South Park Me

An Over-Educated Generation and its Discontents

I've just handed in the following essay as part of my Academic Writing course at Harvard's Extension School. It culminates a six week process of cumulative work, that began with three assigned readings on aspects of education. We had to pick one of the three readings and build our exercises around it. The essay below is my final product. I hope you enjoy it. I think it can form the basis of a longer essay in the future, and there is certainly room for improvement, but I am fairly pleased with the way my writing has developed, particularly in regards to structure and transitions that have been a longstanding weakness of mine. I would love to receive feedback from you guys too! Thanks for taking the time to read it. The essays in the footnotes are worth a read too!

Intelligence does not have to be schooled and education takes multiple forms. What we need as a society is a recalibration of the assumptions we make about knowledge acquisition. In "Blue-Collar Brilliance", Mike Rose, a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, challenges the widely-held notion that intelligence can only be measured by the amount of formal education a person has acquired, while offering an alternative viewpoint that emphasizes the extent to which blue and pink-collared workers harness their intellect.1 He is right to challenge the status-quo, but even his well-reasoned argument falls short of extending the thesis to society at large, regardless of whether someone is employed or not. And that is crucial, because for many people intelligence is still a synonym for formal education, and the more letters you have after your name, the more likely you are perceived to be of superior intelligence. By simply extending the cognitive-franchise to blue and pink-collared workers, we ignore and deny the cerebral contributions of millions of stay-at-home parents and other less academically qualified thinkers around the world.

The assumptions we make about knowledge and intelligence acquisition have a direct impact on the way our entire economy is structured. Just look at the salary and wage differentials between those generally classified as white and blue-collared workers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2014, the mean annual wage for lawyers, airline pilots and financial managers was roughly $130,000. But for electricians and plumbers it was $54,000, and $42,000 for truck drivers. While for other blue and pink-collared workers such as janitors, grounds maintenance workers, auto mechanics and waitresses, they earned median hourly wages ranging from just $9.01 per hour to $17.84 per hour.2 Under the present system, wages do not reflect the amount of a worker’s thought and effort. The perfect example at the other extreme is that of a stay-at-home parent who does not earn any wage at all, but you would be hard-pressed to find one who does not stop thinking about their work (i.e. their children/partner) all day long. And despite the wide gap in mean wages between white and blue-collared workers, both groups of people toil a similar number of hours at their respective workplaces. If anything, blue and pink-collared employees work longer hours than their more formally educated counterparts, sometimes fitting in two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. And no doubt their experiences are as taxing on the mind as it is on the body.

But are the best and the brightest truly more intelligent? And have they acquired more knowledge? I do not believe so. Take for instance my octogenarian paternal grandmother. Denied formal schooling beyond fourth grade, she has remained a stay-at-home mom her entire life. Married before sixteen, five kids by her mid-twenties (including losing two in infancy), forced to accommodate six orphaned children from her in-law’s family soon after, and widowed at fifty, she has been compelled by circumstance to constantly adapt to a changing environment. Without a degree in home economics, she learnt how to ration a fixed supply of meager financial and food resources for the enlarged household. Religion helped provide direction in her life and she imparted the wisdom gained from its parables to her children. Even today when I visit her in my father’s hometown in southern India, it never ceases to amaze me how everybody who knows her, irrespective of age, solicits her advice to deal with life. Indeed she is the epitome of someone schooled in life. Despite lacking a formal education, she has cultivated her intelligence by acquiring knowledge through daily experience and put it to use without ever receiving a penny. And yet the society we live in would dismiss her rich contribution to it.

Our assumptions about intelligence, work and social class affect the way we treat even our fellow workers. Consider the example of a nurse in my father’s hospital who assists with surgeries. Various surgeons, including my father work with him, and through many years of experience and observation, the nurse has gained sufficient knowledge to offer useful suggestions to my father during a surgery, particularly in the middle of a tricky procedure or sticky situation. More often than not, the nurse’s insight has proven significant. But when my father recommended the nurse’s input to a fellow surgeon friend, the latter was not immediately convinced. It took several further surgeries before he acknowledged the nurse’s potential and contribution. Had the nurse completed the academic qualification to perform surgeries himself and offer suggestions, there would not have been any hesitation on the other surgeon’s part to accept my father’s advice. Rose posits that “generalizations about intelligence, work, and social class deeply affect our assumptions about ourselves and each other, guiding the ways we use our minds to learn, build knowledge, solve problems, and make our way through the world” and he is absolutely right.

