Smart privilege

Screenshot anime

“When I grow up, I’m going to be an art club.” Not every aspiration is realistic. (From the anime fittingly named “This Art Club Has a Problem”.)

“Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold” said Mark Twain. Salman Khan seems to disagree: Anyone can become anything, it just takes longer time. Or that is one of the two main points of this TED talk: TED Talk – November 2015.

His first point should be uncontroversial: You don’t start building the first floor until the foundation is finished. If you have teams building at different speed, it makes no sense to tell them to move on to the next phase after the average amount of time has passed. Those who work fast would hang around with nothing to do, and those who work slowly would make a house that would likely fall down before it was even completed. So why are we doing this in school? It is a very good point indeed, and one that Khan himself has struggled to solve by giving students more tools to improve their skills, particularly in math and related disciplines, in a systematic and slightly game-like way. Khan Academy.

Now if people fail algebra because they did not understand basic arithmetic well enough, or fail calculus because they did understand algebra, it makes sense to conclude that there is nothing within the human realm that you cannot master if you just master all the steps leading up to this. Khan makes a comparison between literacy in the time before public school, and imagines asking the literate people of that age how much of the populace could learn to read given the opportunity. He assumes that the answer would be less than twice as many as those who could already read. (I am not sure this would actually happen, but I agree that most likely the answer would fall well short of 100%.) Now if you ask people today how many could become a cancer researcher, the answer will also be fairly modest. So Mr Khan leaps to the conclusion that, in a hypothetical future where robots do most other things, anyone could actually become a cancer researcher if that was what we needed.

This is what I call “smart privilege”. You know, like “white privilege”, “male privilege”, “straight privilege” etc. By all means feed the phrases into Google or one of its inferior competitors if they are unfamiliar to you. It can be quite eye-opening. But the same part of the political spectrum which most fervently embraces knowledge of all these privileges, is generally allergic to the notion of smart privilege.


Smart privilege: I have it. I was born with it, although it did not unfold during my childhood, except for my hyperlexia, basically the opposite of dyslexia. But otherwise my brain actually grew up more slowly than other kids my age, just like the rest of my body. As such I had plenty of years in which I was mostly mediocre, unlike my genius brothers. It was a learning experience of sorts, although I was too foolish to learn from it until later. At the time I stuck to my conviction that my early reading skill was a sign of being inherently superior. It is not quite like that, but luckily for me my brain (and the rest of my body) continued to mature for a couple years after my classmates had stopped. And so  from high school onward, I could reliably get top or near top grades simply by listening in class and doing mandatory written homework. I did not need to read, and when I had to read, I could grasp all I needed from a book by reading it straight through once.

Now there are others who are closer to average. They may need to read a book several times, underline, write in the margin, take notes, make mindmaps, reflect on what they read, repeat it later and ask others to explain parts of it. But if they do this, they will understand it just as well as I do, and perhaps it will stick better because of the effort they put into and the time they spent on it. For these, Khan’s statement is perfectly valid, and a good point.

But just like there are some of us who are outliers in one direction, there are others who are just as far on the other side. They can still learn, but it takes much longer time. They may need to work not five but ten times as long with the matter before they “get it”. Sure, in the end they get there. But here’s the thing: Until we discover a way to extend the human lifespan greatly, there just isn’t enough time for these people to come far.


Back when my friend “SuperWoman” studied medicine in Germany, there was one guy who just wouldn’t give up. He had no chance of getting into the medicine study in Norway, where the entry requirements are super high. (At the time you need pretty much perfect grades.) In Germany you could start with less, but he had still needed to retake many classes to qualify even for starting, so he was noticeably older than his classmates. Then he failed in university too, so he had to retake each year at least once. But he would not give up. He was firmly decided to become a doctor, whatever the cost.

This is an attitude that we generally praise in our society, and Hollywood assures us that people like this will eventually reach their goal. But was his goal a good one? As “SuperWoman” asked: What about the patients? Even if he eventually got his degree, this was actually only the beginning. The degree would not magically confer upon him the same cognitive capacity as his peers. He would still fail half the time, only now his failures would cost human lives and human suffering. You cannot retake those. You don’t always get second chances.

This guy was not stupid. He was just an ordinary man with an extraordinary aspiration. But there are others who are still less gifted. This does not make them bad people, but it makes them a bad fit for work that requires lots of learning and lots of thinking and the ability to quickly grasp the essence of new situations and solve new problems. There are limits to how much of our life we can dedicate to learning something. The most obvious is lifespan itself, but in practice unless we are born into riches, we will also have to reap the financial rewards of our education at some point. If you go to school for 40 years, there will not be a lot of time left for your career.

For those who are just a bit less privileged with regard to cognitive capacity, there are things we and they can do. Education can be improved. (The science of learning has improved by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, I have written about some of this over the years.) Free time can be spent catching up. We can and should encourage these to stretch that little inch further to reach their goal. But there are others who simply cannot reach their goals by stretching or jumping or climbing. Perhaps some day we will find other ways for them to catch up. Perhaps there will be safe drugs that improve the brain function, or other technologies. (Brainwave entrainment seems to work but only to a modest degree and not equally for all.) But for the time being, telling ordinary people they can be whatever they want to be is SMART PRIVILEGE. It is blaming the victim of circumstance.

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