Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On External Authorities

Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon developed the Intelligence Quotient test in 1905 in an effort to track French school children. By 1952, when I took the test in the seventh grade, the concept of measurable intelligence had been embraced throughout the developed world. But I knew nothing about that. I was getting As and Bs and feeling acceptably smart. Sometimes they had us take tests, but it was no big deal.

Lewis Mumford's mother directed that her tombstone be inscribed, "Here lies the mother of Lewis Mumford." My mother was the same way about me when I was a boy. She once told me it was her dream that I'd become a world-renown surgeon, so famous that my hands would be on the cover of Time Magazine. I shook my head but I didn't roll my eyes, laugh out loud and give her a noogie on the upper arm the way I should have.

Parents weren't told the results of their children's IQ tests in those days but, as a favor to Mum, Mrs. Muller, my fourth grade teacher, made it her business to learn and pass on my score. I don't recall what it was, perhaps 100, 110. Whatever it was, it upset Mum so much that she finally had a talk with me about it. She sat me down and explained that, alas, I wouldn't be pursuing medicine, or law either for that matter. She was sympathetic and solicitous. She assured me that I'd find my niche and be all right. But she was also emphatic. Her final words were, "You can always go into business like your father."

Well, I loved my mum, and I trusted her completely, so from that day on, I believed I was dumb. My father didn't try to disabuse me of the notion. He got a great kick out of telling me, "You don't have an inferiority complex, you are inferior." He was just kidding, making a joke about complexes, but it stung just the same. I became so convinced of my stupidity that when I got a satisfactory grade, I assumed it was a mistake. Schoolwork became increasingly more problematic. Whenever I encountered the slightest difficulty in a subject - languages in high school, sciences in college, and statistics and computer science in graduate school - I'd fall into a slough of despair and be unable to focus. On my physics final in college, for which the only preparation I could manage consisted of fanaticizing about how I might cheat, I got a 14 - scaled up from a 9.

At the same time, as I was being passed along from year to year, I began to think I might be developing a facility for fooling my teachers. We called it a "snow job" in those days. I reasoned that since my father was a salesman, perhaps I had the gift as well. As the idea evolved from a premise to an assumption, I made an effort to refine and improve my ability to snow people. As I did, I also became aware of the importance of keeping my IQ a secret. Deceiving and keeping secrets from people is not a good way to build self-esteem.

And so, time passed and no one asked about my IQ, and I managed to get into and through a good secondary school, college and graduate school. With my MBA, I then got a job as a trainee at one of the best banks in the country. In due course, my superiors smiled on me I was promoted to Loan Officer. I received a formal letter of congratulations from the president of the bank, at the end of which he said I should report to the personnel office to complete the requisite paperwork. Henry Mower, a wonderful, helpful man, was the Vice President of Personnel who had convinced me to join the bank, but when he told me the paperwork included an intelligence test, I became visibly distressed. It didn't help that he assured me, "It's routine; certainly nothing you need to worry about."

Having no choice, I took their test. Then I waited for the bank psychologist to schedule a meeting to review the results with me. I don't know how it's done now but in those days only a licensed psychologist could interpret and deliver test scores. The morning of my appointment, I was so anxious I persuaded my wife to accompany me. To further help me deal with the anticipated exposure, I wore a bright yellow Merimeko tie.

The psychologist put on his half-lens glasses to read my results, then took them off and held them while explaining my score. "Well," he started, "I guess the first thing I should say is that you have a 140 IQ. That's genius level, high enough to get you into Mensa if you're inclined to that sort of thing." I leaned back in my chair, put my hands behind my head, stared at the man and smiled. Son of a gun, I thought, they must have mixed up tests. Either that or I've fooled them, too.

The psychologist went on to explain what it meant to have a high IQ. He said I could do things quicker than most people, but that the facility would have no real bearing on my success. He told me the president of the bank wasn't as intelligent as I was, but that he probably worked a lot harder. The point was that, he said leaning forward for emphasis, the determining factor in my success, as it was for everyone, would be my motivation and commitment, not my relatively high IQ.

At the end of our conversation, the psychologist said I might want to ask myself if I really wanted a career in banking. When I asked what had prompted his comment, he pointed the stem of his glasses at my tie. He explained that banking required a certain amount of decorum or conformity - after all, a banker's first responsibility was to protect his depositors' money - and if I wasn't willing to adopt a conservative lifestyle, beginning with my attire, perhaps I wasn't cut out for the field.

Between the psychologist's office and the elevator, I decided to disregard my first test score and believe the second. In the car, I kissed my wife and whispered in her ear, "Your husband is a genius."

I was 29, reborn as a genius. No, actually, my reaction has been more complicated than that. For the first six months, I did think of myself as a genius. If I thought about it while shaving, I might wink at my image in the mirror. But then, when I acknowledged that I couldn't accept the second score to the exclusion of the first, I decided the whole IQ thing was nonsense. Much later, in my fifties when I started reading the MIT psychologist, Howard Gardner, I agreed with his premise that there are a number of types of intelligence, none of which is easily measured. The only thing I can say with certainty about my intelligence is that since the seventh grade, when it comes to taking tests, I am well below average. My mother set up an external authority, that authority found me wanting, and I have never, to this day, recovered from it. I dread reaching the age when I have to retake the written portion of my driver's test.

Don't let other people tell you about who you are.

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