"Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued"

Just an interesting view. (Mostly behind a paywall that I chose not to get past.)

In my early twenties I was fixated on the idea of taking a masters degree. I made myself fairly miserable in pursuit of this goal: I saved almost all the money I earned, moved into my grandmother’s spare bedroom and took out an enormous loan from the government. The obsession was not rational. I am not sure I could ever have coherently explained why I thought I needed a second degree in English literature.

I was, I think, a victim of what the American writer Fredrik deBoer calls “the cult of smart”: the pervasive modern idea that intelligence is the defining human quality and that academic performance is a “shorthand for total human value”…

Several studies suggest education is detrimental to critical thinking. As students progress through their degrees, they get better at supporting their own arguments…
… but don’t improve at looking for evidence that might undermine their opinions and help them come to a more balanced point of view. I did my undergraduate degree at Oxford, an institution which obsesses this country’s elite. While the university undoubtedly rewarded many highly intelligent students, I also came to believe the other principal factor for getting ahead was a bland adherence to the academic value system of hard work and a consuming preoccupation with grades… For some reason, I spent most of a term studying 17th-century sermons. That is a wonderfully eccentric use of a 19-year-old’s time and one of the reasons I hope English degrees flourish for ever but I hesitate to assert that it buys me the right to feelings of moral or intellectual superiority.

found you non paywall version

Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued | Comment | The Times (archive.is)

Both the blog and the article are thought provoking, especially in conjunction with one another. This harkens back to the thread on higher education that was started some time ago.

I stand by my statement then, I’m glad that I have my degree from the U; but it really isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on. There is very little in my degree that couldn’t have been done better at OJT, because of the real world applications of it. Not to mention, I really got my degree, not so much for myself but because of familial expectations. I do think that there are areas that need higher education, how to run a business isn’t one of them. How to build a dam, or repair the human body, are 2 areas that definitely need higher education.

Anyway, thank you for the links, they were interesting and thought provoking.

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For almost all of us, a degree, especially a liberal arts degree, is mostly a credential. If we applied ourselves in college, we probably learned some critical thinking skills and writing skills, so I’m not saying degrees are worthless. I’m actually one of the minority of people who think a liberal arts degree is worth getting. (I have one, so I am biased.) But I do think such degrees are overvalued, because I know so many people in the world who are very smart and effective and who don’t have college degrees, or are doing something completely unrelated to their degree.

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My Economics degree is not in my field - IT - but I would choose the same course of study again, definitely, for all the reasons you mention, and more than anything, it helps me understand the world far better than if I was just trying to connect the dots based on my own life experiences, alone.

A college degree is not vocational training


My degree (Mass Comm/Advertising) has very little to do with what I’ve spent the last 26 years doing across two very different career paths: managing a small sports instructional business (10 years), then federal government sales (the past 16). That piece of paper got me in the door for the first job, but everything since has been experience and connections.

The degree is an absolute must have on a resume (you’ll never even be considered in my field without one), but there’s very little in my college education that actually applies to what I do on a day-to-day basis now. Hell, I spent 90% of my time in college drinking, playing soccer, and chasing girls, and somehow managed to squeak by with a degree more on luck than anything. The fact that somehow gives me a leg up on someone who chose another path feels…suspect.

In looking at my own kid’s futures, it’s a rather frustrating paradox that the insane financial investment in getting a degree feels so absolutely mandatory, when it often doesn’t really add that much to the practical aspects of one’s career.


I was a pretty non-traditional student.

By the time I tired of seriously crappy dead end jobs and went back to college at the U, I had been married, had a baby, got divorced, got custody (amicably agreed) and I was a 24 year old single parent student.

I definitely paid attention & worked hard, my GPA shot up from where I’d left it before on academic probation. I learned an awful lot in my Econ classes, but I had the advantage of having experience in the real world, mostly with crappy jobs in corporations with lousy management, so it wasn’t just an academic exercise for me. It was making sense of the employment situations I’d experienced, remembering my ex-coworkers who weren’t so fortunate to go to college.

