Saturday, September 5, 2009

On Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and the Argument for Elitism



It's been a crazy week out here, and one casualty was my ability to track the comments thread on my last post. Given the way that comments thread turned out, I feel rather bad about that. I didn't expect the eruption that took place, and it looked like poor R. A. was just about tearing her hair out trying to deal with it.

In retrospect, though, I think maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. Clearly, we struck a nerve—not just with the post, but with the reaction—and given Kweisi's bloody-mindedness, it wasn't struck lightly, either; and really, what else should any of us have expected? The self-image of those in any elite group rests, either consciously or unconsciously, on one premise: "I'm better than them." To have some upstart country preacher come along and challenge that, and to have a bunch of other folks agreeing with him, is naturally going to provoke a response along the lines of "The peasants are revolting."

Of course, this being America, you can't just dismiss them as peasants and call out the hounds; we're supposed to be a meritocracy (and are, to a considerable extent), so you have to prove that you deserve to be in your position of privilege. Which is what Kwaisi set out to do; and though his argument leaked like a rusty sieve, it's still worth considering and refuting as a way of demonstrating the essentially fallacious nature of the defense of elitism.

People who go to Ivy League schools tend to have higher scores on standardized tests and higher iqs. The same holds true for people who have obtain higher education in the form of advanced degrees.

That was Kwaisi's opening statement of his argument. It was also, amazingly, the last statement of his argument: for all his boasting about his intelligence, he never actually developed his position any further than that. He did add a few attempted potshots at Gov. Palin (ones which I need not bother refuting here, since I already did so last week) and a number of insults directed at posters here, but that was it. The sum total of his defense of elitism is in the quote above.

How do I love thee? Let me count the fallacies.

First, he's using test scores as a proxy for intelligence. Any educator could tell him this is a bad idea. Certainly, test scores do tell us useful things about students' capabilities, which is why, despite all their flaws, we continue to use standardized tests; but there are many other variables besides intelligence that affect those capabilities, such as school quality and socioeconomic status. That's why the government uses standardized tests, not to evaluate student intelligence, but rather to evaluate the work schools are doing in teaching students, because standardized tests tell us far more about the latter than about the former.

As such, while it is no doubt true that incoming students at elite colleges have high SAT scores, how much of this is because they're smart, and how much is because most of them come from the elite, and have all the advantages that go along with that? They've been given lots of opportunities, they've had great schools, they've been pushed and trained and encouraged and prepared, and so the full range of their talents is already clearly visible. Students from outside the elite, in general, have far fewer of these advantages; how much of their lower average SAT scores is about their own innate ability, and how much of it is about the lesser opportunities they've received? James Fallows' 2001 Atlantic article on "The Early-Decision Racket" certainly leaves one with the impression that it's more about the latter than the former.

Second, of course, these numbers deal with who people are at 18, when they get into college. While there is certainly a causal connection between who we are at 18 and who we are at, say, 48, it's rather less direct than Kwaisi's argument assumes; and quite frankly, what one's SAT score really says about one's abilities and qualifications is far less than even the college admissions process effectively assumes. As a justification for one person being more qualified than another to govern, this is ridiculously flimsy.

Let me give you a couple examples. One, for those who remember "Beavis and Butt-head," you're probably aware that the show's creator, Mike Judge, based Beavis on himself and Butt-head on his best friend as a teenager. Have you ever wondered what happened to Butt-head?

Answer: he earned a doctorate in chemical engineering and ended up teaching at MIT. Yes, I'm serious about this; I know someone who studied under him. This is not a guy who would have been the prize of Harvard's freshman class at the age of 18—but he had the ability to be.

Or consider a young man who wanted to go to the top technical institute in his area, but failed the entrance exam. He got in on his second try, and in due time earned his diploma, but doesn't seem to have impressed people all that much—he wanted to teach, but nobody would hire him. He finally had to take a job as a patent examiner to support his wife and children. It was only when he published four papers that revolutionized physics that the world realized that Albert Einstein was a genius.

