Intelligence, education, and “success”

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes, 9:11)

It may be that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong – but that’s the way to bet. (Damon Runyon)

linked a few days back to a fascinating New Yorker article about the admissions policies of the most prestigious US universities. You will be shocked to learn that academic brilliance is only one of a number of factors determining whether or not you get in to the likes of Harvard:
The Ivy League schools justified their emphasis on character and personality, however, by arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college. They were looking for leaders, and leadership, the officials of the Ivy League believed, was not a simple matter of academic brilliance. “Should our goal be to select a student body with the highest possible proportions of high-ranking students, or should it be to select, within a reasonably high range of academic ability, a student body with a certain variety of talents, qualities, attitudes, and backgrounds?” Wilbur Bender asked. To him, the answer was obvious. If you let in only the brilliant, then you produced bookworms and bench scientists: you ended up as socially irrelevant as the University of Chicago (an institution Harvard officials looked upon and shuddered).

I have never attended a US university – my one experience of the system was a seminar I participated in at Yale two and a half years ago – but the description of the hidden motivations behind university admissions systems sounds very similar to the factors that I know operate for Cambridge, where I did my own first two degrees. Of course, academic ability plays a part; but looking through the alumni directory of my own college, I am struck by how many of my fellow graduates have gone into jobs in the City of London, be it finance or law, or else into further academic research. The first category of graduate is important for the sake of future donations, in that they have the money and have it nearby, and the second sort of graduate is important for the sake of prestige, in that the metrics for assessing academic success are drawn up by academics and therefore depend a lot on academic activity. Clare College also has a bias towards choral music.

Other measures of achievement don’t seem to matter so much. It’s striking that the only two twentieth century students of Clare College who became world-class figures in philosophy or literature – Thomas Merton and Siegfried Sassoon  – both failed to finish their courses; let’s hope that China Mieville bucks that trend. (Significantly, we did better in the sciences – David Attenborough Andrew Wiles James Watson – and music –  Cecil Sharp John Rutter, and (though I think he too failed to graduate)  Richard Stilgoe.)

More parochially, sitting in my office in Brussels dealing daily with highly intelligent, well educated and very skillful people in and around the European institutions, it is very noticeable that the Oxbridge graduates are very few among them. I would say that, excluding British diplomats, over half of my professional contacts here who have been to a British university have attended LSE. If Oxbridge actually cares about the EU it’s not at all visible.

But of course, intelligence and success may well not be linked as closely as is often assumed. Looking at politics, as I often do, Jeremy Paxman points out that the three British prime ministers of the twentieth century with the best academic qualifications all failed in office and Steve Chapman pointed out five years ago in Slate that while the Democrats tended to run obviously smarter presidential candidates than the Republicans, it doesn’t necessarily do them much good, either in terms of winning elections, or in terms of having successful presidencies once the election has been won (poor old Jimmy Carter being the most obvious case in point). To be a good politician, brains are sometimes a drawback; what is much more important is to connect with people as a potential leader, not a thinker.

Returning to the world of commercial success, and the article about Harvard, I was struck by the research finding that:

Male athletes, despite their lower S.A.T. scores and grades, and despite the fact that many of them are members of minorities and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than other students, turn out to earn a lot more than their peers. Apparently, athletes are far more likely to go into the high-paying financial-services sector, where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup.
For myself, I’ve never sat down and done an IQ test, though I would not be surprised to find myself in the top x percentiles where x is rather small. But my career goals have tended to be shaped by wanting satisfactory work and, if anything more importantly, interesting people to work with. If there’s one activity I really enjoy, it is having extremely well-informed discussions with other people who are as intelligent and as well-informed as I am; and I must admit I also get a kick out of the very activity of networking, as has noted. That, of course, is why I like sf fandom, and livejournal; it’s also why I like the advocacy side of my job – having serious policy discussions with policy-makers – and find the editing bit – correcting other people’s mistakes and grammatical infelicites – much more wearing. I found the academic world very comfortable from that sort of perspective, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had fallen out of love with my subject area (and also, to be honest, didn’t completely like the teaching and writing side of it) I would be there still. I think I have indeed opted for a relatively happy and successful life rather than superstardom, like the graduates of the Hunter College Elementary School in New York who (according to Gladwell’s article) really were selected on intelligence alone:
Being a smart child isn’t a terribly good predictor of success in later life, they conclude. “Non-intellective” factors—like motivation and social skills—probably matter more. Perhaps, the study suggests, “after noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world-class leadership in a field, [Hunter College Elementary School] graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives.” It is a wonderful thing, of course, for a school to turn out lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. But Harvard didn’t want lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. It wanted superstars…
The lesson at the end of all of this is that we shouldn’t confuse achievements with skills, still less with character. The most troubling bit of Gladwell’s New Yorker article is that, having gleefully proved that Ivy League schools select not on intelligence but on potential success, he doesn’t then really challenge the concept of “success”. That would, I feel, have been even more useful.

One thought on “Intelligence, education, and “success”

  1. What is the story on the intern? I have a 19-year old son who is keen on politics and Europe…

    Can you provide any information?


Comments are closed.