and there are students taking time from their busy lives to petition for something: in support of this or in opposition to that. They do not ask for or present a critical assessment of the issues, but rather a signature for a cause, which it is assumed everyone agrees with.

For example, someone told me many years ago that there was a petition to give a living wage to Sharples employees. This way they could afford to support themselves on their job. It was received with student support and now all Swarthmore students seem to happily stand by our support for a progressive policy. But when I talked with some of the employees, it turns out they are students at other universities! Their wage is twice what Swarthmore students are paid. It may be that I’m not intelligent enough, but it seems silly to pay other college students twice as much as our own students. It doesn’t seem to have been something we critically thought through.

Actually, there are lots of things more important than intelligence, many of which people who would never be admitted to Swarthmore have in greater share than I do. And some of the most intelligent people that I have met here seem also the least considerate of others. At least for me, intelligence isn’t enough. It is a false security. It’s like that one verse, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” I’d rather be known for any of those nine attributes than for intelligence. I don’t have them in any greater measure, but valuing something is the first step to attaining it.

Good night,

O. Henry