Never Let Me Go is a book about a bunch of unusual kids, who grow up without really understanding how unusual they are. They go to a special school, and the school is particularly intent on having the kids show creativity, and produce artwork. The reason the school wants artwork is… oh, I shouldn’t spoil it. The kids don’t really understand why. All they understand is that to have an artwork chosen by the school officials is an honor.
And therefore it is a basis for social hierarchy.
To the kids, art isn’t an outlet for creativity, it isn’t a matter of amusement, but a matter of achievement. There’s one kid who drew a silly picture one of an elephant one time, and as a result the kids perceive him as lagging behind. For years, he gets teased, pranked, and throws huge tantrums. He finds peace when a teacher takes him aside and tells him it’s okay to be less creative. The other kids are scandalized by the very idea.
I’ve been thinking about this story, and how it resembles our own situation. The truth is, we grew up into a system that we didn’t really understand, but where we understood that being smart was an achievement. We’ve had personal experience building social hierarchies around perceived intelligence, before even understanding what a social hierarchy is, or why intelligence is important. We’ve pinned the labels “smart” or “stupid” on other people, and had them pinned to ourselves, often on flimsy evidence, and these labels have governed the early years of our lives.