McClellan: Smart people can be anywhere | Bill McClellan

Several years ago, I got a call from a friend who worked in the Missouri Department of Corrections. He told me that a young female inmate — a female offender, in DOC jargon — had just earned an extremely high score on her GED test. At the time, inmates without […]

Several years ago, I got a call from a friend who worked in the Missouri Department of Corrections. He told me that a young female inmate — a female offender, in DOC jargon — had just earned an extremely high score on her GED test. At the time, inmates without a high school diploma were required to take a GED course.

The woman’s score was higher than that of Christopher Santillan, my friend said, and Santillan’s score had been very high.

Santillan, a former student at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, had been accepted to Stanford before being arrested and then convicted of murdering his friend, Vinay Singh. So Santillan’s high score was not surprising.

The young woman who had beaten his score came from rural Missouri. She had gone to prison on drug and forgery convictions. Forgery is a common charge for young women. Their boyfriends commit burglaries, and if the haul includes checkbooks, the girlfriends, who can more easily make themselves presentable, are given the task of trying to cash the checks.

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I filed the appropriate request to interview the young woman. I received an email from the prison. “The offender has declined the interview.”

I thought about her recently when I wrote about Guido Weiss, a Washington University mathematician who died on Christmas. He spoke six languages fluently. He had been studying chemistry and physics at the University of Chicago until he became ill, and while he was hospitalized, he read — for pleasure — a calculus book and became enamored of mathematics.

He was clearly a 1-percenter.

Usually, when we talk about the 1 percent, we are referring to wealth. But what about intelligence? Extremely smart people are harder to identify than their wealthy counterparts — Forbes magazine does not publish a list of the country’s smartest people — but they are more important to our future. We need them if we are going to successfully compete with other countries.

They could be anywhere. The Wright brothers had a bicycle business in Dayton, Ohio. Just think about that. Wilbur had finished high school. Orville had not. You could have gone into their shop in 1903 and chatted with them. That does not mean you would have recognized them as brilliant. Intelligence does not always show itself.

My father-in-law, Douglas Donahue, was a nuclear physicist. His laboratory in Tucson was one of three labs in the world given the privilege of carbon-dating the Shroud of Turin. The other labs were in Zurich and Oxford, England. The lab in Oxford was run by Sir Teddy Hall, a renowned scientist who had exposed the “Piltdown Man” fossil as a fraud and not the “Missing Link.” Hall was a distinguished man, even in a crowd of distinguished men.

In preparation for the dating of the shroud, my father-in-law visited the lab in Oxford. He and Sir Teddy hit it off. They went for a drive in the countryside in Sir Teddy’s new car. Suddenly, the car lost power and stopped. “It’s brand new!” Sir Teddy complained. My father-in-law looked at the dashboard and saw the fuel gauge was on empty. “We might be out of gas,” he suggested. “No, no,” said Sir Teddy, and he pointed to the temperature gauge. “We’re half full.”

So you can’t always tell.

Some people think that Ivy League schools can tell. These people worry that the Ivy League schools have gone from catering to the wealthy to catering to the super intelligent. That is supposed to be bad because it stratifies society. If the super-smart kids all go to Ivy League schools, they are likely to marry each other, and then their kids will be super-super-smart, and before you know it, we will have an intellectual caste system. It would be better for society if the Ivy League went back to catering to the wealthy.

At least that is an argument put forth by conservative writer Charles Murray, author of “Coming Apart: The State of White America” and co-author of “The Bell Curve.” Murray spoke at Lindenwood University in 2018. Because some of his ideas are controversial, the school decided to have a moderator pose questions rather than take questions from the audience. I was the moderator. I didn’t agree with most of Murray’s ideas, but I will say this for him — he had only one requirement when it came to selecting a place for dinner. It had to have a full bar.

By the way, Murray went to Harvard and MIT.

There does seem be some sense to his argument. Money is transitory. Inherited fortunes tend to dissipate. What is it they say about businesses lasting three generations? Smarts, on the other hand, can be long-lasting, and therefore more injurious to a society that values economic mobility.

And to be sure, at the very top of the intellectual heap, the elites tend to marry each other. Bill and Hillary Clinton met at Yale Law School. Josh Hawley met his wife Erin at Yale Law School. Smart, driven, ambitious people get together at elite institutions.

And talk about a caste system. Eight of nine Supreme Court Justices went to Yale or Harvard law schools.

So should we worry about the super-smart kids getting together at Ivy League schools and raising a bunch of brainiacs?

I am a liberal, and I am not so worried about the tyranny of the intelligent. The elites don’t scare me.

Plus, I see little evidence that intelligence passes on so readily from generation to generation. A little bit, sure, but if intelligence were such a genetic thing, wouldn’t the smartest people in the world be named Michelangelo or Euclides or Shakespeare?

Speaking of Shakespeare, how did he happen? His dad was a glove-maker. His descendants are unknown.

That’s the thing about these 1-percenters. They can bubble up anywhere at any time.

By the way, I doubt there is much overlap between the smartest people and the richest people. That is just a guess. I have little first-hand experience with either. The newspaper business does not attract the wealthiest nor the smartest. Pretty darned smart, we like to think, but not elite. There are, of course, exceptions. For years, I sat next to Eliot Porter, who was clearly a 1-percenter. When the newspaper banned smoking in the newsroom, I would have to go to the “smoking lounge” to chat with Eliot. (He was a pipe-smoker.) One time I walked into the closet-like smoking room and Eliot had a chart on the table. He would look out the window and then write something down on his chart. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Plotting true north,” he said.

But think of the ones we don’t discover. Think of all that wasted potential.

Like the woman who did so well on the GED test. I like to think she made a thoughtful choice in declining an interview. Maybe she wanted to do her time — it was not a long sentence, as I recall — and then get a new start. I like to think she’s married now, living quietly and happily. Perhaps she has a couple of kids. Maybe they’re 1-percenters.

Christin Hakim

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