Saturday, August 10, 2013
Smart people who make themselves dumb by acting like a dumb person's idea of a smart person
Seeing Open Road Media do a great job with the reissue of Encounter With Tiber, the first of two novels I wrote with Buzz Aldrin, made me think of something mildly amusing (now; then, it was galling). Way back when Buzz Aldrin and I were working on that book,* the project was so large and went through so many revisions that Betsy Mitchell occasionally would bring in another editor to be a fresh set of eyes/note-giver. So on one occasion, an editor who had spent quite a few years working on media franchise novels (I was told only "one of the franchises with Star in the name") sent us anonymous notes about the work in progress.
Some things balance so perfectly between hilarious and outrageous that you simultaneously feel like laughing out loud and punching the person in the head. (Best of all might be to laugh out loud while punching the person in the head, but in the modern world distances are long, anonymity is protected, and we are held down in a web of regulations).
The editor who apparently was fresh from Star Goats or whatever sent us a note listing all the places where engineers (the real heroes of Encounter with Tiber, as they might arguably be in some of real life as well) were trying to solve a problem—usually a very difficult one against a very tight clock, because that's one of the things the book is about, a celebration of pilots, engineers, explorers, and scientists, and people tend to be most worth celebrating when they are dealing with the hardest parts of their job.**
Now, the unknown editor definitely got that we liked engineers, no problem there, and therefore advised us: "In all these scenes, the tech people either try something wrong first or say they don't know what to do, or both. This makes tech people look stupid. If they're so good they should know the answer."
Star Bongos Editor was trying to enforce a convention of media sci fi that has been around at least since Flash Gordon took up with Dr. Zarkov (I've always assumed Dale Arden was just a beard). The brainy characters in movie/tv/comics sci fi are not usually realistically depicted smart people; they are "what dumb people think smart people are like," to use a phrase that has been slung around quite a bit lately.
Now, about that slinging around. If you Google the phrase, "dumb people think smart people," or some close variation, you'll find about 50 instances, all after 2006; it seems to be a minor semiotic replicator*** slowly making its way into the Internet Anglosphere. Google will also give you results for the synonyms "stupid people" and "intelligent people." In nearly every use it's a subordinate clause modifying a grammatical subject which is most often what, how, or the way, and the verb or verb phrase following is often are like, sound like, do, think, talk, etc. The idea hasn't really taken final shape in a clich
yet, though it seems to be
converging toward one since August 2010 when Bhaskar Sunkara blogged, with both
accuracy and precision, that "Paul Ryan is what stupid people think a
smart person sounds like."****
Something about the idea of Dumb's Concept of Smart has gained real traction in our culture, and as we sophisticated cultural critics often mutter darkly, culture changes for a reason, and there is something about that reason that gives me the creeps.
A Don McLean song that gives me similar creeps is "The Pride Parade," which I think of as being sort of what it would be like to be (rather than just mock) a very self-aware, desperate-to-hold the act together version of Dylan's Mr. Jones or the Beatles' Nowhere Man. (Put those three songs together and you've got the basis of a great short novel. Hmm.)
And in that McLean song you'll find the phrase "your talents of a minor order seem to stretch too far." Now, that's reasonably clear English, but let me draw your attention to that word talent. The word derives through several paths of language development from the ancient Greek talantou, which was a unit of weight equal to about 34,300 grams.
You have probably never said that a fine painter really had a ton, or that a brilliant mathematician had a hundredweight, though you may have said that certain operatic stars had plenty of pounds. What's weight got to do with ability?
Well, there's a hint in that lame joke about pounds. In the ancient world, very large payments were often figured in talents of gold or silver; at today's price, a talent of pure gold would be about $1,457,750, which most of us would agree is a substantial sum, and even a "mere" talent of silver would be $22,609.79, which would certainly buy some pizzas.
So you can blame the etymological tangle on a well-known preacher. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the Parable of the Talents, in which a master goes on a journey and leaves his money with three trusted servants. Larry (names not in original) is given five talents to take care of, Moe is given two talents, and Curley, who is apparently trustworthy but not terribly smart, is given one talent. Larry and Moe each invest the talents, and when Master gets home (I somehow hear Igor hissing "Master!" here), they have doubled the money, so he is understandably pleased with them. Curley, being scared to death he'd lose it, buried his one little talent in the woods, and when he brings that to Master ("Nooo! Don't hit Curley! Curley take care of Master's money! Nooo!"), Master says, (I paraphrase here): "Why you ... you knucklehead!" and presumably squeezes his head in a vise and hands that talent over to Larry, who goes on and smugly invests that too.
