Friday, October 31, 2008

Rationality and Cunning

It's official: kids these days are dumber:

I particularly like the following quote from the article:

"Britain's unusually early start to formal education may make things
worse, as infants are diverted from useful activities such as making
sand-castles and playing with water into unhelpful ones, such as
holding a pen and forming letters."

The author completely serious. Numerous sources agree that the best
way to build good critical thinking thinking skills is to go out and
interact with reality. Excessive classroom education produces kids
who only know how to memorize and repeat things. Their education is
artificial, increasingly disconnected from reality. They are simply
performing random tasks for incomprehensible reasons.

This kind of thing ties into some thoughts I have been mulling over
regarding different types of intelligence. Specifically, think of the
difference between rationality and cunning.

Rationality what people usually mean when they say 'intelligence.' It
is the ability to proceed logically through a set of procedures,
carefully weighing alternatives. It is what IQ tests measure. It is
the kind of thing that gives you good grades in school and makes you a
useful corporate drone. There is some critical thinking involved, but
it is not really essential.

Cunning, on the other hand, is a very different type of intelligence.
It is kind of like a cross between wisdom and survival instinct. It
is the ability to identify and solve problems quickly, almost
subconsciously. It is the ability to gather information about reality
and convert that information into action. It is the ability to put
resources to their most effective use. Most importantly, it allows
its possessor to do things that, at a gut level, make sense.

This kind of intelligence that is either ignored or actively
discouraged. Cunning allows people to break rules, to question
stupidity, and to frustrate the system. However, for almost all of
human history, cunning was far more important to survival than
rationality. Cunning lets you prosper in a complicated and
unpredictable world. Rationality lets you prosper in a regimented,
stable society.

I'm sure any teacher who has been around for more than a few years
knows about this distinction, even if they would not use the words I
am using. They will have students who are very cunning but not at all
rational, or students who are very rational but have no cunning. The
former often drop out and then go on to lead successful lives, while
the latter often stay in school forever, becoming an integral part of
the ivory tower community.

Possibly as a result of this self-reinforcing loop, our educational
culture, and most of our society, seems devoted to nurturing
rationality above all else. Rationality is seen as the only measure
of intelligence. But this is clearly misguided. Cunning is a vital
skill, and it becomes even more important as the world becomes more

I think that the disconnect between rationality and cunning helps
explain a few notable cultural divides. One of the biggest is between
the academic world and the business world. Academia is based almost
entirely on rationality. Successful business executives must be
cunning. Rationality is less important; a cunning person can easily
hire rational people for tasks that require rationality.

But academics often do not respect cunning, or even know of its
existence, because they do not know how to measure it. By their
standards of intelligence, businessmen are stupid, because they
possess less rationality than academics do. So the academic concludes
that businessmen simply get lucky, or that they are cheating somehow.
They then feel perfectly justified in taking money away from
businessmen and giving it to rational people, in order to improve the

Of course, this rarely works. Cunning people are usually better than
rational people at managing money.

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