Politics & Policy

Stupid Aptitude Test

Down with merit!

Let’s cut to the chase. The most persistent prejudice in our society is the one which holds back the stupid and lazy. Oh, sure — more than a few make it over the so-called “merit barrier” because their parents have money or because they happened to room with the right guy in college. A few morally entrepreneurial women have provided, ahem, “non-traditional services” in exchange for low expectations in the workplace. And, yes, some jocks can coast on their college glory days thanks to a sports-junkie boss who wants a conversation-piece employee.

But, let’s face it, these are statistically trivial occurrences. One need only look at the ranks of heart surgeons, bomb-squad technicians, and nuclear physicists to recognize that the stupid and lazy are wildly underrepresented and discriminated against at the top levels of our society.

In fact, employers in these — and many other — fields barely conceal their prejudice. Their supposedly fair criteria are rich with words like “qualifications,” “credentials,” “education,” “attitude,” and a host of other terms which only thinly disguise their bias. How is one supposed to get “credentials” if one is stupid and lazy? To even ask about an applicant’s “attitude” is to assume he has a “positive” one. And what does “positive” mean in our merit-obsessed society? It means, exactly: not stupid and lazy. In some fields, engineering for example, applicants are expected to pass professional tests which only the smart and industrious could possibly pass.

So commonplace is this bigotry, it doesn’t even shock us that employers have specific answers in mind when they ask potential employees questions about their attitude. “Are you a hard worker?” “Do you work well with others?” “What would you say your biggest fault is?”

Who are employers kidding? These questions are clearly aimed at “outing” the lethargic. We would not tolerate an employer inquiring about the religion of an employee. Asking about sexual preference is a sure ticket for a lawsuit. But this country continues not only to permit but to encourage the use of these “code” questions about intelligence and temperament.

And, this bias is particularly insidious due to the inability of the low-I.Q.’d to decode this bigotry. Qualified applicants who belong to religious, racial, and sexual minorities are accustomed to spotting instances of discrimination. But it is precisely because of their slow-wittedness that the ignorant are more likely to remain, well, ignorant of the obstacles they face. A high-I.Q.’d Catholic, for example, can detect religious bias when he hears the question, “You’re not one of those perfidious papists are you?” But often a stupid person won’t even spot the blatant bigotry behind the question, “Are you friggin’ stupid!?”

Indeed, compared to the dim but hard-working (many Hollywood actors or some ditch-diggers, for example) or the smart but lazy (who often “pass” for hard workers in many of our corporations), the thick-headed and indolent are doubly cursed and often have no recourse.

Social science has been slow to ask how this systemic discrimination affects the self-esteem of unmotivated idiots, but preliminary studies — as well as common sense — suggest that such constant denial and shame is deeply damaging to their psyches. Just imagine how you would feel watching, say, A&E’s Biography and seeing one story after another about happy and prosperous people — Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Ted Koppel — who attribute their success almost entirely to “hard work.”

Think about it: Our entire education system focuses disproportionately on the work of intelligent and assiduous people: Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson, Einstein, Hemingway, etc. Consider how excluded the dumb feel when we trumpet the “brilliant insights” of Milton Friedman, Gunnar Myrdal, or Ayn Rand. How is someone barely qualified to be a spell-checker at an M&M factory, or, say, Alec Baldwin, supposed to feel after reading such bigotry?

Or, we might ask, what lesson do the lazy take from our lavish praise of the “tireless efforts” of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King? Tireless efforts! How else are the untold millions of people who spend all day on the couch in their parents’ basement playing video games supposed to translate that offensive phrase? The message is clear: If you find even modest effort tiring, you will never achieve anything worthy of recognition. Indeed, if you complain about your lack of accomplishment, society is likely to say it’s “your own fault” for not “applying yourself” — more common code-words for blaming the victim.

Now, none of this is to say that we are not making progress as a society. There is cause for optimism — as, for instance, with the constant improvements being made to the SAT, the test administered by the College Board.

Historically, the College Board has been perceived as an unapologetic mouthpiece for the meritocracy. But that façade is finally crumbling. First called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and then dubbed the Scholastic Achievement Test, the SAT now stands for nothing — an accommodation in and of itself to those too dumb to grasp or too lazy to commit to memory that the letters S-A-T stand for something. Moreover, in a just and equitable society, it was unavoidable that words like “achievement” and “aptitude” would be dropped since both imply a bias toward those who’ve “achieved” (the non-lazy) or those who have aptitude (the non-dumb) or a mixture of both.

But even more encouraging was the College Board’s decision to eliminate the infamous analogy questions from the SAT. These questions were insuperable barriers for the stupid and lazy who wanted to go to college but didn’t have the connections or the money to get into Brown University. For example: “Fire is to burns as:

A) Lead paint chips are to tasty.

B) Frozen metal flagpoles are to tasty.

C) Cleaning products under the sink are to tasty.

D) Water is to cools.

E) None of the above.”

How could we ever have expected a stupid person to answer that?

In a sure sign that the College Board has seen the light, they’ve decided to replace these deliberately difficult analogies with more subjective personal essays. They declined the more equitable solutions offered by advocates for the stupid and lazy, such as a take-home finger-painting assignment or merely requiring a mandatory photocopy of your own butt. Still, there’s no denying this is progress.

The College Board’s decision wasn’t made entirely out of the goodness of their hearts. Many schools have rightly elevated self-esteem as the sine qua non of higher education and have accordingly moved to drop the anachronistic test. The University of California’s president, Richard Atkinson, has been a pioneer in this effort. Last year he declared that an “overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practice.” Also, he added, “the test is perceived by many as unfair” and its results “can have devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students.”

While Atkins is certainly a pioneer in a just cause, it would be nice if he didn’t use weasel words like “perceived.” The SAT, as historically administered, is objectively unfair to the stupid. Critics note that the children of affluent families can afford test-preparation courses while poorer, mostly minority students cannot. This is a defensible point. But the fact remains that if these poor and minority students work extra hard or take these prep courses, their scores will undoubtedly improve. Meanwhile, there’s virtually nothing the stupid and lazy can do to improve their test scores — that is, unless we as a society want them to deny who they are. The simple fact is, whether we admit it or not, there’s never been an “intelligence” or “achievement” test on which the smart and industrious have not done better than the dumb and the lackadaisical. With God’s help — and hopefully not too much hard work — that will change.


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