You just can't compare groups of people at 18, or for that matter at 22, and make sweeping pronouncements that one is smarter than the other. There's far too much that remains to be determined, let alone proven, at that point.

Third, while the statement that "people who go to Ivy League schools are smarter on average than those who don't" is unobjectionable, that doesn't mean that one can point to a given Ivy Leaguer and a given state-school graduate and say anything at all about their respective intelligence, and still less about their respective ability and qualifications to lead, for several reasons. One, as Caitlin Flanagan put it several years ago, "despite the current admissions crunch there are still plenty of nimrods collecting Yale diplomas." It is unjustifiable to assume that just because someone has an Ivy diploma, they must therefore be intelligent. They may well be; it may even be likelier than not. But they might just be good at faking it, too.

Two, there are a great many people who are plenty smart enough for the Ivy League who choose, for various reasons, to attend other schools all across the country—and they're no worse off for doing so. As researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale discovered,

students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, "moderately selective" school . . . had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income "varied little, no matter which type of college they attended." In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.

As Gregg Easterbrook continues,

That getting into Princeton isn't a life-or-death matter hit home years ago for Loren Pope, then the education editor of The New York Times.

[. . .]

Today Pope campaigns for a group of forty colleges that he considers nearly the equals of the elite, but more personal, more pleasant, less stress-inducing, and—in some cases, at least—less expensive. Institutions like Hope, Rhodes, and Ursinus do not inspire the same kind of admissions lust as the Ivies, but they are places where parents should feel very good about sending their kids.

[. . .]

61 percent of new students at Harvard Law School last year had received their bachelor's degrees outside the Ivy League. "Every year I have someone who went to Harvard College but can't get into Harvard Law, plus someone who went to the University of Maryland and does get into Harvard Law," Shirley Levin says. For Looking Beyond the Ivy League, Pope analyzed eight consecutive sets of scores on the medical-school aptitude test. Caltech produced the highest-scoring students, but Carleton outdid Harvard, Muhlenberg topped Dartmouth, and Ohio Wesleyan finished ahead of Berkeley.

Full disclosure: I'm a graduate of Hope. It wasn't a passport to the elite, but it was (and is) a great place to get a superb education, because it's an absolutely top-rank school (which is why, for instance, its pre-med program was in the top 1% of such programs in the country in terms of admissions to top medical schools).

And three, academic intelligence is not the only qualification for leadership, and not even the best; just look at Robert McNamara if you have any doubts about that. To say that one group of people is more qualified to lead because they have higher IQs, even if they do in fact have higher IQs, is to betray an astoundingly simplistic understanding of what leadership is all about and what one needs to be a good and effective leader. (This is where, among other things, the very real and significant difference between intelligence and wisdom—and the fact that the former is neither evidence nor guarantee of the latter—comes into play.)

Fourth, the reference to advanced degrees is irrelevant. One, Kweisi's argument assumes an identity between the elite and those who have graduate degrees, which isn't the case—there are plenty of ordinary barbarians who have letters after their names, too (including me); and two, again, he's using this to draw an unsupported conclusion about those who do not have advanced degrees. He doesn't defend his elitism, he merely assumes it.

The great problem with the argument from SAT scores—what should we call this, the argumentum ad gymnasium? Argumentum ad matriculum? Anyway—the great problem with it is that it purports to offer a conclusion about the differing intelligence of different groups of people, when in fact what it's measuring is much more their differing levels of opportunity growing up. To take the case of the young Sarah Heath, this argument effectively assumes that the only reason she went to multiple schools and ended up at the University of Idaho was a lack of raw intelligence on her part—when, had she been kidnapped as a baby and raised in a family of Harvard-trained lawyers, she would have had a very different life and probably been an Ivy Leaguer herself.

