Tuesday, July 06, 2021

The Gold Coin

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.


Donna B. said...

Gold is malleable. Silver is less so, but tarnishes. Resist the hammer and polish the silver?

G. Poulin said...

If God was a better American, he would care more about equality, goshdarnit. I am reminded of John Henry Newman's attempts to get his fellow Anglicans to understand that being a good Christian was not exactly the same thing as being a good Brit. We are always trying to make ourselves the measure of all things.

Donna B. said...

I just realized that my earlier comment could be easily made into a Neil Young lyric... and I'm mortified! Please forgive me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't think he would use "malleable" unless he could rhyme it with something. Something completely unrelated, probably.

Cole Porter could probably find six rhymes for it, all of them clever and based on splitting things up.

stevo said...

I noticed many years ago that a lot of people I knew didn't seem to have a problem with stealing. Then I realized that there doesn't seem to be anybody teaching that stealing is wrong.

Narr said...

Don't forget Electrum. One of my favorite alloys.

Cousin Eddie

Zachriel said...

Donna B: Gold is malleable. Silver is less so, but tarnishes. Resist the hammer and polish the silver?

The rhyme is already there:

Gold is malleable. Silver tarnishes. Resist the hammer! Silver polishes!

Cranberry said...

There is a difference, though, between intelligence and others' perception of intelligence. I think teachers' perception of low intelligence can be especially damaging. It can cause resentment that lasts generations. I'm fairly certain relatives by marriage chose to homeschool their children because they themselves had bad memories of their time in school.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Cranberry - yes, my younger brother was tracked in 7-15 (out of 17), largely because he was a November boy with poor attention and poor fine-motor skills. Two of his four teachers wanted him to be moved up to the top tier for 8th grade, two did not. He got moved up to 8-11. He went on to teach technical theater at colleges. A different style of schooling would have been advantageous for him.

BTW, phonics and math drill not only work better in general, they especially work well for poorer students, especially minorities. But teachers have been told that this is not so and it is bad in many ways to use those methods, so they screw their students over. It's been three generations of this now. A large part of American success is people figuring out that they need something other than school. The conscientious girls who adopted the values of the educational system and did well are deeply resentful when they move into environments that don't prize that as deeply. The schools screwed them, too, just with a delayed action.

Frances said...

Our youngest offspring was fortunate to have a Grade 4 teacher who pushed everyone to do his/her best. One of his techniques was to begin each day with an arithmetic drill sheet. Forget the calculator, the students had to mentally add up as many columns of three or four numbers that they could. His rationale was that - apart being good for the brain (now being recognized after being disparaged for many years) - each student could see his/her progress in being able to successfully add more columns in the given time frame. The poorer students would never catch up to the bright ones, but they still saw themselves gaining in speed and mastery of this task. He was one wise teacher.

Cranberry said...

I notice that many of the things teachers deem "old-fashioned" are extremely useful for students--essential, even. This includes:

arithmetic drills (by hand)
handwriting practice (both print and cursive)
competent teaching of phonics
memorization of facts--such as how to find France on a map

It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that all of this may be very boring for the teacher to teach, year after year.

Cranberry said...

As for beauty, I think it can be a poisoned coin for women. People treat a beautiful woman differently. Men are fools, and women can regard beautiful women as rivals.

I have witnessed many beautiful women have enormous trouble adapting to the aging process. As we are living longer, you have to deal with faded beauty for most of your life.

A hypothetical: You meet your son's girlfriends. One is beautiful, but selfish and vain. The next is not beautiful, but kind and witty.

Which would you prefer your son choose to join the family?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Cranberry - i would disagree about the penmanship. It was treated as nearly a moral quality in my school days and I, with very poor coordination, missed many recesses having to do and redo extra penmanship work. It was assumed that if I just "cared" more about it I would be fine. But I did care, and I envied the students who could so easily make things look beautiful, including in crafts, art, and all the drawing and coloring we had to do. I see no benefit to any of it in retrospect. It was a skill they were good at, and so overvalued it. My sons inherited from both my wife and I on these skills, but even at only half my clumsiness had much extra work. We got them on keyboards as soon as we could.

Donna B. said...

I'm late to this comment section, but I would note that the generation after mine and AVI's also had this problem with penmanship being overstressed, perhaps a moral thing... not sure about that.

My son had "perfect" penmanship in 1st grade. The few papers I have of his could be textbook examples. Then he had a closed head injury, followed by months of hospitalization and rehab. His intellect was least effected, his motor skills most. Thus, when given math problems to copy and solve, his answers were correct and his penmanship not 'proper' at all. They were obviously legible, but squiggly and not lined up quite evenly.

He was given 0% on the entire assignment because of the penmanship. That was my first confrontation with schools, IEPs, and grades. It was not the last... nor was it the worst.

My son retained his 1st grade penmanship learning from the nuns in his parochial school and that translated into legibility even with a severe intention tremor. Thus, minus the "morality" that showed up later in public schools, handwriting practice served him well.

I had a similar argument with a different public school 7 years later when his baby sister got an F on a writing assignment. Again, legible, but oh so not perfect penmanship. Though I got that grade reversed, I'd mellowed by then. She doesn't have any physical problems that prevent good penmanship... she's just in a hurry. She is quite capable of producing excellent penmanship.

So, I agree with Cranberry that handwriting practice is an important part of education and I agree with you that it shouldn't be a "moral" imperative.