Rose offers several compelling reasons as to why we need to redress the imbalance in the assumptions we make about intelligence and knowledge acquisition, by outlining how blue-collar workers’ “use of tools requires the studied refinement of stance, grip, balance, and fine-motor skills” while specifying how “carpenters have an eye for length, line, and angle; mechanics troubleshoot by listening, [and] hair stylists are attuned to shape, texture, and motion”. It is high time we added to this list the millions of lifelong homemakers who also tap into their intellect on a daily basis by rearing children and keeping families together.

With all this in mind, you may wonder how we might recalibrate the assumptions we make about intelligence and knowledge acquisition? For that we need to identify why it is calibrated wrong in the first place. Rose argues that “our culture – in Cartesian fashion – separates the body from the mind, so that, for example, we assume that the use of a tool does not involve abstraction. We reinforce this notion by defining intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests”. William Deresiewicz, an award-winning essayist and literary critic, builds on this by describing how “being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college – all involve numerical rankings. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers”, while adding that “one of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not”.3 And they are both right.

Even so, Deresiewicz concedes that “the advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable”. Yet, however incredible these elite institutions are, and however substantial the contribution they make to society, they also own a share of the responsibility for reinforcing divisions of people by class, occupation and intelligence. Deresiewicz hits the nail on the head when he says that “the problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when ‘better at X’ becomes simply ‘better’”. And that is the entrenched reality we need to overcome in order to redress the imbalance perpetuated by the prevailing system. One possible solution is to acknowledge, honor or even compensate those forms of intelligence that are not directly linked to formal education.

Yet attempting to change the way most people think is potentially a fool’s errand. But if we do not make any effort at all to change even slightly the way people make assumptions about intelligence, class and occupation, then life will carry on as it is and we will continue devaluing and degrading the contributions of millions – perhaps even billions – around the world. The onus is on us to make a difference, however small it may be. After all, as the sixth century B.C. Chinese philosopher Laozi pointed out, even “a journey of a thousand [miles] begins with a single step”.4 We already know that there are different ways to acquire knowledge and intelligence. So the journey we need to embark on does not involve uncharted territory. It simply requires a reorientation and retracing of steps to a fairer and more balanced society. Is that too much to ask?

  • You should also read this thought-provoking essay on education by Louis Menand - another of the three assigned to us.

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  • I think intelligence and knowledge are two very different things. Intelligence is innate - though how well one applies it to solve problems can be helped with teaching on how to think logically - whilst knowledge has to be learnt. It annoys me when quiz shows such as "Fifteen to One" are promoted as finding the most intelligent people, when what they actually do is find the most knowledgeable. Wikipedia's article on "savant syndrome" might interest you.

    It's very true that how much people are paid often has very little to do with their inherit "worth" to society - which of course is a difficult quality to pin down. Besides the examples you give, others are the high earnings of people such as pop stars and footballers, many of whom are paid far more than the Prime Minister let alone dedicated and skilful doctors. (I nearly said "earn" far more, but of course it's via dubious whether their large rewards are truly earned.) I can't see that altering unless we adopt communism - and where that experiment has been tried it has failed - or human nature changes.
    Thanks for your comments! I agree, intelligence and knowledge are different things, but they certainly interact with each other. And thanks for pointing me in the direction of "savant syndrome". I hadn't heard of it before!

    As far as remuneration is concerned, I'd draw a distinction between pay based on effort and pay based on inherit "worth" to society. Either way, we don't necessarily need to adopt communism to manipulate human behaviour if democratically-elected governments use the levers of public policy to regulate markets - as they often do already (eg. mandatory minimum wage; progressive income tax bands etc). Rather than wholesale changes, minor tweaks can modify human behaviour. The problem is, democratic governments are generally averse to applying such measures due to the power of private monied interest groups. As Sir Humphrey Appleby would say, it would take a courageous or bold minister to do so.