Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Case for Genuine Intelligence

In high school, I got an A on a European history test, and I remember why I did. The night before the exam I realized I was a bit confused, and decided that the best way to handle this was to memorize. So, textbook in hand, I memorized the positions of all the countries on the eve of World War I. I wrote and rewrote in longhand, knowing that this would be the focus of the test, and sure enough it was. I "recited," in writing, everything I needed to know, and was rewarded. 

Did I understand it all? Absolutely not, but I gave myself credit for understanding what I needed to understand in order to get a good grade. Was I curious about all the nuances and complications? Yes, but they would have to wait, and they did. That was 9th grade. 

In college it was another story, and the history class I took was a lecture format where the teacher flew by historical events with lighting speed, and I marked furious notes to myself in red in my notebook to go over what I didn't understand. This was crucial, as the exams would require us to synthesize what we had learned, not merely recite it. In many ways, no one can do that for you - you have to do it for yourself. I learned the difference between "posturing," and really understanding the issues. 

An excellent editorial in today's New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, "Obama and the War on Brains," begins: "Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual." The author states that Obama speaks in paragraphs instead of sound bites,  speaks at a "ninth grade level" versus his opponent's seventh grade level, has his favorite philosophers and poets, and  that he hopes Obama's fertile mind will creates a new "tone" in society. 

If this election was about anything, it was about the difference between scripted answers and a breadth of knowledge about the issues. It was also about what happens when people get the script wrong. It is no coincidence that one of the key foibles of this election was the strangely unanswerable question (the first of many) posed to the you-know-who candidate: what do you read?

A true intellectual, as the article notes, reads the classics when no one is looking. A true politician worth his salt knows the answers and even goes beyond them,  and doesn't stare blankly back at the camera in confusion, or complain later (like now), that it was all some kind of plot or trick. 

My message to you? Me thinks thou dost protest too much. That's Shakespeare. 

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