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On Quora an anonymous somebody asked, My IQ is 131. Can I get into MIT?

Yeah, it’s easy to call that a dumb question. But it’s the kind of question you get from somebody trapped in a caste system that cries out for a larger perspective, such as this one:


Anyway, here’s my answer:

You don’t have an IQ. Nobody does, because intelligence isn’t a quotient. It is the most personal of all human characteristics, and is as different in all of us as our faces and voices.

For the nothing it’s worth, my known IQ scores have an eighty point range. (Got most of ’em from my Mom, who taught in the same school system.) All they measured, if anything, was how tired or awake I was, and how much I enjoyed or hated being tested at some point in time. And none of them mattered, except to those attempting to classify me — and all of them failed.

Remember, that’s what IQ tests are for: classifying people.

You are not a score. Listen to Whitman. I’ll translate him here into bulleted form:

  • Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
  • I was never measured, and never will be measured.
  • I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass.
  • I know that I am august. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize.
  • Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams. Now I wash the gum from your eyes. You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
  • Long have you timidly waited, holding a plank by the shore. Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again, and nod to me and shout, and laughingly dash your hair.
  • I am the teacher of athletes. He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own. He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
  • The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

IQ is a measure: a carpenter’s compass. Its orbit does not sweep what is august in your true self, which needs no vindication. Nor does it respect the elementary laws of your sovereign soul. It is just a plank you hold by the shore. Drop it, dive, swim and shout. Then honor Whitman’s style and respect the spotted hawk. Be your untamed, untranslatable self, and sound your barbaric yawp to MIT’s admissions system. If they don’t respect it, they don’t deserve you.

Hope it does some good.

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(This post began as a response to this comment by Julian Bond, in response to this post about Mad Men. When it got too long I decided to move it here.)

Smoking and drinking were standard back then. “Widespread” doesn’t cover it. They were nearly universal.

It’s easy to forget that Industry won WWII, and that the military-industrial complex crossed the whole society. All young men served in the military, either voluntarily or via the draft. Industry and its companion, Science, ruled. And — to an unhealthy degree — the former drove the latter.

Tobacco was an leading agricultural product, and cigarette manufacture was a leading industry that drove consumption through advertising so thick and ubiquitous — on TV and radio, in magazines, newspapers and on billboards — that for most people the only choice was which brand to smoke.

I remember thinking, as a child, that lighting sticks on fire and breathing the smoke was absurd and unhealthy on its face — and later being the only one of my high school friends who didn’t smoke. But I was weird. Common sense then was pro-smoking.

Drinking and driving was only a little harder to rationalize. I remember statistics that said one in twenty-five drivers at night in the U.S. were drunk.

Industry and Science also together decided, among other things, that —

  • Breast feeding was bad for babies, and “formula” was better. Thank you, Nestle.
  • Children at birth should be taken from their mothers and stored in nurseries.
  • All boys should all be circumcised at birth. So much for the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
  • Tonsilitis” was a disease, and every severely sore throat should be treated surgically, involving removal of adenoids from the nose as well.
  • Intestinal infections were likely to be appendicitis, so the appendix had to go too.
  • Education is a manufacturing process, the purpose of which is to fill the empty vessels of childrens’ heads with curricula approved by the State.
  • Childrens’ intelligence — their most unique and human quality — was a fixed quantity (a “quotient”) that could be measured, as if by a dipstick,  with IQ tests, so herds of students  could be sorted into bell curves to better manage their progress through systems that regarded them — with the acquiescence of themselves and their parents — as “products” of their education.

I could go on. For what it’s worth, I have my appendix, but lack tonsils, adenoids, spleen and foreskin, all of which were considered “vestigial” or otherwise bad by the medical fashions at the times of their removal. My known IQ scores have a range of 80 points. If my parents hadn’t believed in me, my low IQ and standardized test scores in the 8th grade would have shunted me to a “vocational-technical” high school to learn wood shop, auto mechanics or some other “trade”. I shall always be grateful for that.

Mad Men is close to home for me in another way: I was long in the advertising business too, though a generation after Mad Men’s time, well after the “creative” revolution of the mid- to late 60s. It was one of the great periods in my life, but I’ve moved on. Similarly, I had a hard time watching the Sopranos, because I grew up in New Jersey, knew people like those, and was not entertained.

I think drugs and self-abuse are rituals of youth rationalized in their time by a sense of exemption from the due invoice we call aging. How long before fewer people are being tatooed than those having tattoos removed? I’m giving it 20 years.

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