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I Am Not That Smart

Res Publica

August 2010

by Jake Ewing

I still remember the day that I became intelligent. It was not as glorious as it sounds. There was no epiphany, no fantastic moment of self-awareness where I suddenly understood my own brilliance. I was told. Mr. Dilyard, a staff member at my elementary school, came to my class in the middle of the day and asked me to speak with him in the hallway. He wanted to offer me a spot in a very exclusive class at my school. The class would meet three times each week, and we would be doing projects far ahead of anything done in normal classes. There were only about eight spots per grade, and I was being offered one because of my intelligence. This happened about halfway through second grade, so I had spent more than two full years of school blissfully unaware of my academic achievement. Before then, I had no idea that I was one of the smartest students in my class. I am still unsure as to what I did to deserve the advanced placement. I suppose it had something to do with my grades, but at the time, they concerned me very little. It was all very sudden, this notion that I was somehow better than my classmates. Unfortunately, that idea would become much more prevalent in the years to come.

That meeting with Mr. Dilyard acted as a spark, igniting some type of academic superiority complex within me. Once I found out that I was smarter than most people, I had to uphold that reputation. Maintaining excellent grades became my highest priority — not receiving an education, or preparing for the next grade level, or really learning anything at all. I needed to get good grades because they served as proof of how smart I was. They were quantifiable evidence that I was better than other kids in my class. My academic achievement flourished, and I was further indoctrinated with the idea that I was intelligent. I heard it often — from friends, or teachers, or my parents. It became my defining quality, and no one could deny it. I was smart.

Fortunately, I no longer possess such arrogant certainty about my aptitude. This is not to say that I consider myself stupid or unintelligent. I just have trouble defining exactly what it means to be intelligent. In most cases, being smart is associated with academic achievement, as with me. I was “intellectual” because I received excellent grades throughout school. I used to wholeheartedly agree with that idea, that a person was smart because of their grades. Now, I am much less sure that it was intelligence that caused such scholastic achievement. Memorization, on the other hand, was incredibly important for me to achieve good grades. I could easily memorize all of the relevant material told to me by my instructors, and then repeat it in whatever manner necessary — a paper, a test, a class discussion, and so on. Because of this ability, my grades were nearly flawless.

This is where I see the derivation from what intelligence really is. The regurgitation of facts allowed me to receive a perfect grade point average, leading me to be considered intelligent. I do not think that this is absolutely true. Consistent memorization is no easy task, certainly. It is a tremendously useful skill, but I fail to see how it makes someone smart, as it did in my case. It proves that I paid attention in their classes, and that I worked hard enough to imprint important facts in my memory. However, an excellent grade point average does not necessarily make a person intellectual, which seems to be the general belief in American school systems. It is seen as a convenient and irrefutable tool in distinguishing genius from mediocrity.

I do not put as much value in a person’s grades when trying to judge their intelligence. Great orators often seem wonderfully smart to me. One may not be able to memorize the information to perform well on a test, but there is still an extraordinary amount of aptitude required to express an idea articulately. Winston Churchill admitted his early failures as a scholar, yet he became one of the greatest orators and political leaders of all time. I hold inventors in the same regard. Thomas Edison was a poor student by all standards, but is it even possible to imagine a world without the light bulb? The arts have always been a home to a fantastic amount of intelligence in my view. The ability to make something that others find beautiful out of the creativity inherent in one’s brain seems overwhelmingly bright as well. In all of these cases, the person with this ability might not be a skilled student, and therefore thought to be stupid. I could not disagree more.

It is very possible that true intelligence may be too abstract to define, but that does not stop us from trying. College entrance exams, IQ tests, academic competitions — there are infinite opportunities for an individual to prove that he or she is intelligent. This proves not intelligence, but ability — precise skill to perform well in that specific endeavor. I would like to believe that true brilliance is something much bigger than that, much more important. Perhaps it is the ability to articulate one’s ideas effectively, or to manufacture something practical out of seemingly useless components, or to create an artistic masterpiece. To be honest, I have no idea what would be the best way to define intelligence. But, then again, why should I? I am not that smart.

Jake Ewing is a freshman from Wooster, Ohio, majoring in Political Science, English, and Creative Writing.

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