The standard Christian interpretation of that parable for millennia has been that it is not about how to evaluate your broker, nor Jesus's attempt to get across the idea of opportunity cost centuries before the Austrian school of economics. It is rather a metaphor for the abilities which the Christians assert God gave us for a reason, or which secular folk would tell you persisted in the population because they were useful. People who put their abilities to work become more able; people who huddle protectively around their abilities are subject to that general rule expressed by "use it or lose it."
And Western culture found this idea so well expressed by the parable that talent became a catachresis, which is usually described as a metaphor that is used so commonly that it becomes the main or only name for the thing it describes (like the arm of a chair, or the mouth of a river). In those semiotic-replication terms I'm fond of, the original sign (representamen=the word talantou, object=other expressions for large quantities of real money, interpretant=innate ability) collapsed over time in the vocabularies of most people into something more like representamen=the word talent, object=abilities specifically which are partly innate but require development or use, interpretant=an innate quality of always being right or deserving reward.
And innately deserving a reward, rather than training for it, seems to be culturally speaking the way to go these days. You might consider that Cinderella used to be a disciplined, effective, and uncomplaining fireplace-scrubber (presumably with a lot of natural talent and patience and kindness, honed by all that time in those cinders) who therefore knew how to be nice and genuine with a prince (ever wonder what they talked about? my guess is he was one of those princes like the ones from Saudi Arabia or the UAE who come to a democratic republic to get chemical engineering degrees, and the two of them babbled on about creosote-detergent reactions while nobody else got to dance with her), whereas her stepsisters were presumably gold-digging ditzy-about-fashion-and-clueless-about-everything-else party-chick uptown skanks. But not any more; now poor old Cinderella is the marketing showpiece for the four-year-old ball gown industry, and her rags are stuffed into the closet (along with any little boys who like the gown better than that lame military-school band uniform the prince wears) Today's Cinderella wouldn't know how to get burned-on barbecue sauce off a grate if her life depended on it, and unlike her mythological predecessor's, her life never would.
All right, now here's what started all that chain of associations, and let's see if I can work my way to a point:
Recently I've begun to work in an innovative school for at-risk gifted and talented students (that is, people***** with unusual abilities who for various reasons are apt to do badly both in regular school and in the traditional G&T programs). My particular job is implementing a high school program to help them move out into college and the real world, so the mission is, effectively, strengthening the rescued person without suppressing the rescued talent. It's one of the most interesting problems I've ever encountered.
One of my very smart bosses pointed out that you rarely hear of "gifted adults," though obviously talented people don't suddenly become "regular" when they leave school, and that one of our socialization problems is in helping students find a way to explain who they are without the affectation, humble-bragging, arrogance, condescension, apology, or even shame that can all be big problems for gifted people and everyone around them.
One of many sources of that problem is that most people don't have a very good model of what a gift is and isn't. There's often an expectation that if the person were really gifted they'd just know everything, right then, about any subject, not unlike a certain stepchild of mine (hey, your mom would love a phone call!) who at age 11 decided that everyone else in the family was comparatively a bit dim because they couldn't answer questions about dinosaurs. Gary Larson zeroed in on the belief that giftedness should imply better functioning in all dimensions simultaneously with that "Midvale School for the Gifted" Far Side.
The idea that giftedness means achieving things without effort, or that the gift comes wrapped with a side order of never being wrong, poisons all sorts of relationships and expectations and sidetracks both the people who manage the gifted and the gifted themselves. Especially, if talent does not excuse its holder from needing training, support, mistake-space, second-thoughts, and practice, and doesn't give a free pass from the humiliation of doing something awkward, boorish, or unmindful in front of others, well, then, what the hell good is it after all? That outlook implies a promise by the gifted that no one could possibly keep; they can't even keep it to themselves, because the person who expected effortless perfection and was disappointed is themselves more often than anyone else.