That disparity of opportunity matters. Consider this question: if a student posts a high SAT score because he's attended an excellent high school, had the resources of parents who were well off and well-connected, taken an SAT prep class, and the like, isn't that SAT score rather less meaningful than that of a student who had none of those advantages? Put another way, if elite kids have higher SAT scores than non-elite kids, does that actually mean they're smarter, or have they just hit their ceiling earlier? Any intelligent sports fan knows that in comparing two big-league rookies who perform equally well, if one of them is three years younger than the other, the younger guy has a better future. Why? Because he has more room and time to develop and improve. In the same way, there's at least some degree to which the SAT scores of the children of our elites reflects less where they're going—their innate intelligence and other abilities—than where they've been—an environment that maximized their expression of those abilities at an early age.

All of which is to say, while we don't have a lot of choice in evaluating 18-year-olds than to try to judge them on their potential, when it comes to evaluating 48-year-olds, I have no interest whatsoever in trying to do so by what college they attended or what their SAT score was. Contra Kwaisi's assumption, there are far better ways to judge the intelligence of mature adults than that. What I want to know, to that end, are things like this: Are they able to comprehend, internalize, and then begin to properly use complicated concepts? If so, how quickly—are they fast learners? How about their problem-solving ability? Can they innovate, finding new ways around problems, or do they just keep going back to a few approaches that have worked for them before? Are they creative? Do they have a nose for good ideas, whether their own or someone else's? Can they recognize when someone's critique of their own ideas is valid, and if so, are they able to make use of that critique to improve their ideas?

As it happens, my idea of what an intelligent person looks like meshes well with that of Elaine Lafferty, former editor of Ms. magazine:

Now by “smart,” I don't refer to a person who is wily or calculating or nimble in the way of certain talented athletes who we admire but suspect don't really have serious brains in their skulls. I mean, instead, a mind that is thoughtful, curious, with a discernable pattern of associative thinking and insight. Palin asks questions, and probes linkages and logic that bring to mind a quirky law professor I once had. Palin is more than a “quick study”; I'd heard rumors around the campaign of her photographic memory and, frankly, I watched it in action. She sees. She processes. She questions, and only then, she acts.

[. . .]

For all those old enough to remember Senator Sam Ervin, the brilliant strict constitutional constructionist and chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee whose patois included “I'm just a country lawyer” . . . Yup, Palin is that smart.

Lafferty reached that conclusion from up close, having had the opportunity to work with Gov. Palin face-to-face; but from a distance, Camille Paglia saw much the same thing:

I like Sarah Palin, and I've heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is—and quite frankly, I think the people who don't see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn't speak the King's English—big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I too can only consider Gov. Palin from a distance, having never met her, but from her public record it's clear to me, too, that she's a profoundly intelligent person. Where people like Kwaisi would hold it against her that she took a while to find her course in life and didn't have a burning ambition from a young age to go into politics—and since when was that sort of ambition considered a sign of intelligence, anyway?—I see her political pattern as a positive sign: she identified problems in her community, developed ideas to address those problems, and then ran for office to put those ideas into effect. Her entire political career to this point has been, not an expression of ambition or the desire for power (as it is with so many politicians, including Barack Obama), but rather a sustained exercise in problem-solving.

To this end, though she gets criticized for her resignation (and will continue to be, and it's understandable), I don't think it's evidence of unintelligence at all. Rather, I think it's evidence of perhaps her strongest political trait: she has an impressive tactical intelligence that, combined with remarkable nerve and willingness to take risks, reminds me quite a lot of Stonewall Jackson. That might seem a strange thing to say, since we aren't accustomed to comparing politics to war in any meaningful sense (only in the clichéd sense), but there's real value in doing so—and Gov. Palin has proven herself adept at a war of maneuver, difficult to outflank, impossible to box in, and remarkably good at flanking others.

