Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Considering Mensa

Recently, one of my friends from high school dropped me an email. We hadn't conversed in close to a decade; the last I knew he was in a music PhD program at Notre Dame. Turns out he's now a music teacher in Michigan, not that far away. He told me he comes into Ohio regularly for Mensa games days, which he says are a lot of fun. I more-or-less trust his evaluation of fun when it comes to games, because we had a great time playing Pictionary and Taboo and stuff back in the day.

So, anyway, my friend says, "Why don't you join Mensa? The Columbus group is a lot of fun!"

Now I'm considering joining. My SAT or GRE scores will get me in. But I'm torn. I'm well aware that if you join Mensa, you generally can't mention it to nonmembers for fear of being seen as putting on airs. I've noticed quite a lot of Mensa-bashers here and there.

On the other hand, I love playing Scrabble, and none of my current local batch of friends likes playing that game, and sometimes playing online gets old. It might be nice to (gasp!) meet new people in town.

I do have nippy little personal qualms about the premise of Mensa, since membership is based solely on measures of IQ (and not, say, on whether you're a good sport or a pleasant person to be around -- both pretty important qualities when you're talking about a social club).

Most Mensa detractors jump all over the whole issue of the validity of IQ scores as being an accurate measure of intelligence. IQ tests don't measure the whole of the power of a person's mind. No paper test could, really. It can't measure your adaptibility, your common sense, your ability to work social situations and influence people. It can't really measure your creativity or artistic prowess. And some people just don't test well.

So a lot of the detractors state variations of the above, and cry "IQ scores are meaningless!"

The college admissions offices sure didn't think my SAT and GRE scores were meaningless. According to them, such standardized tests -- which are IQ tests in sheep's clothing -- are a good measure of how well you'll do in school. Should I be feeling oppressed now?

A person's ability to get into college plays an enormous role in the course his or her life is going to take. How many people find a future wife or husband in college? How many people have life-changing experiences in college? What if you don't get into the right college, or don't get in at all, because your test scores, big (SAT) or little (classroom grades) weren't deemed sufficient?

My life would be hugely different right now if I'd gotten an assistantship offer at NYU instead of Indiana University.

And it would have been even more different if I'd been accepted at Rice University for my undergraduate degree. I'd pinned all my hopes on getting into Rice, and as a consequence of not getting in, I stayed at the local university, where I had a good experience. But still -- what if?

But the most interesting thing about the standard IQ-tests-are-meaningless threads I've read is that the arguer almost always says something along the lines of, "If these high-IQ people are so smart, why aren't they all successes? Why aren't they all rich from the proceeds of their latest inventions and driving Lexuses etc.?"

I find this line of reasoning interesting, because in the process of decrying people buying into a one-dimensional measurement of intelligence, they are holding up a one-dimensional measure of success as a proof that IQ tests are bunk.

Material success is certainly the dominant paradigm in our society. Our Western culture encourages us to believe that a big house, an SUV in the garage, designer clothes, and a huge TV set in the living room are all signs of a successful person.

What if you don't believe in materialism? What if you think that a consumer culture is damaging to the planet? What if the amassment of money and objects is less important to you than spiritual development or the freedom to pursue your interests? What if your idea of success is to lead a happy life?

One IQ test detractor noted that many Mensa members hold very "lowly" jobs as janitors or bartenders. Many were even unemployed. He noted that relatively few were doctors and lawyers. His logic went that, once again, if all these people are so smart, why aren't they all movers and shakers?

Perhaps some of these folks don't want a high-stress, 60+ hour-a-week job with a ton of responsibility over other people?

Maybe some did dream of a high-powered career but were hindered by bad luck or poverty. They've found themselves toiling at a mindless job amongst coworkers and relatives who don't like to read or think, and the lost broom-pushers and whiskey-slingers want to find people who won't judge them as being weirdos for their intellectual interests, people with whom they can hold a conversation and, perhaps, make a connection.

And maybe a lot of these high-IQ people in "lowly" stations in life took a hard look at the dominant success paradigm, and found the nation's pursuit of God Money to be hollow and shallow. They rejected the go-getter career path ... but they haven't yet found anything to replace it.

Maybe they're still looking.

I know I am.