The closing stanza of Thomas Gray‘s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” reads:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan—
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more;—where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
Written in about 1742, and heralded as perhaps Gray’s second most important poem, this closing line is where our phrase “ignorance is bliss” comes from. I think we should take Gray seriously because seeing problems and potential solutions without the ability to realize those solutions is maddeningly frustrating.
We can certainly see that intelligence and happiness may not go hand in hand and, indeed, there may be an inverse relationship. What I’ve written in The Hunt for Happiness seeks a paradigm shift from the context of Thomas Gray. If we can learn to focus our happiness on making contributions to the success and happiness of other people, then we can be happy in all of our struggles, intelligent or not. True wisdom is that which results in helping others and decreasing conflict, and this is best done with self-sacrifice. That’s Jesus’ message, it seems to me.
Intelligence and testing results do not predict future happiness. The ability to realize one’s potential and to support others in so doing often creates happiness.
We continue to parse and sort and bin and differentiate humans on the most detailed levels. We do this parsing to find differences and weaknesses, not to understand and help. We’ve made great strides towards our humanity in the past 100 years, and, surprisingly, a read through the works of H. P . Lovecraft has given me more context of that achievement. A writer of horror and weird fiction stories, Lovecraft’s works capture the essence of some troubling thoughts in the early 1900’s. Those of eugenics, racism, elitism, and the like. Frankly, I thought that reading Lovecraft would be a fun romp, but it has turned into a real study, since I am not made of the stuff to take Thomas Gray’s advice, I’m addicted to learning. That notwithstanding, I’ve found an excellent window into a worldview foreign to me, and one that I intend to take full advantage of.
Our folly is a lack of wisdom about who we are as individuals and what makes us happy and fulfilled. Wisdom is a practical thing, unlike generic intelligence. Wisdom seeks to find the best course through life to leave the place better than you found it at birth – to leave your name in higher regard at death than birth as it is often put. All of this sorting and binning leads to a false narrative that there are ideal humans whereas wisdom would teach us to help people find who they are, what they enjoy, what they are good at, and ways for them to contribute to the fulfillment of other’s needs in realizing their happiness, their fulfilling purpose. A musician will not have fulfillment if no one listens to her work or attends her concerts. A nurse will have no fulfillment if there are no patients to save, to care for. This means that people of all sorts, a broad spectrum of intellectual abilities, talents, and needs are paramount in fulfilling the needs of others among communities and societies.
Along all of these lines, I made a post on Facebook, and here on this blog, regarding the best sorts of education and the failure of our efforts to improve education. Among the many woes that I described is the standardized test. I’ll not make a long argument here, but the job of high school education is to prepare people to function in society where social skills, problem solving, and certain foundational elements are required to seek employment or seek advanced education, to raise a family, and to be happy.
These are adaptive skills often not suited to a standard test, and those skills often exist within a culture and cannot be fully realized unless they are tailored to the culture of the student. Therefore broad standardized testing can result in more of a measure of cultural assimilation than the ability to cope as above described. Yes, some measure of attainment is needed, some way to help students improve and measure progress. But the more standardized the tests are, the less we teach the students how to think for themselves and how to teach themselves. This is the reason for independent school districts. It is also the reason for state controlled schools in tyrannical regimes. The little red book as it were.
Trying to force people to be the same is a folly of mankind that has resulted common miseries, revolutions, and wars. The American experiment is one of unity towards common visions, with liberty and justice to seek whatever makes each of unique individuals happy. E pluribus unum.
In that post, I state that the IQ test is flawed because it is biased towards the culture that created it. That drew some comments that just because the test results show disparity of IQ distribution between races does not mean that the test is flawed – if objective evidence shows that certain races have less proclivity for disparity of tested age compared with chronological age (that’s what the quotient is – tested age / chronological age), then we must accept that. Following the link above will provide some scholarly references to disagreements about potential bias in these tests.
There is no biological evidence of any difference in mental capacity between races, ethnicities, sexes, and so forth. There are of course differing mental abilities from individual to individual and some folks are barely capable of function (such as some persons with Down Syndrome and other conditions). And there does appear to be a strong genetic component. In some cases, specific differences account for specific mental limitations. On the other hand, some of the smartest people have ultimately been unable to function in society and otherwise “crazy”. Having a high IQ does not mean that a person is a good leader, a good worker, a good citizen, or a good friend. It can mean quite the opposite, just as any person can be all or none of these things.
Cultures approach problem solving differently. The West emphasizes individual lives and problem solving whereas the East emphasizes joint lives and problem solving, to name two stark differences. If people can’t understand the problem, and their society does not emphasize problem solving in the same manner as the culture creating the problems, then disparity can be expected. And should be expected, but is not.
The ultimate folly of humanity its arrogance in believing that smart people should run the world.
The best leaders are those with humility, who admit that they fail and need advice and assistance in order to serve other people in leadership, and those who laugh at themselves. The worst leaders are those who lead through hubris, who hide and conceal their failures to present a façade of superhuman performance to the those whom they seek to control rather than serve, and who laugh at those whom they lead. This has been true since dawn of time, yet we fail to learn from prior good and horrible leaders, and it is clear that a level of intelligence is required to lead, an extremely high IQ is not required and can be harmful.
What then of Gray, is ignorance bliss? Are smart people and those who educate themselves doomed to despair and unhappy lives, and the ignorant or less intelligent among us to live happy, fulfilled lives? I say no, certainly not – if, and only if we learn to help each other realize our potentials and share ourselves with each other, and I’ll quote my book, Lois is speaking to me about my hunt for happiness:
“No, that’s not so. As I told you, it’s a choice most of the time, Steve. It’s a negotiation. Everything between birth and death is a negotiation. And you have to give quite a bit to be content and happy – you have to learn to be happy by helping other people succeed rather than focusing on yourself so much. When that makes you happy, when seeing other people star in the play, when seeing them headlining on the marquee outside gives you a thrill, then you can be happy.”
Intelligence, like many other attributes, is a gift. It is how we use the gift that matters to humanity and to creation of a love filled culture. Let’s take a look at a passage where Jesus addresses the topic of knowledge and gifts. Throughout, emphasis is mine.
“Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (Luke 12:33-48 NRS)
Intelligence is a gift, With it comes responsibility and duty to use it for the good of others. Gray is right to point out how frustrating and infuriating the woes of the world are, but he is wrong give in and give up. Bliss comes from doing what one can and seeing those minor successes, those smiles, those improved days, for other people, even if our lives are filled with frustration and vexation.