The Best and the Brightest

Sooner or later, the thought passes through the mind of every educated person in the United States:  Why can’t everyone else in America be as smart as me?  Isn’t there some way we could force people to be less stupid before releasing them into the wild?  Shouldn’t things such as the right to vote be subject to a baseline level of knowledge and intelligence?

As it turns out, while the rest of us were merely thinking such insufferable thoughts, others were actually writing them down.  One such person, Jason Richwine, turned them into a Harvard dissertation in 2009.

Richwine’s paper, “IQ and Immigration Policy,” examines the apparent discrepancy in average IQ between immigrants to the United States (particularly Mexicans) and the native population.  Richwine concludes that it would be in the national interest for the United States to grant legal immigrant status based on an individual’s intelligence, withholding it from applicants whose IQ scores are too low.

The text of the dissertation made the rounds in recent days, and you can imagine how delighted everyone was with it.

Some have attacked Richwine’s premise, insisting the concept of “IQ” is a meaningless social construct, while others have condemned his conclusions, equating them to eugenics and the like.  Many have excoriated Harvard for having approved the topic as a dissertation thesis in the first place, with some going so far as to demand it be retroactively withdrawn.

The reason this particular four-year-old college paper has struck such a nerve is because its particular scribbler is also the co-author of a new paper by the Heritage Foundation about why immigration reform, currently under consideration in Congress, is a bad idea.

While the think tank’s paper does not recommend an IQ-based approach to U.S. immigration policy, Richwine was nonetheless compelled to resign his post there, as the foundation insisted the conclusions in Richwine’s paper were not its own.  By this point, it hardly mattered:  The hornets’ nest had been duly shaken.

Research on the science of intelligence, and the notion of an objective measurement thereof, runs deep.  Those who have studied the subject tend to cast a skeptical eye toward the theory that, to the extent that concepts such as IQ or “g” (for “general intelligence”) mean anything at all, they can be made to have any practical application of the sort Richwine proposes.

For the moment, however—for the proverbial sake of argument—let us simply grant Richwine all of his premises and proceed onward.

The central question, it seems to me, is whether it would be morally permissible to follow Richwine’s lead and admit into the United States only those of superior intelligence.  Supposing, again, that everything Richwine asserts is true—that intelligence can be meaningfully measured and that allowing for too many low-IQ immigrants would (and does) have a detrimental impact on the country’s overall well-being—should we act on this information, or ignore it?

Universities certainly have no problem discriminating on the basis of the relative intelligence within their applicant pools.  Sure, admissions officers might define “intelligence” in their own, disparate ways and include other, less tangible factors in determining which students to accept and which to decline.  Nonetheless, a college aspirant considered to be generally intelligent tends to fare better in the application sweepstakes than one considered to be generally unintelligent.

America, like a university, is under no obligation to open its doors to every last individual who wants to get in.  There must be some set of standards; a line has to be drawn somewhere.  Why not base it on smarts?

We might also alert ourselves (in case we forgot) to the requirement that, in order to become a U.S. citizen, one must correctly answer at least six of ten randomly-selected questions regarding American civics.  While by no means equivalent to assessments of intellectual aptitude such as the SAT, the citizenship test nonetheless illustrates our insistence on not being completely ignorant as a prerequisite for assimilating into American society.

In short:  The attempt to engineer a brainy citizenry is not without precedent.

Against this line of thinking is a longstanding national value and tradition, phrased quite succinctly by Secretary of State John Kerry, “In America you have the right to be stupid.”

“American exceptionalism,” that most nebulous of phrases, frequently employed but seldom well-defined, has at different times come to signify our country’s desire to be the best, but also our insistence that this need not be accomplished by the brightest.  High intelligence might be an advantage on the road to success, but it is not a requirement.

A final consideration that might give us pause in our quest to purge our immigrant pool of the dopes, dolts and dimwits:  Imagine what horrors we might unleash were we to follow a path of consistency and apply this standard to ourselves.

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One thought on “The Best and the Brightest

  1. As I read, the back of my mind kept saying “oh you better be glad you were born a US Citizen”, My husband on the other hand(from Mexico) could probably answer more questions about US history, geography and science compared to anyone I know (all Made in USA) except my grandma might do better (also born in MX)….

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