This essay originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of InterLoc and was reprinted in the January 2001 issue of The Oracle, the newsletter of Orange County Mensa.


Last month I received the August issue of InterLoc, read it, made a few notations, considered writing a letter... but not having the spare time just then, I set it aside and forgot about it. Not long afterwards, the September issue of the Mensa Bulletin arrived, containing several items that reinforced my earlier InterLoc thoughts.

Owen Williamson offered in InterLoc an interesting, insightful, and perhaps inciteful article titled "Hats Off To The 'M'ajority". I'm not really certain whether it was meant to be humorous in addition to being thoughtprovoking, but that's how I took it... and to take it otherwise would require that I also take offense, for he gave thanks to that foolish Mensan majority which pays its dues while receiving little in return, so that the minority can party heartily. He said that "it's an ironic reality that the majority [!] of 'inactive' [!] Mensans actually subsidize the minority", allowing "those of us who wish to take full advantage [!] of our membership to have significantly more material resources at our disposal".

Notice how 'inactive' and 'full advantage' are used in those statements. My theory is that the sort of people who hold office are the sort of people who just can't help seeing Mensa as a social organization. It's their nature and, quite frankly, it just wouldn't occur to them that most members don't share their belief.

This notion that an 'active member' is one who attends events, and that 'full advantage' requires such attendance, strikes me as being very odd. It is, however, the logical outcome of that sort of thinking. If Mensa is a social organization rather than an intellectual organization, then those who don't socialize are not active and not taking full advantage.

But should the emphasis for an organization be primarily social or primarily intellectual, when its sole membership requirement is intellectual?

When the sole membership requirement for an organization is intellectual, in which sort of environment should new members expect to find themselves?

What do Mensans want from Mensa?

Williamson pointed out that "LocSecs, membership offices, activity coordinators and editors are constantly banging heads on how best to attract more interest in more events", yet "try as we may, no matter what we do, it seems like three-quarters or more of the membership always stays away". But doesn't that tell us something? Sure, if you can come up with the right whiz-bang superduper event, you might be able to get a majority to attend... a doorprize of $1000 to every attendee would probably do the trick. But maybe it's telling us something else. If people aren't attending your parties, maybe it's not because your parties aren't good enough... maybe it's because they just don't want to attend parties!

So, perhaps Williamson inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he referred to the "honest worry that Mensa is not giving members their money's worth"... but still he failed to see that better parties are not the answer. After remarking that most of the members who drop out of Mensa never attended any of the events, he stated that "I'd like to have them back, and if we don't have whatever activities they were looking for, I'll be glad to help them plan better events".

I would probably be displeased if we were to do away with such events completely, for even though I don't currently participate, I do know that I might have done so when younger, had I been a member... or might yet someday in the far future, when family or work environments change. Someday, maybe. But not today. And the data seems to show that for most members at any given time, this is the case. So if we focus on the 'events', we're shortchanging most of the membership.

In passing, I'll mention Bob Beatty's InterLoc article, "Mensa Planning". Item #1 in his proposed mission for Mensa is to "Provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members". For some reason the emphasis has been strongly on the 'social' side for quite some time, and it seems to be getting worse. InterLoc regularly contains tips on how to attract people to events, how to throw successful parties, how to gain and retain members... but they are all based on the assumption that we need better parties. Few admit that parties might not be the answer after all, and rarer is still is a focus on giving the majority what it wants... or in discovering what that is.

As Letters to the Bulletin and posts in newsgroups and mailing lists so often point out, whatever the reasons that draw a new member to Mensa, the one thing that comes as a great shock is the surprising lack of a stimulating intellectual environment. Sure, the people are smarter, but other than that Mensa acts like any other social club. Most members do not benefit from Mensa's social gatherings, and their only links to Mensa are over the Net or through the mail. So perhaps it's time to shift some of our resources into those channels. Drop some of the parties. Expand the Bulletin, quadruple the space allocated for Letters, and drop the 150-word limit. Stop telling us about chocolate and cats and who showed up for the parties, and start telling us about PICS and Mensa Intellectual Capital Ventures and neutron stars and why German has two words for Saturday and why we call it Linux when it's mostly GNU and just what the hell is a plusquampluperfect verb anyway. Let the members vote on things, lots of things... we've got the brainpower, stop ignoring us.

Consider the recent Annual Gathering in Philadelphia. Great fun for 1400 people. But American Mensa has more than 46,000 members. That's something to think about.

And now the September 2000 issue of InterLoc has arrived. (Yes, sometimes I move slowly!) Cookie Bakke states that "Eighty-five percent of M's are inactive". Rather than trying to dream up new ways to make "active" members of "inactive" members, I think it's time for Mensa to reconsider its definition of "active".

Copyright William Walter Patterson, 2000.