Amy, here. Through our conversations, Dana and I learned how important it is to both of us that others see us as “smart.” Amy feels like she can pull off the smart thing most of the time, especially when she’s wearing her new reading glasses. Dana, however, has always been concerned that people don’t see her as intelligent. (And yet, which of us has the PhD?!)
In this episode of the podcast, I argue that book smarts are way over-rated, and that everything evens out in the end if people just find a fit with their own abilities, whatever they may be. In the context of the conversation with Dana, who was sharing some of her own insecurities about her intelligence, I wanted to convince my frousin (friend+cousin) that even if I had higher numbers on paper to demonstrate a certain type of intelligence, the types of intelligence she has have brought her to an impressive therapy practice, a wonderful family, and an accomplished life. And at the end of the day, isn’t that type of achievement the only thing any intelligence is good for!
But shortly after we finished recording, I started thinking about it more and realized that, though well-intentioned, there was a lot of privilege hanging out in my viewpoint.
I’m a person who scored well on all those measuring tests, and perhaps because of that, as well as my geographic novelty at the time, I was admitted from my high school in suburban Portland, Oregon, to Barnard College of Columbia University in the City of New York. My parents were able to pay for my schooling without leaving me with loans to repay, and did I mention I’m white. So it’s easy for me to say book-smarts are overrated, but the fact is that the type of intelligence that can help a person succeed in school can be a ticket out of difficult circumstances of a sort I never had to contend with.
Two things helped open my eyes even further to this disparity. A recent article in The Atlantic discusses new research that shows there’s not a big difference in life outcomes between two evenly matched people who go to different tiered colleges—as long as those people are white, rich, and male. However, if you’re a person of color, female, or poor (or some combination), where you go to college can make a huge difference.
Also, like so many people, I recently read Michelle Obama’s book, BECOMING, which focuses on the impact that education had on her life from a very early age, when she was gifted with enough raw intelligence and inner-drive (along with a fierce mother as an advocate) to escape a dysfunctional classroom. That chaotic class might have left the kids who stayed with deficits it would be difficult to overcome.
To have access to escape-hatch opportunities during the early years of school (especially in neighborhoods, families, or schools with scant resources), raw, measurable, demonstrable intelligence, paired with effort and curiosity, seem like the only way out. (Unless you’re an athletic prodigy, which, as a born klutz, is so beyond my comprehension, that I won’t even attempt to say anything cogent on the topic.)
Anyway, I just wanted to write a privilege-checking note as an addendum to this episode. In a more perfect world, all people would get opportunities to foster their intelligence and growth, no matter its form—or theirs. AV