The talent/effort/achievement tangle is hard to unravel, and many people are just as glad not to have to try, even in simpler and less threatening areas than abstract braininess. For the most part, ordinary people are only marginally comfortable with knowing that people with astonishing physical abilities then have to develop them. They tolerate stories of Paderewski's obsessive hours of daily scale-playing, Larry Bird's 500 free throws every morning, Bruce Lee's four hours of katas six days a week, Ben Vereen walking his whole part every evening before every performance, or Picasso's daily hour of realistic drawing just to warm up, because they've absorbed idea that even great muscles and nerves have to be trained and maintained. But that brain-o stuff is supposed to just be there innately, without effort. After that radioactive spider bites him******, we accept that Peter Parker has to spend months learning to use his literally super-human balance, reaction time, strength, speed, and endurance before they do him any good (though we tend to like to imagine he does it in a week or two). But in the versions like the original comic where his web shooters are his inventions rather than glands, we accept that a high school honors chemistry student just knows how to assemble devices and make chemical compounds that would take many thousands of Ph.D-hours at a Westinghouse or Dupont laboratory, and does it in an afternoon, give or take.
And very often, we tell the gifted people that that's how it should be or is supposed to be for them, and if not, then they must be that other kind of genius, the failed one. People's models of the gifted kid tend to be Tom Swift Jr., Jonny Quest, Brains Benton, and Encyclopedia Brown, and when those turn out to be untrue and unrealizable, there is a miserable tendency to lurch in the other direction and see them all as if they were late additional couplets for the late, great Roy Fuller's January 1940 or perhaps at best a real-life version of Ignatius J. Reilly, Samson Shillitoe, Murray Burns, or Mycroft Holmes.*******
Now, none of this is news to the gifted, to their friends and relatives, or to the people who teach them and work with them. University VPAAs, deans, and provosts, or the managers of R&D departments at tech companies, could give you countless examples of the kinds of difficulties I'm musing about, because they manage large numbers of gifted people and they don't survive long if they don't get it figured out.
But I think there's one other way we screw up the gifted that, because it mainly happens to teens and adults, might be less attended to, and could probably be usefully addressed. (I'm thinking about my job out loud here, I guess. That must be why I started writing this. As I often say to students, writing is an excellent way to find out what you think).
I think that I've known a significant number of people who were constantly playing the role of "genius" (or "gifted" or "talent" or "freaking astonishing polymath" or however you prefer to label it), including playing the infallible-knows-everything, I-am-a-real-life-Encyclopedia-Brown role. The paradox under that whole thing is that although what they're trying to pretend they are does not and cannot exist, it takes enormous energy and considerable intelligence to play the role, and a large part of that energy and talent then disappears uselessly into it, profiting neither the possessors nor the people around them. Furthermore, because playing the role of talented substitutes for, and to some extent precludes using and developing the talent, the bright kid who plays into the cultural role ends up as a less bright and capable adult than s/he should have been.
Naturally, you'll believe I'm thinking of all the Manic Pixie Dream Girls out there who identify themselves as the sum of their affectations. It will seem that I'm thinking about all the Wonderful Fun Loving Eccentric Slobby Geniuses, and the various flavors of Strange and Wonderful People, who one way or another have found an act to sidetrack themselves into ostentatiously odd behavior so that their always-rightness and know-everythingness isn't challenged.
But they aren't really the ones that worry me. The self-proclaimed self-conscious geeks are, relatively speaking, the healthy ones; they've at least found a decent corner to hide in and usually they are not hurting anyone else. They may be sad, lonely, or frustrated, and eternally feel like they could be doing more and enjoying more, but they do have their pleasures and their friends and they often contribute quite a bit to our society's progress and welfare. That genuinely clever Java coder might not read Mandarin as fluently as he pretends to his friends at work, and maybe doesn't actually grasp topological ideas as thoroughly as he tells the cute engineering student at the bar, so he may be isolated and missing out more than he needs to be, but he's not actively hurting anyone.
Much more desperate and scary cases of pretending-to-be-what-a-dumb-person-thinks-a-smart-person-should-be are probably the self-billed polymathic wizards on the self-help and business-inspiration circuits. They very often have a long list of merit-badge like accomplishments—"Black belts in five martial arts! Olympic pole vaulter! Taught herself nine languages! Published papers in four mathematical journals! Medical doctor! And mother of four!"—and there's a circuit of them who give public performances in which, usually, they're flogging their own or someone's self-help system, health program, or financial product. (But their real product is themselves, both as an inducement and as a deliverable). Generally they're very groomed and polished and have cultivated a "so I just did it" delivery of all their accomplishments, but something leaks around the muscles and tan and teeth that seems to hiss and whisper, "Believe I'm good enough and then you will be blessed by a good enough person. And today, we'll throw in a copy of How I was Totally Amazing Without Trying."
