Monday, April 4, 2011

A Life Lesson: The Moral Quality Of Intelligence

I'm in the middle. That's my bro and sis.

            When I was a kid I knew that I was smarter than other kids.  My grades weren't good.  I was a bored student who squeaked by with C's and a few B's without exerting an  ounce of effort.
            I just knew.  I was different.  I had complex thoughts going on in my head.
I was interested in different things than other kids.
            I first realized this at about the age of seven.  I hated school but when I came home I read the entire set of World Book encyclopedias from A to Z.  By the time I was eleven my interest in music confirmed my suspicions that other kids weren't quite as deep as I was.
            I had joined the Capitol Record Club because that label had Miles Davis' Birth Of The Cool LP.  They had Stan Kenton's Orchestra.  After that, their jazz catalog grew a bit slim, so I fleshed out the required number of purchases with some Nancy Wilson and then quit.
            That poor kid, I now think, sitting in his basement room, the room built by his dad to keep him and his mom apart.  They were like flint and tinder.  Mom hated music, loathed it.  The eleven year old kid hunched close to his blue and white Zenith stereo automatic record player and absorbed The Birth Of The Cool note for note.  He memorized everything and tried playing along on his trumpet.  He was learning to master intricate bop melodies like Budo and Boplicity.  They were difficult, but he kept practicing until he could play in perfect unison with the recording.
            As I got into adolescence I thought it might be comforting to join Mensa.  I would find people like me.  Mensa administered their IQ test and I scored an impressive number.  I was accepted.  I quit after the first meeting.  It was so boring it was like watching steel expand in sunlight.
            I had a strange misunderstanding about the moral quality of intelligence.  I thought that intelligence also made people good.  It wasn't until I was sixteen that I lost that mistaken conviction.  I was in New York City chasing jazz musicians and trying to get into bands that were way WAY over my head.  In the process I managed to be around a few great and famous jazz musicians.  They had to be intelligent, they were geniuses. 
            Several of them were very wicked..  I saw one of them beat his girlfriend and that was a fundamental shock.  My whole worldview had to be re-arranged.
            Well.  If there are evil intelligent people we're in big trouble, aren't we?
            All of my subsequent experience has borne out this observation.  The world is loaded with people carrying around high powered minds, and using those minds to damage other people and wreak havoc upon the planet.
            I thought intelligence was a gift.  I overheard teachers talking to my parents, calling me a "gifted child".  This label was then followed with another phrase which seemed to be glued onto the first two words; "who's not living up to his potential."
            I was following my own path, that's all.  I treated my mind like a gift and I thought god had made me intelligent for a reason.  I also thought that imagination automatically came with intelligence, and I was wrong about that, too.
            Eventually I concluded that there were different kinds of intelligence and that my kind was one kind and there were other kinds that people had, like scientists and bridge builders and soldiers.  There were all kinds of intelligence.
            I will never get over my shock that being intelligent didn't automatically make a person virtuous.