In our society, we define intelligence by someone who does well on tests and gets good grades.
I personally think this conception of intelligence is all wrong. In my opinion, while you do need a bit of intelligence to be able to read and figure out what the question is asking, sometimes doing well on a test is more about your ability to memorize your notes. While you do need a little bit of thought floating around, sometimes getting good grades is more an indicator of work ethic rather than how ‘smart’ someone is. To me, intelligence is more indicated through the way someone solves problems. I can’t tell you how many students I have who turn in nothing, but if I sit down and engage them in conversation, their insights and understanding of how the world works blows me away.
I come from a spout of intelligent people, and perhaps the most intelligent person I have ever met in my life is my brother, Cameron. I realized just how smart Cameron was last year, when I saw him sitting outside the local farmer’s market, shining shoes. He had the entire persona going: he went to the Good Will to purchase waist high pants and suspenders, he wore a button down shirt, and a beret. He was sitting on a stool with a shoe-shining post that he made himself, and set a newspaper down beside him. When people would walk up, they would comment about some article in the paper, he would engage them in discussion, and they would slip him $20. It was genius.
In our capitalist society, we really value the intelligent people, because they are the thinkers, the do-ers, the innovators. In order to survive, you must set yourself apart from everyone else–come up with some kind of idea that no one else has ever thought of, and it’s the smart people who generally do that. In schools, we hail to the intelligent people. In businesses, our intelligent people are the ones who make us money. In our family’s, intelligent people are the ones who solve conflict. Ideologically, we value smart people–we give them a lot of praise–but practically, being a smart person in a corrupt society is actually very painful.
For one, smart people are often very misunderstood. Anyone who falls outside of the ‘normal realm of human experience’ can fit into this category of ‘misunderstood’: introverts, shy people, free thinkers. My entire teaching philosophy changed after I read ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’. In teaching school, they always tell you it’s best practice to elicit discussion from every single person in the class; it’s good for every single person in the class to speak. However, after reading that book, I realized that there just are some people who enjoy being a wallflower; they enjoy observing the world around them, and it’s actually against their authentic self to pry extroversion out of them. Smart people are misunderstood. If you look at someone like Alan Tourig, especially in his depiction in “The Imitation Game”, he is sorely misunderstood, and it’s a very lonely life when people don’t understand you.
If you ask any smart person about how they get their ideas, they will tell you, “I don’t know. It just occurred to me one day”. Just like creative people, smart people do not know how to live any differently than they do. I am sure if you were to ask Mr. Tourig where he came up with the idea of the computer, he probably could not tell you. While they certainly can do things to exercise their brains, the ideas they come up with are products of their brain, and not their own will. I don’t think my brother sat there and thought, “Brain, tell me how to look like a 1920’s news boy”. No, it just occurred to him one day he could make money, shining shoes, and once that idea came to fruition, he had to follow through.
Smart voices are often suppressed. I see this all the time in my classes. Someone will come up with a brilliant idea, and the rest of the group finds a way to shut it down, to quiet it. This has more to do with the insecurities of the group members rather than the smart person themselves. Ultimately what happens is, the smart person shouts out an idea, the rest of the group wonders how come they could never come up with that idea, and instead of valuing the idea, they attack it–it’s a defense mechanism to maintain their perceptions of their own ‘smartness’. I remember watching a boyfriend of mine struggle with a chemistry problem. I walked over, suggested that he try using stoichmetery, and was told, “No, you don’t know what you are talking about” (a few minutes later, I looked back over his shoulder and he was doing exactly what I told him to do). Or, my brother got frustrated at one of his jobs, because he would tell the mechanic, “Why don’t you do it this way?”, and the mechanic would get mad that he did not think of that himself.
All activities must be meaningful: My brother bounced around to three different high schools, until he finally stopped going to school altogether. At first, this frustrated me. My perception of him changed when he told me he didn’t like school, because he felt like it was a waste of time. As he put it, he didn’t understand why we had to “sit around and bullshit with the teacher in order to fill time”. He wanted to learn his material, master it, and move onto the next subject. Unfortunately, public school does not work this way. This explanation makes perfect sense; I think he views life as a ticking bomb; that we only have a certain amount of time to accomplish a limited amount of tasks, and we are wasting time if every minute is not fulfilled with learning, progressing, or growing. Even in conversations, my brother does not want to talk about nail polish colors. He does not want to talk about the weather or about which family member just went to rehab. Instead, he wants to talk about big ideas, such as government corruption, why the Civil War was not just about slavery, or how people pass knowledge onto one another. To him, these conversations are meaningful, and everything else is a waste of time, and why engage yourself in something that is not serving you in some way.
Being a smart person is mentally and physically taxing. When you are a smart person, your brain never shuts off. It is constantly looking for problems and potential solutions. My room mate, the Diesel Mechanic, reports fixing engines in his dreams, and when he wakes up, he’s still tired because his brain spent all night still working. I think this is why many smart people end up being addicts; it’s stressful to be thinking, solving problems, analyzing the world all the time, and in some cases, substances appear as the only way out (although, I would argue for some yoga).
But, perhaps the most painful part of being a smart person is just how lonely it is. In school, we group people based on their ages. Smart people do not always relate to their peer group. I think this has been one of Cameron’s reluctance’s TO go to school; while people in his peer group might be really hyped up about topics, such as Caitlin Jenner and what the Kar-trashians are up to, he really wants to talk about the dynamics of making a hydro-magnetic car, or the possibilities of UFO’s, and it’s often very frustrating (and in his opinion, a waste of time) to not be able to talk about the topics you are passionate about, because those you are forced to be around just don’t understand the world the way you do. And, it goes the other way too: the peer group doesn’t understand why you would be interested in UFO’s when Caitlyn Jenner is so scandalous. You can’t talk to them, and they can’t talk to you.
It’s painful to be smart.