Smarts ain't all they're cracked up to be


David Russ, my fraternity brother and fellow MIT alum, and who is, in fact, a rocket scientist, sends me a link to an insightful Weekly Standard column by Joel Engel, which points out the near-worship of intelligence among leftist intellectual circles. Character is not only considered irrelevant, but intelligence becomes a substitute for character:

In fact, the "right" kind of intelligence--call it Upper West Side smarts--is in some ways more tyrannical than the old Upper East Side, world-at-their-feet arrogance bred in "the best" prep schools three generations ago. While the Andover kids were at least taught manners and noblesse oblige, today's aspiring intelligentsia (especially in the bigger cities) too often learn that bright makes right. To wit: A jeweler I know brags that his 9-year-old son, away at overnight camp, mouths off to the counselors--"because he's so much smarter than they are." A friend can't decide whether he'd prefer his brilliant but tortured son to be happy or accomplished. A colleague's sister watches with pride and nods approvingly as her 7-year-old daughter calls me stupid for disagreeing with her memorized contention that the president has more important things to worry about--"like the economy, duh"--than Iraq.

It will not be surprising that the favorite recent presidents of this bunch are Clinton and Carter, and their least favorites, Reagan and Bush. Engel compares supposed intelligence with success in foreign policy and concludes that raw intelligence isn't as useful as common sense:

The best and the brightest, as we learned from JFK's advisers, offer little protection against absolute foolishness--and may, perhaps, be more susceptible to it, given the anecdotal evidence suggesting that brilliance and common sense are inversely correlated. It's no wonder Castro hoped Bush wouldn't be "as stupid as he seems." For 40 years the dictator has been surrounded and visited by brilliant people who swear that he's brilliant and benevolent--and if Bush were indeed a dimwit, he might see right through Castro and conclude that all those people willing to brave sharks, drowning, dehydration, and firing squads to escape from Cuba actually recognize something that the dictator's brilliant admirers do not.

From painful personal experience, I can tell you that intelligence is no guarantee of success, and as much as I admire the signs of brilliance I see in my children, I know that they will only be able to make the most of that brilliance if they have learned godliness and humility, hard work and practical common sense.

Another fraternity brother, Peter Sullivan, once told me this story on himself, which illustrates that an MIT education is no guarantee of common sense: One night he was restless and couldn't sleep. He was feeling nervous (about a test, if I recall correctly), so to mellow out he drank a "Mello Yello", which had the highest caffeine content of all the beverages offered by the Coca-Cola Company. He still couldn't fall asleep, and since he was unable to doze, he reasoned that he should take a "No-Doz", which made him about as calm and cool as Barney Fife confronted with an actual crimefighting situation.

Now let me tell a story on myself. My college social life was frustrating. As a skinny, spotty, charisma-deficient nerd-boy, I was certainly among my own kind at MIT, but I therefore failed to make much of an impression on the girls I went out with. There was one thing I had going for me -- I was smart enough to go to MIT and study computer science -- but that didn't seem to help me at all with these women. Many years later, I realized that they weren't impressed by my academic credentials because they were MIT students, too. I had foolishly restricted my dating universe to the set of women among whom my one competitive advantage was neutralized. There were plenty of attractive female students in the Boston area who would see an MIT engineer with good earning potential as a great catch (lack of charisma notwithstanding), but instead of looking up and seeing alternate routes through the dating maze, I kept my head down and continued bashing into the dead end I had found.

Anyway, I finally tumbled to this conclusion, oh, about three months ago. And I might have remained clueless and single until then, but providentially, toward the end of my college years, when I was not quite as skinny and spotty as before, God brought across my path a lovely young University of Arkansas student, who condescended to be my first girlfriend and, ultimately, to be my wife.

So don't confuse intelligence with common sense, people skills, or the countless other factors that separate success from failure.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 31, 2003 4:58 PM.

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