Smart People Aren’t Elitist – They’re Naive and Misunderstood
During my time at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology – a selective STEM magnet school in northern Virginia and the #1 public high school in the US from 2006-2011, colloquially referred to as “TJ” -, one of the terms I frequently heard used to describe its student body was “elitist”. Just look at the comments attached to any of The Washington Post‘s articles on the school online; sometimes, it seems like the word is used to describe the institution just as much as “prestigious” or “rigorous”. And beyond the realm of TJ, the E-word seems to be used far too frequently in reference to the intelligent and educated, to those who possess knowledge that others do not.
But why? Why are smart people so often referred to as elitist? Yeah, sure, there’s the occasional arrogant prick who legitimately deserves the title, but as for the rest of them… what did they do? What did they do to deserve to be called elitists besides 1) be born into existence, in the case of those society likes to refer to as “gifted”; or 2) work their asses off to increase their intellect?
It’s rare that smart people ever call themselves smart. If anything, the adjective is hoisted upon them by others. To quote Adam Jensen of Deus Ex – Human Revolution: “I never asked for this.” – smart people never asked to be called “smart” or “gifted,” it’s just what everyone else calls them. There’s a reason that smart kids awkwardly walk out of the classroom for their Gifted and Talented sections in elementary school. There’s a reason that smart kids at top ranked schools are sometimes hesitant to say what schools they go to. There’s a reason that when people point out their intellect in a social situation, they smile sheepishly and just thank whoever it is that gave them the compliment.
Being called smart separates a person from the norm, and smart people ultimately just want to fit in.
It’s funny how society put this label of “smart” on certain people to separate them, but then judges them for the very label it puts on them. It attaches adjectives like “intelligent” and “gifted” to these people, then when these so-labeled “smart people” embrace this label and the opportunities it opens up for them and try to make full use of it (going to prestigious schools for example), society calls them elitist. What are they supposed to do, act embarrassed, shout, “OH NO NO NO, I’M NOT SMART!” and denounce their abilities? They never asked anyone to label them separately, but society itself put this label on them, and they’ve accepted it. Now don’t judge them for it.
It’s important to realize that society’s tendency to label and separate smart people is actually what ends up reinforcing smart people’s naiveté, the very naiveté that later indirectly causes society to call them elitist. While people naturally surround themselves with others they are similar to in some way, it seems like society wants to formalize this process for smart kids starting at an early age by pushing them into Gifted or Honors classes or institutions like TJ. Why? For parents – the hand of society in a weird way if you think about it, shaping the future – , this formal “stamp of approval” is a chip on their shoulder. It isn’t good enough that their kid is gifted – they have to be officially recognized for it. Yes, there’s some truth to the fact that your alma mater serves as a “billboard” for you for the rest of your life, but an even bigger truth is that if one is truly gifted, his passions and talents will manifest in a way that will lead him to success regardless of anything else – should genius be real, genius will prevail.
But no one ever thinks of this, that recognition isn’t important, that smarts are smarts fuck all what anyone else thinks, and this craving for official recognition of intelligence leads parents to try to push their kids into advanced and/or prestigious academic programs as early and as much as possible, regardless of whether it is a good fit for the kids or not (a topic worthy of an entire separate article). And the time spent in the bubbles of Gifted and Honors classes and schools like TJ serves as an incubator for smart people’s misguided socio-intellectual view, the very view that leads people to believe that they are elitist – being surrounded by people of the same capacity as them starting at an early age reinforces smart kids’ mistaken beliefs that their capacity and abilities are normal, that they are just normal and average.
And because they think of themselves as average, no different from anyone else, smart people at a young age are often surprised or frustrated when others fail to display the same capacity that they do, something that happens when they interact over a period of time with those outside of their immediate social circles or, more typically, are kicked out of their bubbles into the real world (usually in the form of going to college). In situations like this, the quickest of the smart kids use their social abilities to turn attention away from themselves and mask their surprise and frustration with pedagogy - no problem, lemme show you - and flattery - yeah, you got it!. But the rest of them, they’re caught off guard by their purely innocent misestimation of others’ abilities and end up dealing with an awkward silence or repeating high-level instructions where detailed low-level instructions are necessary. And the worst? The less empathetic/less socially capable smart ones visibly get pissed, not at the person as some may believe, but at the situation - I can do it and this person’s no different from me, so what’s wrong? As you can hopefully tell, none of this is because smart people believe they’re better than anyone else -
It’s because they don’t know better. Smart people are really quite stupid in their own way. They’re slow to realize their capacity, and because they think of themselves as average, they naively expect everyone to know and understand most everything they themselves do. They’re unable to realize that their abilities are exceptional, that others may not possess the talents they have, and because of this, they don’t realize that by holding others to the same standard as themselves, they hold them to an unintentionally high standard.
I’d be lying if I said that this youthful socio-intellectual naiveté couldn’t serve as the seed of actual elitism. Indeed, it’s the rare case of being unable to grow out of this naiveté and the naiveté manifesting itself in other ways that leads to true elitism and an inability to understand the perspectives and circumstances of others - I didn’t do anything special, I just worked hard to get here, why can’t everyone else? says the CEO raised in a rich WASP neighborhood to the inner-city youth.
But thankfully, for most smart people, the naiveté is just a product of youth, of not enough life and people experience, lasting through the teenage years and maybe early adulthood. Once exposed to the real world and after meeting different people from different backgrounds, most smart kids are quick to realize the reality of their abilities. They become grateful for their smarts and the educational opportunities they had. They become smart, well-informed adults, and thanks to their new awareness, they become more understanding of others and are able to fit in with them better.
And that’s just what they wanted: to fit in.
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