Higher Ed is changing. It has to. I think what California has done with the Jr. Colleges is a great model, but especially in IT, things change so quickly that professors can only teach principles.

One of the young guys on my team recently got a degree in IT. One of his professors offered some very sage advice: “Resist specialization as long as you can, because once you become specialized, your chance of becoming obsolete sky-rocket”.

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I should probably clarify here.

I absolutely do think that higher education carries significant value. I was a bit tongue-in-cheek about not learning anything, as higher ed provides lots of opportunities to build skills, knowledge, and experience that would be exponentially more difficult to pick up in the “real world”.

The question is whether learning those things and gaining that experience is worth the often crippling debt required to get them. The calculus for that answer was very different for me in 1996 than it is for kids examining their options today. I graduated with $10K in total debt after 4 years of tuition and on-campus living (soccer scholarships offset quite a bit). Most college students today would likely be looking at 10-20X that amount.


Agreed. I wouldn’t trade my college and graduate experience for anything. I learned about critical thinking, associated with people from vastly different backgrounds from mine, learned to write, became more culturally and historically aware, and so many other things. It does cost far too much now. I wonder if most people couldn’t get a lot of what I got from a university experience from a couple of years at SLCC.

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It strikes me that the basic argument boils down to examining and exploring the goals of education.

Of course, universities are training workforce. Students want to get good jobs someday. Public universities receive funding with the assumption that the students will graduate, acquire high-earning jobs, and pay back the cost of their education in taxes over time. However, if this is the primary goal, perhaps then google and apple and facebook should contribute to the costs of training these people.

Universities are also teaching people to think critically - to consider multiple factors and make a reasoned decision. This obviously requires some basic knowledge (the “multiple factors” to be considered), as well as the ability to reason and judge. As Aristotle suggested, “to be a good critic generally”, a person “must have had an all-round education.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1; 1095a). Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bekker page 1095a

Among other things, Americans have decided that this ability to “be a good critic generally” is vital for the American democracy. Over the past 200ish years, as Americans consistently expanded the vote (to non-property owners, to African Americans and non-white people, to women, to 18-year-olds), they also recognized the need to expand educational opportunities to help these voters make responsible civic decisions (so the argument goes). This is another reason why the American public has decided to fund higher education as a common good - to train citizens who will participate responsibly in democratic processes.

But perhaps the best explanation of what universities should offer is the chance for students to pursue the “happy life” (again, Aristotle). Aristotle suggested that the happy life is thought to be the life that conforms to virtue [excellence] (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10; 1177a Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bekker page 1177a)

Of course, there is no single definition of “happiness” or “excellence/virtue”, but I suspect that most of us have this as a general goal for life, and I also suspect that few of us would object to an education that encouraged students to investigate the road to happiness and a life of excellence. It doesn’t have to be college, but college is a good place to do a lot of investigating. In addition, for many people, a good-paying job and a responsible and robust civic life are good components for building a happy life.

The article that started this thread struggled to differentiate between intelligence, education, ability, and achievement. It was also surprisingly dismissive of the importance of grinding hard work to learning and achievement (learning how to work hard is not a lesson unique to college, but it is an important lesson to learn). Of course, there are problems in higher education with grade-inflation, claims to moral superiority, the exorbitant costs (of mostly private schools), and the other social problems that accompany this ticket into the modern American aristocracy
(see here: How College Became a Competition Divorced From Learning - The Atlantic
and here: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy - The Atlantic)

On the other hand, the post-WWII-GI-Bill democratization of higher education has made college a reality for unprecedented numbers of middle- and working-class Americans, improving countless lives and ushering in the most prosperous and peaceful and successful (by pretty much any metric) society in human history.

I guess what I’m trying to say is best summed up in my friend’s observation:
Most people go to college because they want to get a good job. However, just going to college won’t land you a good job. Going to college and learning a lot of important things will get you a good job.

The “learning a lot of important things” is really the key part, whether for a good job, responsible citizenship, or that elusive “happy life”.