The Sweet Spot of Intelligence

By greenteapanda

February 27, 2007

Category: Education

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This is the most insightful post I’ve seen on Slashdot (or any other online forum) in a long time.


everything to do with ID’ing yourself as in the x-th percentile of intelligence

Unfortunately this is not true. I’m in the 99.9th percentile as far as intelligence (at least according to the Triple Nine Society) but I only have a Bachelor’s degree and a not-very-good GPA, which is enough to keep me from going to a good graduate school. Why is my GPA so low? Because schools don’t measure intelligence.

When I was in elementary school I began to realize that there is a "sweet spot" for intelligence in school. Since then I’ve seen more and more evidence of it. As a student’s intelligence approaches the sweet spot from below, the student gets higher and higher grades. But if intelligence continues to increase past that, grades begin to go back down. (Of course there are other factors besides intelligence that can cause low grades, but the main idea is valid.) This is why "gifted" programs work — "gifted" students actually get better grades in harder courses because the standard courses bore them to death. But even "gifted" programs have a "sweet spot" beyond which your intelligence starts to work against you. (I put "gifted" in quotes because it presupposes someone doing the gifting.)

After ten years I am considering leaving the computer field. In the jobs I’ve held so far, I’ve brought knowledge from my education and from books only to be disallowed from using it because the boss doesn’t know how to use it, has no way of verifying that I’m using it correctly, and is terrified of having to find another employee who knows it too. And yet, I don’t know any other way to get the job done, so I end up using the knowledge I have anyway. This makes me "disobedient." When the books and the evidence show that I am right, this makes my situation even worse. No boss likes to be proved wrong.

My mother is a math teacher. Her students always complain to her, "Why do we have to learn this stuff? We’ll never have to use it!" Sadly, I find myself siding with the students: if you go to the trouble to learn, say, differential equations, you won’t be able to use them because you won’t be able to find a boss who understands them enough to allow you to use them.

Intelligence is an asset when you use it against the natural world. But it seems to be an enormous liability in society. So don’t go thinking that employers want intelligence. They don’t. They want obedience. And that is what schools really measure: people whose intelligence is below the "sweet spot" can’t understand orders well enough to obey them, but people whose intelligence is above that point understand their orders too well and tend to question them, and that isn’t wanted either.

That is why employers are in a quandary with engineering. Engineering demands intelligence and intelligence doesn’t work well with obedience. Some of this is due to American culture, too, where, in spite of the school system, people are raised with the ideas of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which is why many employers prefer to outsource to cultures where obedience to authority is a more important and accepted part of life.


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