The definition of the word “smart” as an adjective according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is as follows:

1. Very good at learning or thinking about things.

2. Showing intelligence or good judgment.

In addition, the definition of the term “intelligent” as an adjective according to the same
source is…

1. Having or showing the ability to easily learn or understand things or to deal with new or
difficult situations: having or showing a lot of intelligence.

2. Able to learn and understand things.

3. Having an ability to deal with problems or situations that resembles or suggests the ability of
an intelligent person.

Notice that nowhere in these definitions does it mention anything about knowing the Quadratic formula by heart. In fact, there aren’t any prerequisites listed to be considered “smart” or “intelligent.” What is this madness? No college degrees, no minimum income requirements, no job titles, no IQ (or intelligence quotients) scores of 120…and yet all of these things are unquestionably considered some sort of byproduct of being smart. Is it possible that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary knows something that today’s Western society does not?

It is safe to say that everyone wants to be smart. The definition of the term varies based on whom is asked and the response that one receives can vary from “the ability to list off everything in a Thesaurus” to “being able to con a conman,” just to name a couple, but undoubtedly we all strive to this goal. The educational system, however, would likely define “smart” as high SAT scores, a good grade point average and exposure to great literary and worldly works such as that of Jorge Luis Borges or Shakespeare…and yet linguistically speaking, none of these things has anything to do with the terms smart, intelligent or other synonyms. So why does the definition of a seemingly simple word vary so much? Perhaps more interestingly, why do so many exclude certain definitions of the word “smart” and even label them as preposterous, foolhardy or anti-intellectual without any real regard to the actual definition?

Often the best way to get a clearer view on any given subject is to take a step back and examine the situation with the critical, fact-oriented eye. There are plenty of examples of successful individuals with high IQs, so it is no wonder that so many assume that there must be some sort of correlation between a high IQ and being successful. (And for the purpose of this essay, let me clarify that “success” will be defined much the same as it is in today’s culture – namely by the presence of one or more college degrees and, ideally, a well paying job.) But is such necessarily always the case, or is it just that cultural connotation was given an inch and took a century? As Mike Rose states in his own essay, “Blue-Collar Brilliance,” “These assumptions run through our cultural history, from post-Revolutionary War period, when mechanics were characterized by political rivals as illiterate and therefore incapable of participating in government, until today.” (247)

So it’s understandable how something so interwoven with cultural history has stuck around, especially because there will always be people who underline and seemingly prove that such an assumed correlation between intelligence and success must be true. After all, most people know or have known at least one person that was, in their own perspective, as “dumb as a doornail” and who clearly would not amount to much in life. But as J.E. Ormond explains in no uncertain terms in their book Educational Psychology Developing Learners, “The relationship between IQ scores and achievement is an imperfect one, with many exceptions to the rule.” (155-156) It’s just like sizes and cuts in clothing – there could be three people of exactly the same height and weight and yet fit different styles and brands drastically differently. Why would IQs be any different? More importantly, why do so many still assume that being smart looks the same regardless of to whom the definition is being applied?

Gerald Graff astutely and beautifully wraps up the cultural assumption in his essay “Hidden Intellectualism” when he states, “ [W]e assume that it’s possible to wax intellectual about Plato, Shakespeare, the French Revolution, and nuclear fission, but not about cars, dating, fashion, sports, TV, or video games.” (380-381) This writer at the very least can’t help but sit back and revel in the wisdom of such a statement. Having spent so many evenings and parties embodying every stereotype of a “wallflower,” I personally have heard people speak of every known subject with such a sense of keen observation that the speaker could convince almost anyone of the importance of, say, gold eye shadow or the best way to meet prospective dates. In fact, chances are that everyone has been influenced in such a way at least once and that plenty of these persuasive, observing individuals is/was no where near meeting the qualifications of being considered “smart” by popular cultural definition.

As a species, human beings are genetically programmed to make fast assumptions about others regardless of how individuals may feel about such a fact. It is something that is done as a matter of self preservation because genetically speaking there will always be that part of the brain that registers the world as primal and scary. So it should come as no surprise that we make snap decisions based on our conditioning, especially on something as vital as intelligence which, as recent scientific studies suggest, is influenced by an individual’s background. The problem has never resided there, but rather in the fact that we strive to better understand and estimate an individual’s IQ based on flawed tests. As Doctor C. George Boeree states in his enlightening work “Intelligence and IQ,” “[T]he bigger problem with testing, however, is what we do with the results:  People are far too prone to take test scores at face value, without looking at a broader selection of information about a person’s abilities.” Because as nature would dictate it, human beings are far too complex to have any facet fully understood with just one test – especially when that one test has only been around and refined for approximately the last century or so.

Arguably one of the largest factors to the subject of “smarts” and IQs, however, is that it doesn’t last. Much like that piece of fruit that is bought with the intention of being consumed only to sit on the counter until it stinks to high heaven, IQs have a shelf life. On average, any given IQ test result is only valid for about a year or two after but as more time passes, a person’s IQ changes more and more.

Another thing most tend to ignore, or simply do not know, is that IQ tests tend to give more points with regard to the kinds of connections the tester find rather than the ability to find the connections at all. As Dr. Boeree comments in regard to IQ test answers, “[N]ot only can different answers reflect different social or cultural backgrounds; they may also reflect originality and novel outlook.” Yet only certain answers get a given amount of points, regardless of how correct or incorrect they are. Never mind the fact that the hypothetical child was able to make a startlingly creative connection that few, if any, of their fellow test takers even thought of, they didn’t provide the one deemed correct according to the rules of the test and the trickle effect from there can be downright depressing.

Let’s say that the hypothetical child with a mind for keenly creative connections discussed took an IQ test and received a 70, which would technically label him as borderline mentally retarded. Regardless of the fact that this child is so creative and could very easily alter our very way of thinking, were he only encouraged academically, he likely won’t be and challenging him mentally would seem to many as pointless. As far as society would be concerned, he would never amount to much and would likely never be “smart.” So instead of being given a chance to learn along with his peers and challenged intellectually, he is discouraged and dissuaded. He does not go to college. Indeed, because of a life-long shadow in which he would never be good enough because he didn’t think like others and made convoluted connections that, while correct, no one else had thought of, he might not have even graduated high school. In the end, this unconventional genius didn’t really amount to anything special save for a blue-collar hidden in the mass of the general populace. A diamond in plain sight but too surrounded by the blind to be seen.

This has happened at least once in our modern history and it will happen again unless we pull ourselves up by our boot-straps and strive to remind society what the definitions of words like “smart” and “intelligent” really are. Because if we keep going at this pace, that hypothetical brilliant child could end up being your child, and that just smarts.


Works Cited

Boeree, Dr. C. George. “Intelligence and IQ” 2003.
Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism” They Say/I Say with Readings. 2nd Edition. Eds.               Geralf Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. New York: Norton, 2012. 380-387.   Print.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2015.
Ormond, J.E. Educational Psychology Developing Learners . 2008. Merrill, Pearson Education     Inc. 155-156. Print.
Rose, Mike. “Blue-Collar Brilliance” They Say/I Say with Readings. 2nd Edition. Eds. Geralf          Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. New York: Norton, 2012. 243-255. Print.

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