Part of that is that (if I may switch generals) she's shown herself willing to do what Ulysses S. Grant did at Vicksburg: abandon her line of supply in order to put herself in a position to accomplish her objective. She did that when she left the Oil and Gas Commission to blow the whistle on Randy Reudrich, a move she followed up with a flanking attack on the Alaska GOP establishment, running for governor in 2006. That, of course, created a situation in which the leadership of her own party was less than cooperative, so she worked with the Democrats to get her agenda through—an agenda which, it must be noted, was a classic exercise in political problem-solving: fix the problem with Alaska's severance-tax structure that her predecessor had created; fix the problems that were keeping a natural-gas line from being built; fix the culture of corruption in Alaskan politics; fix Alaska's dependence on federal money.

Some she accomplished, some she only began to address, before national politics intervened; when it became apparent that her political position was becoming untenable, she had the nerve to strike out, leaving her line of supply behind once again—and leaving a trusted subordinate behind to carry on her work—to put herself in position to go after new objectives. So far, given the effect of her op-eds and Facebook notes, it's safe to say that her efforts are bearing fruit; the initial returns from her innovative approach to solving her particular political problem are unquestionably positive.

Flexibility, creativity, innovation, results where no one had previously succeeded in getting results, the willingness to take risks and the gumption to see them through; in my book, that's all evidence of active, engaged intelligence.

And Barack Obama? Well, there's no question he's a smart man; but how smart? On that score, I'm increasingly dubious. I've been mulling for a while writing an article with the title, "The Myth of Barack Obama's Brilliance." Yes, it would be an intentionally-provocative title—but I think there's reason for it; or at least to ask if the idea that our president is extremely smart is really supported by the evidence. I don't think it is. That idea essentially rests on five things:

  • He went to Columbia
  • He went to Harvard Law
  • He's written books
  • He's good one-on-one with people
  • He's liberal

And that's basically it. The last comes into play because of the natural human tendency to overrate the intelligence of people who argue for positions we ourselves support—we tend to overvalue arguments that lead to conclusions we agree with, and undervalue arguments that challenge our conclusions. Thus, from the perspective of our liberal media, Barack Obama must be smarter, because he believes and argues for things which are true, than (let's say) George W. Bush, who believes and argues for things which are not true. The fallacy, of course, is that whether we like the conclusions of an argument or not doesn't actually say anything about the quality of that argument, and thus people aren't actually smarter because they agree with us; but we tend to perceive them so.

As for the others? Well, yes, he went to Columbia; but if he showed any evidence of extraordinary intelligence or aptitude while there, we haven't seen it, because the president and his supporters have been quite careful not to let us see it. This tends to suggest, of course, that his academic record there doesn't in fact show any such evidence.

Harvard Law? Well, he clearly showed evidence of significant political skills there, getting the student body to elect him president of the law review; but beyond that? Carole Platt Liebau, who the next year would be the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review, paints an unflattering picture of his tenure there:

[W]hen he was at the HLR you did get a very distinct sense that he was the kind of guy who much more interested in being the president of the Review, than he was in doing anything as president of the Review.

A lot of the time he quote/unquote "worked from home", which was sort of a shorthand—and people would say it sort of wryly—shorthand for not really doing much. He just wasn't around. Most of the day to day work was carried out by the managing editor of the Review, my predecessor, a great guy called Tom Pirelli who's actually going to be one of the assistant attorney generals now.

He's the one who did most of the day to day work. Barack Obama was nowhere to be seen. Occasionally he would drop in he would talk to people, and then he'd leave again as though his very arrival had been a benediction in and of itself, but not very much got done.

His inaction extended beyond his indifference to running the Harvard Law Review; during his time at the law school, he wrote almost nothing for it—just a brief case comment—and nothing during his tenure as its president. That he would be allowed to run the HLR with such a thin résumé suggests that it wasn't his abilities that kept him in the position. By way of comparison, here's Beldar's account of his time as an editor of the Texas Law Review:

Second-year members were required, upon penalty of being kicked off the Review, to produce, on deadline, a publishable quality "student note." At Texas and most other top 20 law journals, such student notes tend to be not much different, either in scope or length or even quality, from the articles submitted by aspiring young law professors hoping to publish to promote their tenure prospects. We'd moved away from the earlier practice of having students write shorter, more limited "case-notes" that typically focused on a single new judicial decision, and instead encouraged more ambitious writing that would genuinely add something creative and new to the legal literature.

