Cepeda: Society too quick to equate a degree with intelligence

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Esther Cepeda

A recent essay in The Atlantic, “The War on Stupid People,” should make us ponder the nature of what “stupid” really means. The dictionary says that stupidity is “behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment; the quality of being stupid or unintelligent.”

The term is worth contemplating when elite media publications, which serve as agenda-setters for mainstream media, tackle the subject of people’s intrinsic value in society. Writer David H. Freedman’s premise — that the intellectually gifted are reaping ever-greater rewards, and we are increasingly mistaking smarts for human worth — deserves thoughtful consideration.

He notes that SAT scores are used to winnow employment applications and that many of the super-smart are flocking to Silicon Valley, Calif., with the goal of automating the few jobs, such as driving and delivery, that are still accessible to people without college degrees.

Freedman also rails that “even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance or disability are all too happy to drop the ‘S-bomb’: Indeed, degrading others for being ‘stupid’ has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.”

And yet … perhaps Freedman doth protest too much.

In all the data he presents about longitudinal studies of IQ as it relates to one’s ability to attain a well-paying job — or the likelihood of becoming obese, suffering from certain types of mental illness and ending up in prison — Freedman fails to make a clear distinction between low intellectual capacity, middling grades, unexceptional SAT scores and the alternative life choices that don’t revolve around the attainment of a “good job.” Not everyone wants the kind of “good jobs” that are on offer these days.

Unfortunately, it’s true that the realities of the current “information economy” practically demand a college degree to access high-tech and well-paying jobs.

According to newly published research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, out of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, 11.5 million went to workers with at least some college education. Of these jobs, 8.4 million went to workers with a bachelor’s degree or post-baccalaureate education, and employment of workers with a high school diploma or less education grew only by 80,000 jobs in the recovery.

Intelligence hard to discern

But not doing well in school or in the new economy doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Not wanting to go to college doesn’t necessarily mean you have low intellect. These are assumptions that someone who looks down on others for their perceived smarts might mistakenly conflate with not being capable of jumping through educational hoops to attain a middle-class life.

There are plenty of people who don’t want to take on a lifetime of debt for a college degree that may or may not get them a job. Others want to make things with their hands or interact primarily with other human beings and not computers. And that has to be OK.

Freedman’s essay has made waves, with commentators weighing in on whether intelligence really is impacting the nation’s inequalities and whether government could curb the ravaging of manufacturing jobs by, say, “(providing) incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy.”

You could argue every bit of evidence Freedman presents and still agree with his conclusion: “We should … begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity.”

Of course, we should.

But retooling society will require that great thinkers and policymakers in our country respect the reality that low intelligence and reluctance to join the college-required rat race are not necessarily issues that go hand in hand.