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What Does it Mean to Be Smart?

Vismaya Sunil -

Maria Zelenika -

Most academics I’ve had the opportunity to learn from, work, and study with are some of the kindest, coolest, and most empathetic people I’ve ever met. But the behaviors of some academics have stood out throughout my years at university. This essay is a platform for me to say things I would never tell them to their faces. So, if something in this text reminds you of yourself, I might be talking about you. Or not.

As a student of a high-ranked education institution, isn't one supposed to have higher mental abilities that qualify a person to be smart? Intelligence is traditionally associated with academic excellence, especially in the community I grew up in. Intelligence within academic circles often emphasizes cognitive prowess—such as analytical skills, memory, and problem-solving abilities. While studies show a positive relationship between intelligence and academic prowess, there isn’t as clear a link between academic prowess and positive societal impact. While the ability to be aware, control, and express one emotion effectively is a form of intelligence, academic circles are often devoid of this competence. The reason could be that academic circles often do not encourage the development of such characteristics. The question of why and how remains out of scope, so I’ll stick to the common pitfalls I have seen.

An illustration of this disconnect can be drawn from an encounter with a senior academic, who, shaped by her adversities within the field, adopted a stance that boiled down to “As a woman in this field, I had it hard. Hence, I may judge you harshly, too.” The incident was too shocking to remember her exact words, but this was the gist. I find the reasoning to be somewhat absurd. This statement underscores a relatively commonly misplaced response to academic challenges—a reaction that, rather than fostering resilience and understanding, perpetuates a cycle of hardship devoid of empathetic mentorship.

Such instances raise critical questions about the nature of intelligence. If the ability to navigate one’s emotions and empathize with others are intrinsic components of intelligence, the absence of these qualities in academic settings points to significant oversight. The scenario described highlights a lack of emotional intelligence and suggests an undercurrent of unresolved frustration towards the systemic barriers women encounter in academia. The implication is clear: the academic prowess of an individual does not necessarily equate to emotional wisdom or the capacity to foster a supportive and understanding environment. And, as saddening as it may be, although there seems to be awareness of the systemic and socio-political inequalities, it doesn’t seem to be accompanied by a reflection of how our actions perpetuate these inequalities and how these affect others. Could it be that having emotional and social intelligence but lacking empathy is equivalent to not being intelligent?

A notable peculiarity within academia is the frequent failure to extend the rigor of scientific thinking into everyday life. This discrepancy is vividly illustrated in the attitudes of some academics towards complex social issues, such as the identity and rights of transgender people. The claim that being transgender lacks a biological basis serves as a chilling example of how keeping “critical” thinking abilities only to an “academic” level to hold on to a belief or norm that completes one’s worldview can be dangerous. Using “critical” thinking to support pre-existing biases rather than to explore truths may come at the expense of hindering other individuals' rights. The reluctance to apply academic critical thinking to broader societal contexts reveals a troubling compartmentalization of intelligence. Such behavior raises questions about the actual value of academic intelligence if it does not contribute to a more enlightened and inclusive society.

Another intriguing aspect of academic behavior is the pervasive sense of inflated self-importance, which hampers meaningful collaboration and fosters a dismissive attitude towards other disciplines. This behavior is more palpably expressed in the disdain shown towards fields that either seem less scientifically rigorous or incorporate artistry elements, suggesting a narrow valuation of intelligence based solely on one’s specific area of expertise. The reluctance to recognize the value of diverse disciplines reflects a deep-seated belief in the superiority of one’s field, often to the detriment of interdisciplinary understanding and cooperation. Usually, it comes from a place of high self-importance to one’s area of interest.

The implications of such a selfish approach are manifold, leading to environments where collaboration is undervalued and, at times, actively avoided. Criticism, when offered, often lacks constructiveness, serving more as a reflection of personal biases rather than as a means to advance collective knowledge. This not only stifles innovation, which thrives on the cross-pollination of ideas but also perpetuates a culture where academic silos prevail over communal learning and growth.

These observations paint a complex portrait of what it means to be truly intelligent. This exploration was not an indictment of academic intelligence but a call to broaden our understanding of being genuinely astute. The aim was to peel back the layers of traditional perceptions of intelligence, which prioritize academic excellence, often at the expense of empathy, social awareness, and the ability to engage with the world meaningfully.

The behaviors laid out—ranging from emotional disconnection to selective critical thinking and from ego-driven isolation to a dismissive stance towards interdisciplinary collaboration—pose a fundamental question: Can intelligence, in its truest form, be confined to academic achievement and specialized knowledge alone? Or is it time to embrace a more holistic view?

Publicerad: 2024-03-22

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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