Why Intelligence Differs From Book Smarts

by Melody Jean

Several instances of late have served as a reminder that there is a distinct difference between intelligence and ‘book smarts.’ I truly believe this. Often people will comment when referencing my M.A. in integrated marketing communication that since I have an advanced college degree, I must be really smart, or some other remark along these lines. Every time that I encounter a situation like this I often ponder why in fact some believe this to be accurate.

On the one hand, it’s quite obvious because growing up someone was considered “smarter” if they received straight A’s on their school assignments, than someone who received C’s. Yet, I’ve met so many with advanced college degrees who have difficulty holding a conversation about anything outside of their area of study. Just because someone is a doctor doesn’t mean that he or she is smarter than a person who is more worldly, having learned by experience through all that this universe has to offer, right? I certainly don’t think so.

My Response

When faced with a comment regarding my own education level I usually answer in somewhat of the same manner depending on the person and conversation. My theory is that my degrees absolutely do not indicate that I am smart. What they do in fact depict is that I know how to write lengthy papers and study the way the scholastic system requires of students in order to pass tests. So just because I can do the things needed to acquire degrees, doesn’t mean that I am smart (or intelligent). Perhaps it shows I have discipline, can follow instruction, and too that I might have a knack for writing, but it doesn’t indicate that I am smart. As a result of studying this area, I may acquire more knowledge about the subject to which I formally studied, but most of this I gleaned from books. Very little, if any of it from experience. The true lessons that I learn even in my area of study, communications, come mostly from the workplace. Yet, I find that many confuse being smart or intelligent with formal education and this is why they make remarks alluding to such (that I’m smarter as a result of these degrees). The two (intelligence and education) are completely separate entities, of which someone might have both, one, or none. Perhaps they are intelligent or smart (which I use interchangeably), but have not completed the formal education process or vice versa. I find that one is not indicative of the other.

An Individual Basis

Some of the most intelligent people I know do not have a formal education beyond their high school diplomas. Yet, their minds are fascinating and work in ways that are mesmerizing. I have come to learn that one doesn’t have to hone a basic or master’s level college degree, an MBA or a Ph.D. to understand the universe today. It’s all around us and because of technological advances and television it’s at our fingertips. The world is our classroom in a sense. Through my journey I have had boyfriends, friends and family members with college degrees, advanced degrees, and even no degrees. What I’ve found is that whether he or she is intelligent or not is completely based on the individual and their level of study in school has no bearing on this.

I have multiple examples to illustrate this point. A past boyfriend who has a master’s degree and is an educator himself, is better at booze and football than holding conversations about life’s mysteries, the abstract world, art, politics or most things analytical. Another ex-boyfriend, who doesn’t have a college degree, is a customer service representative for a specific industry, and plays the bass guitar can speak at length about some of the most intelligent wonders of the world. From fixing an appliance to the reasons why Aristotle was who he was, he just gets things. He has the capacity to absorb and think abstractly. He told me that when he applied himself in school he got straight A’s but along the way he lost the luster for classroom learning. He is, by far, one of my favorite ex-boyfriends. And yet another choice ex-boyfriend example. He has his MBA and is a forensic accountant traveling the world. I’ll never forget him remarking that he has his job for the money, and he has a lot of money, but anyone can do his job and one doesn’t need an MBA. Further, he was a sweet man, but his interests didn’t go beyond running marathons, friends and sports. Then there is my best friend who is one of the most intelligent people I know, yet she never finished college. She came to the realization that since she already knows her areas of strength she doesn’t need a college degree. This, coupled with the fact that she despises the classroom setting, like my ex-boyfriend, she withdrew from college. Today she has a successful career, is a fantastic mother and often takes on side projects. And my father, he completed his Ph.D. but is extremely worldly and can speak to a wide array of subjects and topics. He isn’t limited by his advanced studies by any means and again, like my best friend, is one of the most intelligent people I know. So you see there is no correlation between intelligence and formal advanced education – someone can have both, one, or none.

Ironically too, in my personal life I’ve found that even with two college degrees I tend to be attracted to a deeper mind, one beyond education; particularly when it comes to my significant others. So in more recent years, those men who I find most appealing are artists in some right. Whether it’s constructing their home or that of others, the gift of music, or a trades-profession, he tends to not have a formal higher “education,” but does have the ability to participate in higher “thought.” The key here is higher thought versus higher education. There is a substantial difference in my opinion. I can speculate as to why I have not happened upon many businessmen who enjoy exploring higher thought, but fear I will come across biased in my opinion of businessmen. I want to avoid that because I suspect that there are likely more men, like my father, who have completed a formal education, yet can also participate in higher thought. However, I can only speak to my experience, and my experience is as such that I have not dated one like this. For this very reason, if I do marry one day, I will not be surprised in the least if it’s to a tradesman as opposed to a businessman. Yet, I never say never because one day the businessman, who also knows higher thought might take a liking to me, and me to him, and the rest will be history.

In Summation

So while I find value in formal higher education (college degrees) it’s merely because (unfortunately) this is how society and many businesses base the qualifications for most business employment opportunities and not because I believe that it in fact makes someone smart or intelligent. I find it disheartening really that the scholastic system and society are set up the way that they are. I do of course agree that to participate in certain professions one needs the appropriate education. This is especially true with doctors, psychiatrists and other personal care professionals as well as lawyers and judges, etc. So please know that I’m not discounting that, because like my father, people with advanced degrees can be “smart” outside of his or her area of study as well. What I am suggesting though is that the scholastic system has its limitations and that I find intelligence and smarts to be a whole separate realm of its own.

I will leave you with an interchange I had with a friend. She commented to me that the next guy who she dates needs to have a college degree. I inquired as to why, and she said because it helps if he is smart since she has her master’s degree. And so the conversation went. I shared my view with her and she agreed that yes, people can be smart or intelligent without having college degrees. We both agreed too, that you can’t discount that there are those who don’t partake in formal higher education because they are lazy, don’t have jobs of any sort, and hone no responsibility for anything. This is certainly a fact as well. Yet, when I allude to those without college degrees (who are smart or intelligent) I am speaking of those with jobs, careers in a trade, the arts or some other genre. Since he or she is smart, or intelligent, just sans formal higher education; they understand that one needs a job or profession to pay bills, gain a semblance of responsibility and to survive. These people who I reference are not lazy by any means. My point again in all of this is to offer up that the two are different (intelligence and formal higher education), they are independent of each other and that it is  based on the individual. You can have both, one or none. Yet, the stigma or viewpoint of many is that (1) those with degrees are smarter and (2) those without are somehow ‘less than.’ I have found that the two are indeed separate entities and if I could choose just one trait of the two for my life partner? It would by far be intelligence as opposed to higher education. I think intelligence too is closely aligned with spiritual development and is why I find these people most attractive, but perhaps that is a post for another day.

–> To stay in the loop you can follow Contemporary Seeker on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


Mel, Check out Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence. The world of psychology is catching up to you!


Melody Jean

I’ll look more into it, sounds interesting … I quickly googled it! In the intro to Learning How to Learn, by Idries Shah too it mentions the correlation between psychology and spirituality; yet the superhighway is the spiritual highway still to this day it alludes. I think science is beautiful and might help to uncover some gems along our spiritual quests. Thanks Mike!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: