Mensa's not just a five-letter stereotype
By Dave Schwartz  davybass@dabelly.com 
Photos Courtesy of Lynda Kay

What do smart people think?  That's a question that crosses our minds whenever we see those young children on TV being celebrated for starting college at age 12.  And it seems almost inescapable that, when asked, they often have lofty goals such as,  "After medical school I want to do cancer research" or "I've long had an interest in conclusively defining Pi." Statements like this have always left me scratching my head.  I don't think I'm that different from most when I tell you that at age 12 I had a singular interest--  her name was Miaja and those puppy dog eyes were captivating.

Now I had found myself preparing to attend the Mensa regional forum at the Ontario Convention Center in Ontario, California. Mensa is an international society that's only qualification for membership is a score in the top two percent of the general population on a standardized intelligence test. Although I consider myself fairly intelligent, I was still a little nervous about the story.

I'll admit that when I took this assignment I had some definite preconceived notions.  The few of my friends that were privy to my task were more than happy to "donate" a vast selection of anecdotes and jokes with roots in the Mensa stereotype.  One was even kind enough to share what he found on the men's room wall of his work place. Rather than the typical selection of lies and limericks about girls from Nantucket, he was astonished to find something truly unique written on the walls-differential equations!  I'm afraid that it's going to take a group of PhD's to diagnose the unknown author's dementia and I would love to read the reports someday!

The Stereotype

All right it's time to dispel some of the stereotypes.  First of all, if I were to liken Mensans to a Hollywood movie, I can safely say they are more like "Real Genius" than "Revenge of the Nerds."  They are curious, opinionated and there is even a palatable level of arrogance associated with many of them.  But their name tags don't say, "Kick me, I'm Carl!"  And, far more importantly, they are warm and friendly people that are much more average than you might expect.  But as with most stereotypes, there is an underlying basis in fact.  Arguably sometimes Mensans are socially awkward and there was a day when you could spot one with their funny white shirt and pocket protector as easily as the red-breasted robin.  While you can always find an example to prove these stereotypes, in general the past images of nerds in "birth control" glasses will no longer do.  Jeans and a T-shirt have long replaced white shirts and pocket protectors. Stealth nerds?  Perhaps, but social status is often more a result of hard work than gift.

Does Intellect Obligate Servitude?

It's a quick assumption to think that those with advanced intellect use their gift to better mankind.  And that was the original intent of the founders of Mensa. But before you start looking around for a nerd in a phone booth stretching on the red tights and a cape, remember, things don't always work as expected.  It turns out that the envisioned advancements proved evasive and it was a surprise to learn that the assistance being offered wasn't always welcome.  Through the years the charter of Mensa has evolved and what was once primarily a think tank, has now become more of a social club and a place where the gifted come to be in the company of their intellectual peers.

So what do Mensans do?  Well, to be honest anything they want.  As far as work, many are attorneys, psychiatrists and software engineers; some are postal workers and musicians. Mensans can be found in almost every walk of life, with a vast assortment of interests and hobbies.  Chances are you know someone that could be a Mensan.  Although there are nearly 50,000 members in America, statistically five million people are eligible.

History and Demographics

I learned that the word mensa has a triple meaning in Latin: mind, table; month, which suggests a monthly meeting of great minds around a table.

Mensa was founded in Great Britain in 1946 by two English barristers, Roland Berrill and Dr. Lancelot Ware. Internationally, 100,000 members represent more than 100 countries. Mensa International headquarters is in London.

American Mensa was founded in 1960 and the first meeting took place on Sept. 30, 1960 at the Brooklyn home of Peter and Ines Sturgeon with five other members attending.  By 1963, the organization had grown to 1,000 members.  As of March 2000, there were approximately 47,000 members of American Mensa.  Its headquarters is located in Arlington, Texas.

The youngest Mensan is three years old; the oldest is nearly 100 years old.  Approximately forty-five percent are Baby Boomers between the ages of  34 and 53.  More than forty-eight percent of new members in 1999 were Gen-Xers between the ages of 14 and 33.

General membership: Sixty-five percent male, thirty-five percent female. Leadership (national and local officers): Fifty percent male and fifty percent female.

Mensa has three purposes, which are outlined in its constitution:

1. To identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity.
2. To encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence.
3. To provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.

The Future of Mensa

Mensa's future is bright.  With new programs in place that reach out to the gifted youth, the organization is poised for newfound growth and, by embracing the young, they have insured a prosperous future.  What have you to gain?  Hopefully you'll gain a better understanding of reality. We live in a culture that celebrates a person's physical, not intellectual abilities.  Score a touchdown or hit a home run and you'll be in the newspapers the next day, but solve a long daunting mystery, and only your peers and few others celebrate your efforts.  When this discrepancy has been properly addressed, Mensans will be truly understood and their talents more completely utilized.

For the record, no, I didn't find differential equations on the men's room wall at the regional gathering.  Did you really think I would?

You can find out if you have what it takes to qualify on National Mensa Testing Day October 20.  For more information check out the America Mensa Web site at: www.us.mensa.org

A special thank you goes out to Lynda Kay and Don Beatty for their graciousness in putting this article together.

To learn more about them go to: www.lynda-kay.com

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