Fly on the Wall—Ouch, That Smarts!

A Tongue in Cheek Critique of Intelligence

It seems that no one proclaims that they’ve taken an online IQ test and found out that they’re really dumb.  Either that or those who fail to pass genius muster are smart enough to keep it to themselves.  I’ve never attempted one of these tests, figuring that at AU our inborn intelligence proffers less rewards than does sheer motivation.  Sitting and studying on a sunny day is a hard task and to be smart enough to prioritize our studies is a learned skill, a choice, with notable rewards.  The grunt work of readings those many readings and writing those protean essays adds up to a lot more than the average gifted person can muster on wits alone.  What’s more, studies find that at best “a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled” (Robson, online).  Maybe feeling superior to the world is a cognitive failure.

Like all of life, practical intelligence is about adapting to context.  Our minds as Homo sapiens “evolved psychologically based on our ancestors’ needs in the days when humankind lived on the savanna” (Berman, 2016).  In other words, we did not live in the fast-paced world as we now know it, although running from lions may bear parallels to being stalked by laptop viruses.  Nevertheless, ancient humans lived in a world where dynamic thinking meant accessing resources through traditional knowledge and technical expertise.  Hunting and gathering involved routes and seasons and was far from thinking outside a box.  In fact, innovation (such as techies perpetually fiddling with a social media platform’s settings) was detrimental to harmony within an environment.  As an unforgettable Kalahari indigenous man once put it (within the text of an AU anthropology course), “why plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Thundi, 2020).  Intelligence thus may be seen as nothing more than knowing one’s limit and living within it.  Yet, feeling smarter than one’s circumstances seems part and parcel with many a so-called civilized lifestyle.

From Africa to Waterloo (Go Warriors!)

To counter inborn smarts, one might offer some common sense, given that nary an assignment will write itself without some diligent studying.  And what is common sense but an acquired sense of humility and wisdom?  Igor Grossman of Waterloo university notes the value of wisdom rather than intelligence.  “If you look at the lay definition of wisdom, many people would agree it’s the idea of someone who can make good unbiased judgement” (Robson, 2015).

Where there’s discourse there’s disagreement; indeed, many interactions are of two types: conversations about ideas and discussions about people, The latter, safely cordoned off into matters of gossip and family, are frustrating supposedly to those who are of higher intelligence.  “Smart people feel happier alone than when others, even good friends, are around.  A “healthy” social life actually leaves highly intelligent people with less life satisfaction.  Is it because their desires are more aspirational and goal-oriented, and other people are annoyingly distracting” (Berman, 2016).  Maybe it’s that people who perceive themselves as smarter than their neighbours feel held back by their simpleton peers or maybe a simpler explanation is on offer – those who self-identify as smart simply are more willing to be honest about their conversational priorities.

Arguably very few people are truly interested in mundane realms of interpersonal conflict, these topics just surface frequently.  What a boon to our AU studies this liberation from the gossip chain can be; instead of wiling away an afternoon hearing about the trials and tribulations of others we can be ensconced in the rarified air of our individualized studies ivory towers!  Paradoxically, “the study also found that spending more time socializing with friends is actually an indicator of higher intelligence.” (Berman, 2016)

So, despite being statistically less happy in these social settings smart people voluntarily participate anyway!  What’s that phrase, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Or, smart enough to know better but dumb enough to try again.  But let’s be fair to those would-be whizzes in our midst, some of them really do accomplish great things.  And the existence of smart people certainly gives motivations to we scholastic underdogs as we climb the mountain of success.

Distance Education – A Context for A Brain Boom

It’s fair to suspect that smarts are as subjective as setting – those who can start their own campfire without a lighter might be skilled and smart in one sense but those who’ve acquired a packet of waterproof matches are surely smart in an different way.  Smarts depend on the question asked, much like how different academic disciplines have core epistemic values.  A neuroscientist may not appreciate the reality of transference (when a relationship takes the form of a prior core interaction, such as parent or child) whereas a psychology major may not be too keen on hearing that depression is a matter of chemicals rather than core beliefs.  Smarts are about being open-minded to others and, studies find, intelligent people actually tend to be less willing to brook opposing viewpoints: respondents who ace standard cognitive tests are in fact slightly more likely to have a “bias blind spot”.  “Such biased geniuses, in spite of themselves, prove “less able to see their own flaws, even though they are quite capable of criticizing the foibles of others” (Robson, 2015).  It’s soooo tough being the smartest person all the time.  As students we get to overcome our biases simply by giving a balanced account of a topic in our essays and exam answers; taking an academic position is about giving a broad view of the topic so that we can demonstrate what we’ve learned.

Furthering the case for smarts as sour is the fact that no matter how full their trousers be with intellect, they’re further from the prize of enlightenment than their hoi polloi peers: smartypants are “far more likely to be replaying an awkward conversation, than asking the “big questions”.  “It’s not that their worries were more profound, but they are just worrying more often about more things.  (Robson, online).  Literally, clever people may be too smart for their own good and can actually be “less fulfilled” over a lifetime.

Maybe, like teenagers for whom the world is a series of problems caused by anyone but them, smart people have simply learned to cope with their supposed genius by being adequately miserable.  Now that doesn’t sound like a recipe for smarts to be proud of, does it?  Levelling the playing field, happily, is the fact that at AU we need to study hard and apply ourselves no matter how well endowed our brains may be.  Distance education is uniquely suited to those of us who care less about how smart others think we are and more about how much we can learn and grow as pupils.


Berman, R.  (2016).  ‘Why Very Smart People Are Happiest Alone’.  Big Think.  Retrieved from

Robson, D.  (2015).  ‘The Surprising Downsides of Being Clever’.  BBC Future: Best of 2015.  Retrieved from

Thandi.  (2020).  ‘Nuts About the Mongongo – Local Zambian Flavours’.  The Royal Chundu Experience.  Retrieved from

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