James Dobson, the Christian psychologist I used to listen to on the radio in the 80s, once noted with disapproval that in our society "intelligence is the gold coin of human worth" for our children, and that beauty is "the silver coin of human worth." He noted that this had previously been reversed for girls but was becoming more equal. His guest asked didn't he think that was a good thing that it was becoming more equal, but Dobson demurred. The Scriptures say very little about either of them, focusing on issues of righteousness and character, he reminded his audience.
I was surprised, as Dobson was a noted political conservative (less obviously early on), very much pro-market, pro- making your way in the world, pro- using your abilities, approving of instilling that independent spirit in children and making progress in the American way. I agreed with him, but didn't expect to hear it from that source. I don't recall where the conversation went from there, and now wish I did. The phrase and the concept have stuck with me.
One reason why we might value these even more highly among children is that adults know that these are among the most advantageous things for children to have starting out, to make their way in the worldly world. They set a floor, allowing parents and others alongside to breathe a little sigh of relief. There are no guarantees, and many things can go wrong, but it gives an indication that they might get some sort of a job, some sort of a role, a niche in life where they can be productive, not having to be supported and rescued by parents all their days. Also, they are things that show early. Resilience, adaptability, ability to get along with others, and ability to work hard are harder to discern in the young. They show these qualities one day but not the next.
Issues of character are even harder to suss out. They may also be much less genetic, much more a result of training and attention. Honesty, kindness, selflessness - these are not much in evidence in toddlers and are inconsistent even among teenagers who go on to become great exemplars of these qualities, and deeper issues of piety and wisdom are not even available to the young. They require time, trial and error, and specific encouragement. Because courage is a collection of qualities rather than one, it is also uneven in expression for many years.
Intelligence and beauty are useful, at least somewhat in all societies, but very especially in the West and in America. Thus even as we put the other qualities into play in evaluating adolescents and adults, we overvalue those two.
There is a strong tendency to deny the genetic aspect of intelligence because it is so useful in our culture, and it seems so unfair. We acknowledge the importance of natural ability in athletics, music, and art partly because it is so obvious in those cases (while still crediting that to reach the highest levels, even the talented must work hard), but also because all of those are uncommon roads to finding a successful niche as an adult. You can be successful without the least ability in any of those categories. Beauty is a bit trickier, because the attractive remain so at least within their peer group for life, and it is a general advantage in many walks of life, even if it is seldom a standalone. Yet mostly, we accept that it is partly genetic because it is obviously so.
But it just seems too deeply unfair that God would pass out the "most important" quality unequally. Somehow we accept that people can be born disfigured enough or otherwise unbeautiful as to have a very hard road their whole lives, or to be born in a place where 99% of the people are impoverished, or into abusive families, but unfairness in the distribution of intelligence seems abhorrent. This is especially so when it is whole groups, and I myself wondered "God, how could you...?" for several decades. That African-Americans score a full standard deviation lower seems impossible to accept. I completely get that feeling, though it is irrational. For anything important and necessary to salvation, and even for general human happiness or friendship, all groups have equal access. The inequalities we are upset about reveal our own poor values, not God's unfairness.
It is based on the problem Dobson noted in the 80s: it bothers us because we share the false value that it is the most important thing for young people to have, and still darn important through adulthood. The scriptures say much about wisdom, nothing about intelligence, but we cannot let it go. We can accept if Peruvians have little athletic or musical tradition, but not that they might not be so good at math as Ecuadorians.
Also, in our everyday lives we don't put that much emphasis on raw smarts. Who we like to work with or marry or invite over for dinner is more closely related to a lot of other things ahead of that. But we get upset about the group issues, we still have that focus on the children having some big-ticket item to get by as they go into the world, and we do still get resentful at some who are able to cash in on one genetic advantage or another, including that one.
I know, easy for me to say, for this really is a place of privilege and I should not underestimate the pain it causes others in this life. Yet it is true even if it is a truth I can only partially grasp. I am measuring weight with a yardstick and complaining about the numbers I see.
Update: One of my main points, and I forgot to work it in: at the end of our days, neither intelligence nor beauty is likely to figure that prominently in our summary. There will be a few whose intellectual contributions were so notable and gifts so great that they are still seen primarily in that way. That will be rare. As for beauty, we will still notice with a few - the men with silver hair, the women who still have an appearance or a style even in later years - but even those will need the supporting characteristics of charm or grace or demeanor for their beauty to still be what we notice first. Mere good looks will be of marginal value. And this is as it should be. What parents worry about for their children, and we worry about for ourselves in our younger years in order to make our way will not be what we are known for in the end, and the gold coin and silver coin in youth will be the farthest to fall.