Smart is shallow

February 12, 2019 — by Nitya Marimuthu

“I’m so dumb.”

“How do you get such good grades? You’re so smart!”

Phrases like these can be heard every day across campus. Students view their little mistakes as a sign that they are just “stupid.” No wonder they got that failing B grade, they’re not smart like their friend who got an A. These words are used as excuses, as insults, as descriptors of entire personalities, until they lose their meaning.

Take the word smart, for example. The dictionary defines smart as “having or showing a quick-witted intelligence,” a vague description for a rather meaningless word. Similarly, intelligence is found to mean “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”

Except for those born with severe disabilities, almost every single person is able to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Even a young baby has the ability to learn new skills, whether it be eating food, drinking from a bottle or learning to turn.

Yet babies aren’t usually described as smart or dumb.

The problem with the word smart is that it becomes ingrained in a person’s identity. Allowing intelligence to define a person creates an unhealthy inferiority complex. Feeling inferior to someone due to their “smartness” can only lead to a vicious circle of judgement. There are always going to be people in the world who are faster at picking up new concepts or people who are more knowledgeable and more advanced.  

If there is always going to be someone who is faster, then what is the point of trying? This attitude is easy to fall into if someone sees others as solely smart. The word becomes an excuse not to put in effort. What is the point when that person was born superior?

In addition, once someone starts defining themselves as smart, it becomes a representation of who they are. Every time they get a good grade, it is because they supposedly enjoy this inborn superiority. And once a person is labeled as smart, the hard work that goes on behind the scenes can lessen. Rather than being praised for the effort they put into achieving high scores, peers take their results for granted, and their success is assumed to be effortless.

Similar to this idea is the one popularized by the education school at Stanford. This organization advise teachers, instructors, and other educators on how to teach students to have a growth mindset.

They emphasize that a growth mindset means encouraging students to take risks and open themselves up to making mistakes. One idea that they especially reinforce is the “notion that there is no such thing as a Math/X/Y person — everyone can do Math/X/Y with proper training.”

Calling oneself smart creates the same closed mindset that Stanford education experts are trying to avoid with this training. On the flip side, being called dumb does no justice either.

If someone does not understand a concept, they put themselves down as dumb. If a person makes a mistake, once again they are considered dumb.

As the instances of this pile up, people can’t help but ingrain the word into their identity. Their apparent lack of intelligence becomes a self-enforced truth.

How do we overcome these traps?

The next time someone does something that deserves a compliment, avoid using words that sum up a person by one trait. Instead of labeling a whole person by a single word, aim to label a positive action that the person does such as making the effort to write an insightful essay.

Rather than using words like smart or dumb to label ourselves and others, we should strive to use more accurate, descriptive words such as hard-working, perseverant, creative or witty, which do much more justice than their shallow and inaccurate counterparts.

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