Awash In Smart People

The world is awash in smart people. Wise people, not so much. (quoting Jason Zweig)

I don’t know if you’re going to be smart, Vera, although the odds are high given whom your parents are. And, of course, the early indications are positive given your choice of sports apparel (see photo). img_2593

No matter your cognitive ability, it will be important to remember that being smart and being wise are not the same thing. In my opinion, the latter is far more important than the former.

That’s not to denigrate smart. I’ve been fortunate in my professional career to work alongside some really smart people (brilliant, in fact). I have to be honest: as a general rule, it’s more fun than working alongside people who aren’t smart. But it’s not enough.

It’s not enough because smart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Smart people can make some really stupid decisions. And smart people can be really stupid about certain things. I’m not sure anyone is smart about everything. Indeed, smart and foolish seem to be capable of coexisting within the same body.

Moreover, smart people seem to be more susceptible to arrogance and hubris and the mistakes in judgment that flow therefrom. When I feel smart and look at other people as being other than smart (for instance, in explaining some people’s affinity for certain political candidates), I’m usually being the dumb or lazy one, failing to make the effort to learn and understand the reasons underlying claims that seem, at first glance, to be grounded either in malice, willful ignorance or extreme naiveté. Sometimes I’m smart enough to recognize my own ignorance; sometimes I’m not. (And, of course, sometimes malice, willful ignorance or extreme naiveté is the more plausible explanation for absurd claims.)

I think of smart as being the ability to figure things out quickly, to see things others don’t see, to handle complexity, to think below the surface (what some people call “second-level” thinking) and to develop solutions that might be beyond the grasp of others.

Wisdom, on the other hand, concerns judgment and values. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you have good judgment. And just because you’re not as smart as someone else doesn’t mean your judgment is inferior.

Of course, no one’s judgment is perfect. No one bats 1.000. But shouldn’t we try?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to realize that everyone is smart. They may not be smart in the way you are. Their smartness may manifest itself in ways you can’t see or understand. But the odds are, they’re really good at something or, at least, have the potential to be really good at something. Sadly, sometimes parents and the system have failed to identify and nourish that potential. Consequently, sometimes it’s been extinguished.

One of my principal beefs with our formal education system is what I view as its myopic perception of smarts. Schools expect smart people to be just like the teachers — people who liked formal education (vs. learning) and excelled at taking exams (at least in the old days when there was a higher correlation between academic achievement and a K-12 teaching career). But it’s still a safe assumption that college professors are smart.

Formal education is geared toward dispensing to students what those in power know or were told their students should know, regardless of the students’ interests or needs (the student’s or the world’s). I think this proves my point: smart people making stupid decisions. There is a lot of stupid in our schools, colleges and universities.

If I had the opportunity to design a school, we’d try a different approach. We’d try to help students discover their smarts and pursue that which interests them and which they have the potential of doing well. There would be a lot more diversity of thought and methods in our school. Compliance and conformity would not be bedrock principles. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I left higher ed administration after only two years. I simply couldn’t stand the thought of conforming to what I came to see as a seriously deficient system.)

In any case, it’s easy to fall for the implied messages of most of our schools. Those messages most likely will be directed at you, too, Vera.

Smart (per the school’s traditional understanding of the concept)=good.

It’s a simple equation. And a deeply flawed one, too.

Yet I concede that the term “smart” customarily relates to cognitive ability that is manifested in the context of formal educational systems or research. So that’s how I shall use it here.

So defined, it’s obvious that smart isn’t necessarily a good thing. Some really smart people have done a lot of damage to our planet. And to other people. Indeed, many of the people who’ve done the most damage are graduates of the world’s most elite colleges and universities — places that admit only really smart people. Some of these smart alumni have gone to prison. Most haven’t. Really smart people make sure the system is stacked in their favor.

But some really smart people have done amazing things. Some have discovered life-saving cures. Some have invented products to make everyone’s lives easier. Some have written inspiring poems or stories that speak to our souls. Some have made incredible art. Some have fed the hungry and clothed the poor. Some have brought peace. Some have been amazing parents. Some have brought people like you into the world.

You really can’t know what contribution to the world anyone is going to make (or not) if all you know is whether they’re smart. But if you know whether they’re wise, then you’ll know something truly important about them.

Wisdom yields better decisions. Wisdom is less selfish than smart and more giving. Wisdom doesn’t destroy the planet or harm people. Wisdom isn’t solitary; it thrives in true community. Wisdom enables people to see things others cannot see. Wisdom is always learning. Wisdom is not hostage to the brain. And perhaps most important of all: wisdom has an eye for truth.

I teach college students (part time). Sometimes my main goal is explicit; other times, implicit. In all cases, it is this: to help my students become wise.

It would be easier if I just wanted them to learn certain facts. Or only to improve their cognitive abilities (become smarter). Or to excel at taking exams. But I don’t think teachers and mentors should stop there (or even go there in certain cases). They shouldn’t stop there because it ignores a more important attribute: wisdom.

My task is to foster my students’ curiosity, help them discover their unique interests and abilities, and help them acquire the understanding and vision they need to spot the truth and make better decisions — that is, to become wiser people. It’s the sole reason I teach.

The world is awash in smart people. Wise people, not so much.

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