It was quite typical at Texas (and, I think, at most other major law reviews) that each new editor-in-chief, in fact, would be the student who, as a second-year member, had produced and published the very best student note. In the class ahead of me, my own class, and the class behind me at Texas, there was a wide-spread consensus on whose notes were the best. It is inconceivable to me that any of the three of them would have been selected to be editor-in-chief if they hadn't written a publishable note at all. And indeed, the quality of their respective notes became the source of the each new editor-in-chief's credibility as first among equals, final decision-maker, and the only editor permitted to use a blue pencil for his copy-editing (which no other editor would dare erase or alter without close consultation).

[. . .]

At Texas and, I believe, most other major law reviews, the rule for members was (and I think still is): "Publish or perish, up or out." If you didn't produce a publishable-quality note on deadline, your name was stricken from the membership list on the masthead, you had no opportunity to become an editor, and—worst of all—you became ethically obliged to call back all those employers who'd extended you job offers in part based on a résumé credential that you were no longer entitled to claim.

Taken in conjunction with the fact that Obama didn't do much as a young lawyer, there's simply not a lot here to support any great claims for his intelligence.

But what about the book? Even if he didn't write anything of significance at Harvard, he has written a couple books, and particularly Dreams from my Father. Except that there are good reasons to doubt that he did in fact write that book, for one; and for another, even if we grant him that credential, writing an engaging memoir isn't really evidence of high intelligence. Kirby Higbe did the same thing, though with acknowledged help, and he only had a seventh-grade education.

The thing that really convinces people that the president is super-smart, though, is that he's good at making that impression. That is, of course, no small thing; but it's not necessarily the proof people think it is. The thing that really strikes me about the oohing and aahing over President Obama's intelligence is how content-free it is. What I mean by that is, I see a lot of people coming away from encounters with him talking about how smart he is, but I don't see any of them talking about any new ideas he expressed, or any startling insights. I don't see any evidence of the products of intelligence, just of his ability to convince people he's highly intelligent. In my experience, that's usually a sign that the person in question is really just smart enough to fake it.

This fits: I don't see any new ideas or insights expressed in the work of his administration, either. I don't see any great leadership coming from his administration—rather, I see an administration that has left many of its leadership responsibilities to Congress. I see the same old ideas recycled—and when they're met with opposition, I see the same old tired tactics recycled to deal with that opposition. This administration doesn't seem able to out-argue its critics; when its initiatives flounder, it doesn't seem to have any better ideas than to accuse its opponents of racism and call them Nazis and brown-shirts, on the one hand, and to have yet another stacked town meeting full of puffball "questions" on the other, preferably on prime-time TV.

All of which is to say, while I don't have any doubt that President Obama is a smart man and a gifted campaigner, I don't see any real evidence of his intelligence beyond the fact of his election. On the basis of his record, what I see is a smart man, but far from a brilliant one, whose intelligence has been largely focused on impressing people, and who's very good at doing that, both one-on-one and on the large scale of a political campaign. I don't see much evidence of wisdom in any aspect of his life, and I don't see any real evidence of an active broad-gauge intelligence.

As such, I do in fact think it's fair to say (despite her disastrous interview with Katie Couric, which is belied by the rest of her life and record) that Gov. Palin is smarter, never mind that she graduated from Idaho instead of Columbia. She too impresses people with her intelligence, but rather than an intelligence which is designed to impress or intimidate people—one which is fundamentally about the self—she impresses people with an intelligence that's interested in them, and what they're interested in; and her intelligence trails a pattern of results and accomplishments behind it. With her, one need not argue for her on the basis of what schools she went to—one can argue for her on the basis of what she's done.

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