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Davis, California

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

That smarts

A better definition than the current one in circulation:

Smartness (noun) – an agility of mind; the ability to assess reality beyond what one has been taught; the capacity to think for oneself, to see for oneself, to draw conclusions for oneself; the creativity to reconfigure given knowledge into new shapes and ideas.

Notice the lack of concrete qualifications. No SAT scores here. No spelling-bee ribbons. And while you may agree, precious reader, that a person’s smarts have nothing to do with their résumé, the sad truth of the matter is that most people aren’t like you. Most people utter sentences like, “She’s pretty smart; she got an A on the last test,” or, “Yeah, my brother’s kind of a genius; he goes to Harvard.” For though there may be strong correlates within these statements, the truth of the matter is that these conclusions (good grades/good school equals good brain) don’t follow.

For a generally liberal, “don’t-judge-me” and “judging-is-so-wrong” campus, the volume of these smart-statements which I hear and overhear is remarkable. The factors that people consider as indicative of smartness are, in most cases, appallingly mistaken. I’ve compiled the most prevalent misconceptions in the forthcoming list, for your viewing pleasure.

Standardized Test Scores. Like Scrabble scores, which correspond only to your Scrabble skills and not to vocabulary or writing ability, standardized test scores correspond to your standardized test-taking skills and little else.

GPA. A big one, if not the biggest. The common opinion is that grades represent, in some way, your smarts. This is ridiculous. What grades do represent, roughly, is a student’s effort and commitment to achieving high marks. Other than that, grades can also represent a student’sinterest in their classes, or their degree of sexual intimacy with the TA. Grades can indicate all of these things and more, but rarely do they indicate smarts. For even when smartness does make the scene, it’s invisible, and certainly not distinguishable from hard work when checking report cards. Calling someone “studious” or “a hard worker” based on their GPA is a tolerable assumption, but smartness ought to stay out of the matter.

For example, there can be a hardworking student who spends all of his hours studying textbooks and knowing the textbooks and then getting A’s in all his classes, but who still is not smart. If you sit down with this 4.0 student and all he can do is recite facts, even if its bookshelves-worth, do you know what you should do? You should sit and listen, ask him for the titles of the books which sound interesting, and then walk away. Why? Because he knows nothing that you can’t read in a book. He can’t tell you anything new about your shared reality which he has come up with on his own, from his own perspective. This student is an archive, nothing more. So this kid is book smart, sure, but he sure isn’t smart.

Alma Mater. See entry for “GPA”

Book Smarts. See second paragraph of “GPA”

Skill/Aptitude in a Particular Field. A kid who is exceptionally good at chess but otherwise useless, we call a “genius.” This is flawed categorization, or at least a lazy one. The word “genius” alone suggests that this chess kid is smart beyond chess, which isn’t necessarily the case. A chess talent ought to be called what he is, which is a “chess genius.” Such a specification is necessary, as no particular activity or game, such as chess or basketball, has smartness as a prerequisite. If we omit this specification, we are forced to label every talented individual a “genius,” for just as there are mathematical and chess geniuses, there are basketball geniuses and video game geniuses. Labeling an entire category of people as “smart” would require that that group be necessarily smart, an example being (arguably) good inventors and innovators.

Athleticism. Get out.

Writing for the School Newspaper. Definitely not. If anything, writing for a newspaper is detrimental to your intelligence, and anyone saying otherwise ought to be shot.


KOJI FRAHM recently voided his bowels before a live studio audience. Tickets for upcoming performances are available at kcfrahm@ucdavis.edu.


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