You don't have to go very far beyond those desperate people to meet the even more desperate ones: the ones trying to be them, both by buying the courses and by trying to imitate the act, and not yet able to succeed at it.
And saddest and most discouraging of all are the people locked inside their skulls who might have been perfectly good engineers, but couldn't stand not to be Scotty or Geordie. They're the ones that Jay Russell dedicated his wonderful Brown Harvest to: "all the smart kids who weren't quite smart enough." The thing is, they were more than smart enough for an engaged, playful, hard-working, frustrating-but-satisfying struggle with an interesting, difficult, intractable world. That is an awesome deal to get out of life, and it is indeed a gift. But because it was promised to/demanded of them that being smart would be like knowing all the answers on a quiz, many of them end up as adults sitting at the banquet table munching the stale potato chips they brought from home.
And many of them are stuck there for decades, sometimes for their whole lives, because they are cut off from taking chances (what if I pick up the wrong fork and someone sees me? what if I move to Germany and my German never becomes good enough to get around?), and they can't admit they haven't already had the experience (I'm so curious about that jalapeno-oyster-cabbage salad but what if it just tastes strange and people see me not appreciating it? I have no idea what all those abbreviations mean and this person sounds fascinating, but if I ask I'll have to admit I've been nodding and not understanding for twenty minutes), but most of all because they can't let themselves admit that there's anything better because then they'd have to do something about that better-ness (the banquet is all stage food, everyone's pretending to eat it, and all there really is in the world is these potato chips, which don't taste very good. Hah, another pile of jargon concealing pretentious vapidity, these edumatated fakers can't fool me, since I'm pretending they must be).
Now, my new job involves, among many other challenges, figuring out how to keep kids from building that prison for themselves and moving in. But some of you nice folks out there probably know people who are already adults who need a hand with getting out, and some of you might even be sitting there morosely chomping the stale potato chips. Whatever you can do to help people escape—especially if any of those people are you—would probably be a good thing. It will necessarily hurt at first, so try not to have it hurt more than it has to, but there's a lot of real ability that needs and deserves engagement out there, and think how sad it must be, from the God's-eye perspective, to look down over the course of lives that might have been rich and varied, and were stunted and hollow, and say, "The act ate them."
*I have never ceased to feel that getting to spend many months of my life talking almost daily to a man who walked on the moon is the coolest and grandest thing ever likely to happen to me, and to be especially grateful that Buzz was absolutely not in any way, ever, the kind of just-there-for-signings-and-checks that many of my writer friends have worked with. People who keep track of what co-authors say should take note: I did most of the typing, but there wasn't a scene or a paragraph, maybe not a sentence, that Buzz didn't have input into. For both the books I conceived my job as using all the skills I had to try to write the book that Buzz would have written if he'd had my skills; I was supposed to be a master builder on a construction job, but it wasn't my job to scribble my initials in the concrete or rearrange the architect's work.
**How much military fiction have you seen about painting the barracks, police procedurals about discovering a call was a false alarm, or spy novels in which all the missions went perfectly?
***the phrase I prefer to "meme" for personal idiosyncratic reasons
****Paul Krugman quoted it and applied it to Newt Gingrich a few months later, and, as so often happens, the better-known names are rapidly becoming the standard attribution and target for the quote.
*****I have often said that once one gets to know children, they are almost like little people.
******Note to self: arrange to be bitten by radioactive billionaire.
*******Now there's one of those odd things that I'd never noticed until I started thinking of examples here. Modern English-language literature is crammed chock full of grotesque failed geniuses and eccentric misunderstood clever people, descendants of Falstaff, of Tris Shandy's Uncle Toby, and perhaps of the somewhat more real Samuel Johnson. They are brilliant, obnoxious, lazy-but-highly-capable-when-roused, and dedicated both to fleshly pleasures and mental gymnastics. And they are all male. I was able to think of a literal dozen males for that list of instances of the archetype, but the only, somewhat marginal female cases I can think of are Auntie Mame (who is actually far too well-adapted, pragmatic, and capable to count as part of that stereotype) and Maude (but in Harold and Maude she's had a long, highly varied, very real life, and her eccentricity is what she's choosing to do with her retirement).