More than smart


Would you rather be smart or good? Most of us, I trust, would go for the good, but which of the two causes us the most embarrassment when we lack it? When I was snared in sin in my younger days (back when the obvious sins seemed always underfoot, and therefore easy), what grieved me most was not that I had offended God but that I’d been really dumb. That attitude is itself sin, as I came to understand a little later.

When parents, especially of a certain social status, talk about their children, what bragging points trump all others? Not kindness or honestly, or even athletic talent, but academic achievement: the test score, the Honor Society membership, the acceptance to an exclusive school. 

What’s the chief argument when opposing views tangle in an online comment section? Not “you’re uninformed,” but “you’re stupid” (or any creative variation thereof). 

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What’s the goal of education policy? It’s almost all cognitive knowledge, of the sort that can be measured on a standardized test. Schools used to have time for art and music, shop class and home ec—a tacit acknowledgement that students amounted to more than their brains, and head knowledge was not the only kind. But no more.

Do Americans place too much value on braininess? I think we may be vulnerable to the worship of “smart” because we’re a merit-based society (or supposed to be). In America you can become successful through your own abilities: luck and pluck, insight and intuition. But over the last 70-odd years, higher education has confiscated the key to success, which now tends to place an overreliance on cognitive skills. Other skills are just as valuable but are overlooked or relegated to non-elite status. 

This imbalance may be starting to backfire, though. An article in the New Republic about the inadequacy of Ivy League schools to produce confident, visionary self-learners went semi-viral on social media. Smug public intellectuals wear on our nerves. I’m still tempted to rest too much confidence and self-image in intellectual prowess, even while knowing that intelligence doesn’t make anyone good. It might just make us more capable for evil.

The apostle Paul had the best remedy:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord. …To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4–7, ESV).

 This is his command for the church, but it’s not bad advice for secular society. God scatters His gifts liberally throughout the world and we need all of us, not just the smart ones.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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