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Sunday, November 30, 2008

I is smart

I hate the word 'smart'. To most economists, it is probably considered the highest compliment you can give/get, but whenever I hear an economist say that someone is really 'smart', I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. This is because, in many cases, the person being admired is considered smart because they are great at doing complicated math or abstract theory. However, that same person may may be completely devoid of common sense, social skills, or any ability to communicate with 'regular' (i.e., non-economist) people.

As an academic, it's simply ridiculous how often I hear the word 'smart' used in this one-dimensional way. It is used to describe students, other academics, politicians, random people one happened to meet at a party, you name it, and it's always intended in a highly complimentary way. But for reasons I have never understood, it almost always means only one kind of smart - the kind of smart that gets good grades and can talk in a high-brow way about complicated abstract stuff. It rarely means creative-smart or verbally-smart or can-talk-articulately-about-traveling-the-world-smart. And it NEVER means can-figure-out-how-a-computer-works-smart or can-explain-complicated-concepts-in-simple-ways-smart.

A perfect example of this one-dimensional version of 'smartness' is David Broder's column this weekend about how good it is for the country that Obama is super-smart. Of course, I don't disagree with that sentiment at all but what bugged me was this paragraph:
So for several years, I have been arguing that there are traits much more important to the success of a president than brainpower. Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration -- all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.
Broder seems to be suggesting that being 'smart' is something to be contrasted with 'self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration'. But can one really have these traits and NOT be 'smart'? Aren't most people these days at least familiar with the idea of multiple intelligences? Why is the idea that smart only means one thing so persistent?


  1. To which, of course, the typical response is "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" To which there are lots of valid objections as well.

  2. Smart is just relative. It’s like ice cream, they all have their own unique flavors, but which one is best- that’s up to you.


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