One of the best passages from Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes' book about the American meritocracy, recounted a moment in 2009 when debate raged about who President Obama should appoint to the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor was thought to be on his short list. But The New Republic's Jeffrey Rosen and Harvard's Laurence Tribe argued that she should be passed over for somewhat smarter candidates. "Keep in mind the person under discussion is someone who, from humble beginnings in the Bronx, had gained entry to Princeton, graduated summa cum laude, and gone on to Yale Law, where she edited the Yale Law Journal," Hayes observed. "She had checked off every box on the to-do list of meritocratic achievement. Apparently it wasn't enough." Hayes deemed the incident an example of a "Cult of Smartness" that has taken hold. Observers behave not only as if its possible to accurately rank people in order from most to least smart, but that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest. "While smartness is necessary for competent elites," Hayes retorts, "it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy, and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued."
~ from How the 'Cult of Smartness' Distorts the Immigration Debate by Conor Friedersdorf ~
There is a certain member of my family (who will remain nameless) who has an over fascination with IQ (intelligent quotient). In far too many conversations, this individual tries to figure out who are the brainiest people on the face of the earth. When discussing other family members, friends or even casual acquaintances, the number one criteria for discerning their worth to themselves and society is how erudite my relative thinks they are.
While I don't dispute that smarts are one way to judge a person, it isn't an end all, be all yardstick in my book. I know many highly intelligent people who seem to lack a lick of commonsense and others who are bereft of compassion or a sense of morality/fair play. Personally, I would much rather associate with a person who, though they may lack a high IQ, exemplifies wisdom, humility and kindness.
This notion that worldly intelligence isn't all that it's cracked up to be goes to the heart of many passages in the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi. In the last verse of the former, Lao Tzu writes,
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.
For me, this does not meaning that knowledge, intelligence and learning have no place in our lives, but we err when we place to much emphasis on them. The development of wisdom surpasses intelligence by a wide margin. And here's the thing about wisdom: You don't learn it, it learns you!
There are no mental exercises or formulas that will allow any one of us to become wise. We can study from sunup til sundown and wisdom easily will elude us. The reason for this is that wisdom is born of experience. It is born of living itself. It is born of being willing to fail and then to pick ourselves up again.
A high level of intelligence often can be a great impediment to the acquisition of wisdom. Smart people tend to think too much of themselves and their abilities. Because they think they know most or all of the answers, their failures are viewed as someone else's fault or due to unforeseen circumstances. They refuse to allow the experience to learn them and many tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.
This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.