Jun 25, 2021

Intelligence, Academia, and other scams: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

Reading Bri Lee is like savouring scintillating dinner party conversation with your sharpest friends. She defies genre and traditional structure to weave together anecdote and research, formality and wit, the literary and the scientific, the historical and the bleeding edge contemporary. The essential conceit in this book is Lee finds herself growing up smart, but insecure about geniuses around her. What do they have that she doesn't? Is it brainpower, or superior education? Or is the whole edifice of intelligence and academic heirarchy a sham, constructed by rich white men to justify their position and entrench their privilege? Lee makes a detective story out of her quest to find answers. This style is unusual for a nonfiction, but unsurprising to those who know her first book Eggshell Skull. I've read a small number of reviewers expressing their disappointment that she didn't, in the end, figure out whodunit, and that she tarries too much collecting clues. Demanding a point is to miss the point, which is that this book is a question. An enormous, ringing, urgent question, of how knowledge is constructed and who gets the hardhats to be on site. It's right there in the title - a grand query, not a grand theory. 

I get the temptation to blast Lee for omitting a line of enquiry or neglecting one's favoured theories. I felt that she spent too long on the dark side of Western Civilization. Of course it had its chauvinists and genocidaires. So did every civilization. But the West birthed liberal democracy and the scientific and industrial revolutions, creating a world quantifiably hundreds of times more peaceful and prosperous than ever before. Those ideas could have arisen in China or India or the Islamic world, but by historical contingency, they came from Europe. They are now embraced the world over, and are the common inheritance of all people, monopolized by no group. In my view that's the most important development in human history, and it is inseperable from questions of production of knowledge. I see the scientific method as a radically emancipatory and revolutionary process, breaking biases, scourging supremacists, and enriching our lives to boot. Lee explores mainly the ways elites have attempted to coopt science for the purposes of kyriarchy and colonization. 

But one can't fault a dinner party conversation for skipping over one's private preoccupations, and it would not be smart to discard this book for not conforming perfectly to my expectations. Lee's voice is compelling and lyrical and she is using it to advance an important conversation. Her generosity in letting us in to her life and mind brings the political down to the personal.

I will attempt to do the same, in my own small way. I too grew up wondering a great deal about what it meant to be smart or educated. I vainly cultivated my most showoffable intellectual talents and grasped at glories. Eventually I realized that this was making me unhappy and unsociable, and also that intelligence barely exists. IQ was designed as a measure of intellectual impairment, and is not normalized to measure genius. Scores are not fixed but laughably malleable (see Calvin Edlund) and correlate with outcomes only if you use dogshit statistical tests and reason circularly (see Nassim Taleb). My MBBS, supposedly the most prestigious degree, was essentially a scam, whereby a corporation-university took my money and the public's, fed it to fatcats and erected shiny buildings, then made us teach ourselves medicine. True, in my field it was a ticket of entry to a privileged career. But in most others, from tech to business to the public service, qualifications mean little more than signalling your commitment. Even in the production of knowledge, the internet is democratizing information and tearing down ivory towers. The greatest contributors to the human project usually work outside the academy. What you do matters, not who you are. Perhaps Lee and I would have realized this earlier if were praised for effort, not ability (see Carol Dweck). 

Lee ends the book with a poignant meditation on love, gratitude, and self-acceptance. She may have been too humble to make the following rather different point, so I will. The nucleus of her doubts was her Rhodes Scholar friend Damien, studying English literature. She praises his position at the apex of intellectual achievement. He denies thinking that way about learning. She is enraged that he's winning the game without even even valuing the rules. But in literature, as in all human striving, the game is *not* scholarships or plaudits. The building you write in or the gown you wear means nothing. Damien realizes this, chafes at his pompous dons, and longs to live the life of a writer and give back to the real world. Lee is already there. She is now a three-time bestselling author, her books read and enjoyed by many thousands. I think Damien would forgive me for saying that this is a bigger contribution than he has made or likely will make. Her example shows what a person can achieve with little more than curiosity, determination, and generosity of spirit. Screw the ancient halls of Oxford and the ivory towers of the Academy. I'd rather sit at Bri Lee's dinner parties. 

No comments:

Post a Comment