Why Do We Think The Working Class is Less Intelligent?

My grandfather had an eighth-grade education. The story was that he dropped out to help his parents run the farm, but judging by the number of creative ways he skipped school, I can’t imagine the decision was difficult for him. Truth is he didn’t want to be there.

Even so, my grandfather was an expert carpenter. He made beautiful and solid furniture that lasted. He could step off the square footage of a foundation and put up everything from a house’s frame to the final shingle and everything in between.

When my grandfather went to the hardware store, he would know exactly how much material each job would take and calculate the budget more accurately than most professional contractors I’ve seen in my adult life.

My grandfather had an eighth-grade education. But he was one of the most skilled and intelligent men I’ve known.

Much as I might think myself and my family extraordinary, Bill Knight was far from an isolated case of working-class ingenuity. Skilled laborers throughout the country, despite a lack of resources, continually find innovative ways to provide for themselves and their families. Because they have to.

“My grandfather had an eighth-grade education. But he was one of the most skilled and intelligent men I’ve known.”

An upper-middle class family in suburbia may not notice a mismarked grocery item in the checkout line and just pay the extra $5. But a working-class mom would. She’s budgeted nearly every dime of her paycheck to cover the bills these two weeks, and knows exactly what that item was supposed to cost. My grandfather wasn’t just a good estimator at the hardware store; he was not going to waste material or money that he didn’t have.

His senior year of high school, my dad took one English class, two lunches, and five P.E. classes. He needed the English credit to graduate, and the rest was essentially filler. My dad may not have cared much for formal schooling, but he can fix nearly anything with an engine. He also has a head for math. Most of my childhood Sundays were spent outside doing something active while he also gave me word problems and eventually algebraic equations to solve.

Much like my grandfather had the mind of a contractor, my dad possesses the nature and skill of an engineer. He didn’t want to sit in a classroom. He didn’t want to learn remotely from books. He craved experiential learning and real-life objects to fix. My dad operates a forklift at a plant, and through those efforts creates tangible wares each day.

Americans tend to believe in the ideal of social mobility and, maybe a bit less resolutely, in the notion we all have the potential for greatness. Yet, we often see the working-class as average. They’re lumped together as uneducated workers without drive or creativity. That stereotype is particularly ironic because they are literally the people creating. Steelworkers, construction crews, and the like spend their days creating materials and structures or developing products for consumers of all social standings.

“Americans tend to believe in the ideal of social mobility and, maybe a bit less resolutely, in the notion we all have the potential for greatness. Yet, we often see the working-class as average. They’re lumped together as uneducated workers without drive or creativity.”

Despite society benefiting from working-class labor, there are still those who undervalue working-class intelligence. A professor at the University College of London once wrote that “UK medical students tend to come from higher socio-economic classes,” which seems reasonable, but then added “perhaps not surprisingly…social class correlates with intellectual ability.” The Telegraph also reported another academic claimed “working-class teenagers have lower IQs than wealthy ones” just a few weeks before the medical students article.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve is one of the best-known examinations of intelligence as it relates to social class. They argue that IQ tests are reasonably accurate in measuring intelligence and that genetics combined with environmental factors determine intelligence in individuals. Murray and Herrnstein also conclude that because the intellectual elite tend to pursue higher education, marry each other, and postpone having children, Americans are becoming less intelligent over time. Those elites who do reproduce and raise children with high IQs are contributing to an increasing intelligence gap over time in which people with lower IQs suffer a deteriorating quality of life.

Let’s clarify something real quick. While social class might, understandably, correlate with formal education level reached, it certainly does not affect individual intelligence. What The Bell Curve fails to consider is how incomplete IQ tests’ measurements are. IQ has its merits, but as Howard Gardner claims, multiple types of intelligences exist, from those traditionally assessed (verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical) to those less frequently heralded (bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial). People with superior written, oral, or mathematical skill score well on IQ tests and are typically viewed as intelligent. However, the gifted musician, the mechanic or the carpenter like my grandfather who might not know how to take these kinds of tests are at a severe disadvantage. They may score lower on traditional IQ tests, but they are not actually less intelligent. Those lower on the socio-economic ladder utilize their unique intelligence to hone survival skills. By learning a trade, workers can not only provide for their families, but also rely less on others. That independence keeps money in their pocket for bigger emergencies later.

“Those elites who do reproduce and raise children with high IQs are contributing to an increasing intelligence gap over time in which people with lower IQs suffer a deteriorating quality of life.”

The Atlantic recently published an article on rural youth’s low college entrances citing cultural barriers before finances as the reasons high school graduates are immediately joining the workforce. One factor this article misses is how a lack of resources for these predominantly working-class students compounds over time. A student at or near the poverty line can’t afford a tutor for SAT prep, so she studies as much as she can herself and scores maybe not as high as she could have with professional help. College application fees often fall into the $50-100 range per school, yet students are encouraged to apply to a dream school, some safety schools, and one or two in between to secure acceptance. Working class students with hope for college might apply to one or two and cross their fingers. They don’t want the education any less than their middle and upper-class counterparts; they lack the disposable income to ensure its access.

Whether someone in the working class strives for higher education or would rather perfect a trade, he addresses obstacles with a unique perspective. He requires a certain level of ingenuity to reach those goals and employs his intelligence in nontraditional ways. Discovery Channel actor and narrator Mike Rowe has advocated for years that “the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning.” There is not one right way to learn.

“IQ has its merits, but as Howard Gardner claims, multiple types of intelligences exist, from those traditionally assessed (verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical) to those less frequently heralded (bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial).”

While education is vital to a successful culture, that education can take multiple forms. For me, it was formal schooling through a master’s degree. For my grandfather in the Depression, it was formal schooling through 8th grade followed by work and life experiences. I don’t recommend that path in the 21st century, but I understand the desire to learn practical skills, to be self-sufficient, to build structures strong enough to withstand time. Not only are these skills practical, they’re also in increasing demand. California, in a decent case study for the rest of the country, has launched a $200 million campaign to more heavily promote vocational education because those industries need more workers. Tradespeople are also more likely to gain employment in their chosen field than their counterparts with college degrees. Yet the stigma remains.

Howard Gardner surmised optimistically “While we may continue to use the words smart and stupid, and while IQ tests may persist for certain purposes, the monopoly of those who believe in a single general intelligence has come to an end.” Genius materializes in humans across the social strata, not just in those with letters after their name. Recognizing that genius when it looks different than what we’re used to is our first important step to valuing one another more accurately.

(Image source: Pete Wright/Unsplash)

Leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s