Monday, January 31, 2005

The Roots of Intelli-Rank

My friend L and I recently realized that at some point of time in our lives we employed a similar mechanism to categorize our friends. The system was based entirely on a ranking of 'natural' intelligence as we perceived it. It took into consideration almost nothing else - no points for loyalty, similarity of interests or any of the other usual suspects. It seemed to work pretty well for some time, laying out clearly the boundaries of interaction with everyone I knew; helping me decide who between Marcel and Daniel got to know whether I liked Danielle or Gabrielle, whether I took the bus home with Ganja or Paddy, who I shared my idlis and grilled sandwiches with et cetera.

Clearly the system is fatally, tragically flawed; exactly the kind of character flaw (I imagine) Woody Allen would take pleasure in exploring. However, before I hit the doldrums of a Manhattan-esque Allen figure, some environmental factor kicked in to alter my outlook. The process was almost entirely subconscious - I do not think I ever sensed the change in any way while it occured. But it did. Quite naturally.

After some debate, L and I concluded that the roots of the system lay in our own insecurity about our intelligence. I further theorize that the foundations of this inecurity were cast in stone by the historical emphasis of Indian society on acquisition of knowledge. This bias is hardly a secret - the hierarchy of the Indian caste system, with the Brahmins at the top of the pyramid, is well recorded (I recently read Gurhcaran Das' opinions of the impact of the same in his wonderful book "India Unbounded"). For all practical purposes, the caste system has broken down, in urban India, in all spheres of life. Everywhere that is, excepting our education system. One of the hidden untold effects of the reservation policies we follow is the psychological fallout it has on blooming scientists, budding artistes and the rest of our youth.

The deadly link of graduate education forecloses employment opportunity and this results, quite naturally, in constant pressure to focus on one's academic achievements. Almost everything else is thus inconsequential in the minds of the typical Indian middle-class parent. Thus, on a class excursion to Ooty in the ninth standard, as we boarded the train, I was taken aside by mother and warned of the potential dangers of mixing with Nikhil, the acclaimed class trouble-maker. The fact that Nikhil was also probably one of the most creative and naturally intelligent persons in my year (and loads of fun besides) never got through to Mom. Or more likely it did, and was thrown aside assumed inconsequent. Thus, cousins Akshay and Rahul, the one a smiling giant at the tender age of sixteen and the other a diminutive but tenacious dance enthusiast, are together thrown together into the same JEE coaching centre and have to come to terms with the way their twelfth-standard world judges them - purely on academic achievement.

Is it any wonder then that L and I, doubtless like so many other Indians, developed this inane rationale for judgement? The creative freedom of IIT, I think, helped transform that part of me. And I'm glad. But one wonders about the thousands who haven't had the benefit...


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Unratiosenatic said...

hmm.. there's one more reason why birds of the same feather flock together, when it comes to intelligence. birds of similar 'intelligence' tend not to ruffle each other's intellectual feathers. thattaway, you get to keep your opinions without them being challenged. for a lot of people, that's a big deal.

this wouldn't be guaranteed if you spent your time with someone who you considered either super-intelligent, or a dumb-schmuck.

At 3:49 PM, Blogger cue. said...

No question about the ease of spending more time with people of one's own intelligence.

I'm more concerned with this burning need L and I felt to constantly gauge the intelligence of everyone around us; much more than would be justified by a simple need to find people of approximately the same intellect.

At 10:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

[Prashanth]: I'm not sure people shy away from having their opinions challenged. It's these challenging relationships that we find interesting and dynamic. The need, however, is to find a good *match* - not a sycophantic yes-man.

And if we try and hang out with someone who can intellectually squash us to a pulp, in the hope of upping our own intellectual standards by means of association, the same principle will work in reverse and *they* will avoid *us* - a realization that's often hard to admit.

I agree with Cue in that we consciously or subconsciously evaluate people on our own scale of "intelligence", which methinks is more like a distance metric, measuring distance from our *perceptions* of our own intellectual standing.

I also agree that we should shed this ridiculous attitude and just *be nothing*. The problem to work around, though, is that you cannot *want* to be nothing - because as soon as we want to be nothing, we are something. We cannot afford to set goals in the endeavour to conquer the Ego, for that defeats the purpose.

I've rambled on enough. Good to hear from you again, AHP!


At 1:48 AM, Blogger cue. said...


Welcome. And, um... whatay!

Except for that last ramble about conquering one's ego; that's just a bit of irrelevant crap!

p.s. I see you've finally realized why I try to avoid you.

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