Yesterday morning, while waiting to be taken in for a colonoscopy, I started the NY TIMES crossword puzzle. Regular readers know that I am somewhat obsessed with that puzzle. Never having myself ever created a crossword puzzle, I am in awe of the ability of the TIMES puzzlers to titrate the difficulty so precisely that from Monday to Saturday each puzzle is a bit harder than that of the day before. I had just begun when the nurse came for me, so I continued working on the puzzle at a self-indulgent breakfast of French toast and bacon afterwards at the Carolina Cafe. It was indeed a difficult one which I only finished some time later. [I almost finished this morning's puzzle. It was harder still.]
I don't mind mysterious clues, but I really hate it when the puzzlers include references to pop cultural figures of whom I have never heard. That is not a test of intelligence, just of a misspent youth. Some while back there was a clue referring to Hall of the musical duo Hall and Oates. I only knew that "Hall and Oates" is [or was?] a singing group, and not a kind of granola, because of a memorable encounter with my son Patrick. It was in the early eighties, when Patrick, then a teenager, was deep in the study of chess that took him to world fame as an International Grandmaster. I ran into him in the kitchen one day and we got into a conversation. Patrick made reference to Hall and Oates, whom he favored, and I rolled my eyes. I have since childhood been devoted to early music, by which I mean not Sinatra and Crosby but Bach, Monteverdi, and Gregorian Plainsong, and I was rather snobbish about it. Patrick turned on me and said, deadly seriously, "Dad, you have to respect a person's music." He was right, of course. I was properly chastened and never cast aspersions on my sons' musical tastes again.
As I walked this morning, all of this ran through my mind, and I found myself thinking about the ways in which cultural biases get built into ostensibly objective measures of intelligence and general knowledge like the Scholastic Aptitude Test, just as they are built into crossword puzzles. Several decades ago, critics started pointing out the edge that those tests gave to upper middle-class White students over Black working class students. Someone made up a sample SAT segment designed to give the Black students a corresponding edge. My favorite was this question: Who is buried in Grant's Tomb? Typical White upper middle-class answer: General Ulysses S. Grant. Correct answer: Yo' Mama.
Black inner-city students were regularly mocked for their inability to locate Ukraine or Zimbabwe on a map [this was before Sarah Palin ran for the Vice-Presidency and made ignorance of geography socially and politically acceptable.] I recall thinking that to hear people like Charles Murray tell it, Black students were constitutionally incapable of finding their way around in the world. I wondered how Murray explained the fact that Black children managed to get through the day without becoming hopelessly lost in the tangle of streets and alleys in a ghetto.
And that got me reflecting on the extent to which so much of the knowledge we take as evidence of general intelligence is a specialized cultural possession having little or nothing to do with our ability to flourish in the world. I often wonder about the Evangelical Christians who believe, and home school their children to believe, that the story of Noah's Ark is literally true, that dinosaurs walked the earth in Old Testament times, that the sun really did stand still in the heavens for Joshua, and that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a big fish [not whale, by the way -- that is a mistranslation.] How do these people get through the day in a technologically sophisticated world? Do they have any notion that the antibiotics they use for infections presuppose the truth of Evolution? That radiation therapy presupposes a world at least millions of years old?
The answer, of course, is that these simple truths of science have nothing at all to do with successful functioning in the modern world, unless you happen to be a doctor or an animal physiologist. After all, not one in ten thousand of the well over one billion people who use FaceBook have a clue how a computer really works, anymore than the generality of people of my generation understood how a telephone or an internal combustion engine really works. If you are convinced that a Television set is actually a little home theater in which tiny people put on plays on demand, it does not in any way interfere with your enjoyment of NCIS.
At about this point in my mental ramblings I returned home, and set them aside. Oh, by the way, the colonoscopy revealed absolutely nothing wrong with me, and since I am already eighty-one, it is the last one the doctors think it prudent to order [I may, at ninety-one, insist on another one just to establish that I am not yet ready to kick the bucket.] The printed report I was handed as I left the Endoscopy Center contained five Technicolor photos of the inside of my colon. And no, I am not going to post them on this blog.