Fighting the War Against Intelligence

Let’s try out a couple phrases:

Elite Athlete
Elite Model
Elite Entertainers
Elite Vacations
Military Elite
Elite Smart People

Recently Rick Santorum made headlines with his statement that the “elite smart people” would never support the Republican party. According to Wikipedia, “An elite in political and sociological theory, is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power.”  Clearly under that definition, many of the elite are supporters of Republican candidates just as some are supporters of Democratic candidates.

Mr. Santorum’s disdain is not for the elite. His derogatory comment was a slam against smart people.

United States society and our governmental policies have been waging a war against intelligence for over a decade. Formally codified as No Child Left Behind, our nation’s educational policies have specifically focused on and funded initiatives for low achievers while deliberately neglecting students at the upper end of the curve. This neglect disproportionately hurts gifted and talented students from low-income and middle class families. High potential students from families with means have numerous options from tutors, to moving to districts with better public schools, to sending their kids to exclusive private schools. Students from less affluent families are not so lucky. Congress has chosen not to fund the only U.S. Department of Education program aimed at finding and nurturing gifted and talented students, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

Across our nation, the policies and funding that define public education are deliberately ravaging programs, initiatives, and even standards that can help our smart students thrive. Quality public education is under attack from Texas where the Republican Party opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills, to science classes countrywide that teach creationism alongside evolution. Regardless of people’s personal beliefs, one of the main benefits of science classes is teaching students how to take a hypothesis, break it down, and thoughtfully and systematically examine supporting and non-supporting evidence. Schools need to teach students how to use their intelligence to make sense of the world. More than ever before, science and reason are a force in the global economy. The major issues of our time from global warming to natural resource depletion, to mass population expansion and world hunger, are problems that will be addressed through a smart combination of science and public policies.

Around the world, nations are nurturing their gifted and talented youth, supporting rather than denigrating their elite smart people. Due to the war against intelligence in the U.S., our high-potential students are being left behind. Just consider two of many statistics cited by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development:

  • The United States has among the smallest proportion of 15-year-olds performing at the highest levels of proficiency in math. Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and the Czech Republic have at least five times the proportion of top performers as the United States. (McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools; April 2009)
  • About one-third of all jobs in the United States require science or technology competency, but currently only 17 percent of Americans graduate with science or technology majors … in China, fully 52 percent of college degrees awarded are in science and technology. (William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, Congressional testimony July 2005)

Chester E. Finn Jr., an expert in public gifted education in the U.S. has documented how we are systematically neglecting our high-ability students. He calls for an end to the “bias against gifted and talented education.”

Where do we start? How do we change the cultural tide to make it okay, even revered to be a thinking intellectual?
We can begin with some basic initiatives.

  1. First our news media needs to stop pretending that an argument fully supported by documented, proven facts, is no more valid than an opinion that the opposite is true. They need to demonstrate their support of intelligence by publicly weighing the proof behind statements and showing, by example, that it is okay to be critically thinking, smart people.
  2. We need to demand that our national government fully and increasingly fund science programs and education for our elite, smart people.
  3. Parents should stop hiding the sacrifices they make to support their exceptionally gifted children. Too often we conceal a child’s giftedness to avoid embarrassing social situations. This public denial of the challenges associated with raising children on the high end of the curve is similar to the way physically and mentally handicapped children once were invisible in society, and it is just as unacceptable.
  4. Schools need to stop pretending that all students have equal intellectual potential and should start providing real educational opportunities for high-potential students.
  5. Communities should be as publicly proud of their elite smart people as they are of their elite athletes.

We need to embrace the reality that we, all Americans, will be better off if we fully support and educate our future scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. It is time to call out anyone who uses the terms “smart” and “intellectual” as put downs and label the speakers what they really are, un-American.

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