4 Reasons People Assume I’m Smarter Than My Contractor

Workers Are on the Losing End of American Educational History

In “Don’t Assume I’m Smarter Than My Contractor,” I recalled an incident where my contractor, Tom, asked me a question prefaced with, “You’re smarter than I am, so….”

It led me to think about how our culture tells us that intelligence means having academic smarts and being well schooled, which devalues other kinds of smarts. The article was well received and seems to have struck a collective nerve. It also elicited one common follow-up question: Why does our culture lead us to assume that I, a PhD, am smarter than my contractor?

A number of factors are involved in this cultural message. I want to highlight a few of them.

1. The Comprehensive High School

Before the mid-19th century, there were no public high schools. There were private academies, and their job was primarily to prepare well-to-do and middle-class kids for college and the learned professions. Public high schools started appearing in the 1860s, and by the turn of the century, they were common. Compulsory education laws and other factors led more and more teens to attend these public high schools.

Our culture tells us that intelligence means having academic smarts and being well schooled, which devalues other kinds of smarts.

But there was a problem. These academically focused high schools saw a big influx of immigrants and poor children in the early 20th century. What was society to do with these students, who seemed ill suited to academic pursuits? Reformers argued about this. Some believed these students should receive the same academic curriculum as everyone else; others believed they needed a different curriculum and maybe even should attend a “vocational” school.

The compromise was the comprehensive high school — a model everyone who’s attended high school in the past century or so is familiar with.

On the one hand, every child would attend the same high school (hence the term “comprehensive”). On the other, there would be very different tracks that students would be assigned to based on their supposed abilities. As Professor David Labaree puts it in his book Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, these comprehensive high schools would “channel ... those new students into the lower tracks in the high school curriculum, particularly in the industrial arts, mechanical, and commercial courses, while most middle class students ended up on the top track, labeled academic.”

These tracks were not perceived as equal in merit. The academic track was generally reserved for those students the school believed were intellectually capable of academic work. The less cognitively able were assigned — maybe relegated is the better term — to the lower vocational tracks.

One reformer, Elwood Cubberly, spelled out this inequality quite directly in Changing Conceptions of Education:

Our city schools will soon be forced to give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal, and that our society is devoid of classes ... and to begin a specialization of educational effort along many new lines in an attempt better to adapt the school to the needs of these many classes in the city life.

Everyone gets sorted into “appropriate” tracks, and all tracks are not equal.

2. IQ Tests Used as a Sorting Tool

The concepts of IQ and of IQ tests were first developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon to help identify learning deficiencies in children. The IQ test soon came to be used in the United States as part of military entrance exams. After World War I, schools started using IQ tests to identify the appropriate track for students. After all, if an IQ test can sort who is and isn’t mentally fit for military service, why can’t it sort schoolchildren?

But as many psychologists, including Robert Sternberg and Adrian Owen, among others, have since argued, even if “general intelligence” is a real thing, IQ tests primarily appraise only a narrow set of bookish traits, like how well you can remember academic knowledge, detect abstract patterns, and understand written passages.

The problem of students being on separate and unequal tracks gets compounded when narrow IQ tests become the primary sorting tool. Now, whether a child gets into the academic track or is left to vocational training is primarily determined by abilities in the bookish things IQ tests assess.

3. Scientific Management Gives Manual Work a Bad Reputation

Why didn’t people recognize that manual trades demand cognitive effort just as “white collar” trades do?

The problem of students being on separate and unequal tracks gets compounded when narrow IQ tests become the primary sorting tool.

The early 20th century was the age of scientific management, a concept pioneered by industrialist Frederick Taylor. The idea was that for any type of manual labor, there is a scientifically discoverable right way to perform it; by using scientific principles, management can discover that one correct way and tell workers how to perform their jobs down to the smallest detail. No longer does the manual laborer have to think about what weight of shovel to use, how to go about digging the necessary hole, or how to lay the brick so that it will fit where it needs to. Professionals schooled in scientific management will show laborers how they can perform the job without thinking.

Scientific management was quite the craze for decades, and it made manual labor appear to be thoughtless, especially when compared to white-collar work. Thus, if IQ tests revealed a student to be a “dullard” (yup, that was a clinical term), they would be put into a vocational track that didn’t demand much cognitive effort.

4. A Cultural Feedback Loop

Given the comprehensive high school with its vocational track, the broad use of IQ tests, and the popularity of scientific management, we can see how a cultural feedback loop might be created that devalues any intelligence outside of traditional academic smarts.

If kids and parents receive a message from schools that the college prep track is for the bright kids and vocational tracks are for the other kids, it doesn’t take long before they internalize that message.

If scoring high on IQ tests gets you into the coveted academic track, and IQ tests measure academic abilities, parents and students are going to see being good at academic things as a kind of gold standard. The more careers become contingent on having a college degree, the more we receive the message that doing well in academics is more important than everything else. The more we receive and act on these messages, the more pervasive they become.

There’s no need to posit a conspiracy. All the players in these developments may have been well meaning and sincere. But we can still recognize the damage they did, and we can still try to undo some of it. We can start by expanding our notions of who is and isn’t intelligent — and getting beyond the association of intelligence with the kind of learning that schools now emphasize.

Further Reading