It’s hard to balance equality and the acceptance of diversity if you try to apply them on the same level. Every human has worth and beauty and dignity, but not every human is a great singer. There’s a difference between subjugation/oppression and recognizing that individuals have different strengths and weaknesses.
If you’ve spent much time around toddlers and their parents, you know that every toddler is reputed to be a genius much smarter than all other children their age (although no individual child seems to fall into this frequently referenced majority), and they’re all going to grow up to be stunningly physically beautiful.
While this phenomenon is startling enough when only applied to toddlers, it has become increasingly alarming since we’ve begun to apply it to people at steadily increasing ages. Some folks, it seems, will not rest until we’ve declared every human being “smart” and (physically) “beautiful.” But why?
We don’t need a society of unproductive erudites; we need a society of specialists who have been given the chance to develop a broad range of natural talents and abilities.
Why is it so important that we not acknowledge that people possess different levels of traditionally defined intelligence and physical beauty? Why aren’t these innate traits comfortably permitted to apply more to some people than to others?
As I mentioned above, we can accept that some people naturally have a better singing voice. We can agree that some people have more of a natural flair for sculpting or painting. We don’t automatically claim that everyone is a good actor “in their own way”, and we recognize that people have different athletic abilities. We immediately bristle, though, at the notion that some people are not naturally all that academically inclined or physically attractive.
These concepts are, by their very nature, comparative. “Smart” and “beautiful” aren’t, by definition, things that everyone can be. Statistically speaking, there has to be an average level of intelligence, a group that falls above that, and a group that falls below that. Beauty is, of course, a little more subjective (although there are still scientifically proven qualities found to be most commonly considered associated with what we process as “physical beauty”), so we’ll set that one aside for now.
Do we always insist that everyone is smart, though? In some ways we don’t, but in some more problematic ways, we do. You wouldn’t have much trouble getting the majority of people to acknowledge that Stephen Hawking or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson is demonstrably smarter than most people we run into on the street. However, when it comes to education, we maintain a stubborn insistence that every child should be nearly forced (sometimes almost literally kicking and screaming) into the most advanced arenas of academics. And when that proves to be too great a task for their natural abilities, we rig the system to make it look like it’s not.
I’ve long scoffed at Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. I actually agree with the main thrust of the theory itself, which is that individuals are skilled or talented in a number of different ways that basically balance out even if they are not exactly equal in specific areas. My problem with the theory is more with the terminology; I don’t like that he calls every talent or skill an “intelligence.”
I’ve had some advanced education in the cognitive sciences, so I do understand that there are scientifically justifiable reasons for Gardner to call them “intelligences”; but I still think it involved at least some measure of mularkey aimed primarily at avoiding indicating that different individuals are more or less (mentally) intelligent than others. We don’t need to call people “grammatically athletic” or “mathematically artistic”; why is it necessary to call people “bodily intelligent”? Because, for whatever reason, we’re not comfortable acknowledging that some people aren’t as (traditionally) intelligent as others.
The terminology battle itself is petty, I agree, but it does display the bigger problem of the refusal to accept that not everyone has the same intellectual capabilities. I’d like to think that we do this out of the good intention to encourage and support people who may not be academically minded, but I think even that might be very misguided. By not accepting that academics may be a weaker area for some folks, we’ve essentially forced everyone into a detrimental situation.
Perhaps to recognize the problem we need to begin with the result. There is currently a massive population of over-educated, under-employed (or unemployed) adults. Simultaneously, there is a nearly nationwide shortage of skilled tradesman/laborers. How anyone cannot view the current mindset that every single child needs to pursue an intellectual/academic trajectory in life as a hugely problematic contributor to this issue is beyond me. Still, no one at any level of education or childhood development wants to release their deathgrip on the platform that it should be every child, parent, and teacher’s goal that every single child go to college.
Let me be clear that I’m not advocating a lack of opportunity for anyone. Instead, I’m suggesting that we stop forcing a common, overly narrow focus on absolutely everyone. There is, I agree, a basic amount of linguistic and mathematical knowledge that people need to get through life comfortably. That, in my understanding, is the idea behind compulsory primary education, and I’m very much in favor of that. That is not the same as insisting that it should be every single child’s destiny to attend an institute of higher education.
Let’s stop whitewashing over individual difference and diversity. Let’s stop trying to force humans with unique and valuable gifts to abandon them for ones we deem more generally palatable. Let’s let athletes pursue and enjoy athletics. Let’s let intellectuals pursue and enjoy intellectualism. Let’s let artists pursue and enjoy creative expression. Most of all, let’s stop denying that people have different strengths and weaknesses, and let’s stop denying them the right to focus more on those areas for which they are best suited by forcing them to focus on areas in which they are not.
We don’t need Tommy sitting on his couch with a degree in an area he chose by random default and in which he can’t now find a job when he may have been much happier and more productive as a welder. We don’t need Ron to waste time, money, and effort struggling in a degree program he never finishes when he could have already been years into a solid career as a machine operator. We need to broaden our respect for viable futures outside of exclusively intellectual realms, and we need to stop giving our children the impression that “being smart” is not only an equal playing field, but also the only one that matters.