Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

What is 'being smart'?

Somebody I care very much about recently claimed not to think of herself as being particularly smart. I vehemently disagreed, and this is what I told her:

Here's my personal opinion on "smart." There are at least three parts to it. One is "intelligence" which is a capacity that we inherit from our ancestors and are individually born with. One is "education" which is a function of luck, money, opportunity, and willingness to work. And one part is "wisdom" which comes from observation, experience, and internalizing ("drawing lessons," "taking things to heart," etc.; this part increases with age, usually but not necessarily).

Someone once asked me (curiously, not accusingly) if I considered myself smarter than the rest of the family because I had a college diploma! Good Lord, NO! I had more opportunities for education, and the drive to seek out education over other things. I consider all of us in our family of equal intelligence, don't you? I think it's the DNA stuff we were born with. Unless forceps at birth cause brain damage or something, we've all come out with the bright-eyed base alert intelligence bred into us by the canny ancestors who were smart enough to flee the Old Country and start over as Americans (self-selection of the fittest there!). In intelligence I don't believe I could exceed anyone else in my family including the immigrant that landed here and swung a hammer or raised 10 kids or plowed fields for years--they were all pretty shrewd people who knew which way the wind blew and made the most of it.

As far as education, all I can claim is having had preparation for, and access to, a university, and the interest to take advantage of that. Who knows which teachers we all had that over time and in random moments from K-12 encouraged or discouraged those channels of interest and drive among us? Each of us in my family had a very different path, growing up, although we came from the same parents and grew up in the same household. The parents were different, older or younger people, for each of us, too, with different interests, energies, and goals at different times. And politics and people and opportunity outside the household plays the biggest part in education, I think. In other words, that is almost overwhelmingly chance, not innate. And education almost never ensures true smarts. Think of all the smart, but uneducated people there have been (like our ancestors, and many of the world's greatest inventors and entrepreneurs), versus all the so-called over-educated, wrongheaded dolts. Yet, I don't disparage education per se: it can be the greatest, fastest way to open and expand a mind in positive directions for the benefit of the individual and the world. That's why I so respected my father for being a self-educated man all of his life, since he could not become the educated man he wanted to be in his youth. His attitude (and Mom's, top student in the one-room schoolhouse, and 8th grade valedictorian!) affected me greatly in wanting to take advantage of my chances at getting the best education I could. From them I learned that education is the one best investment you can make in yourself and your future that can never be taken away from you.

That realization was perhaps WISDOM that was passed on. Wisdom is like education, but it's harder to recognize and it's usually not formally learned. Life lessons, the school of hard knocks, these are more usual ways to describe how one grows wise. I also believe by reading proverbs, history, great literature, autobiographies, or listening to stories of others one can also internalize wisdom without having to experience the depths others had to. At least sometimes. The youth are notorious for ignoring the wisdom of their elders passed on too freely so that it seems of little worth. Then later they rue the day and learn their lesson in tears, as many lessons have to be learned. It is unfortunate, but that is humanity for you.

Well, that is my little homily for today. Anyway, please don't ever call yourself or think of yourself as unintelligent, unwise, or unsmart. You are none of those things! And anyone who is uneducated but who wants to remedy that situation can do so in today's USA, praise God. And they don't have to go to college or spend a fortune to do it. One only needs perseverance, patience, interest, diligent habits, good guidance, and some luck.