January 22, 2009

I received a very interesting email from a reader. He said he is helping a friend’s daughter write a college essay on xxxx speech, and “after much mutual painful time spent, she still didn’t seem to grasp it”€”not the language, but the principle and its application.  They were only sentences to her, not statements she could understand. She is an honors grad, with many plaudits and by all accounts an excellent student. But she can’t seem to correlate the xxxx speech to modern times.”

I was engaged by his email because I reflect on this dilemma often. The answer to why people seem smart but can”€™t think is not so complicated as it first appears. There are plenty of (supposedly) “smart” people who can be trained, like a monkey, to cram for an exam (or exams); get a college degree; remember procedures related to an occupation; take steps to complete a task, etc., etc. It is the use of critical thinking that demonstrates the difference between being smart and possessing intelligence (intellectual ability).

As a Certified Public Accountant working for many years in public and corporate accounting, with lots of colleagues who are endowed with CPAs, MBAs, etc., I am not hesitant to say that there are many very well-trained monkeys in the workplace, but very few critical thinkers, let alone any of those really strange birds, autodidacts. Most “A grade” college students are intellectually impotent outside of the classes for which they have had to “cram.” Thus others who lack the same critical thinking skills and powers of discernment base the plaudits given to most of these kids on erroneous assumptions.

College “honors” mean zero, zip, nada. Even worse are the silly “honors” attributes bestowed on public high school students. Honor student? Dean’s list? Give me a break. These kids can be taught to study for tests and pass them with an A or B, but most of them don’t have the wherewithal to tackle and solve everyday problems in their simple home lives.

As to the “honor” kids who are regarded as exceptional, when they grow up and work real jobs they can go down one of three paths:

1) They may have little work ethic, a lack of common sense, or limited (or no) ability to think, and therefore they are barely passable”€”or substandard”€”as employees.

2) They can apply themselves and remember their tasks and do what they are told to do (or be trained to tell others what to do”€”think “managers”), and therefore they are sufficiently good employees and appear competent, at least on the surface, because they get the work done.

3) They can stand out above others because they a) are self-directed b) have unbounded ambition c) can critically assess situations and apply problem-solving techniques d) will create ideas and bring them to completion e) are motivated to learn new skills f) and they can communicate succinctly via written word or verbal expression.

My assessment is drawn from my many years in corporate America, dealing with extraordinarily bright people, competent people, and mostly, those people whom I refer to as the “daily transactional types””€”the ones who need to be trained what tasks to do on what days, and they will do it, but don’t dare ask them to think, and don’t expect them to assess or analyze anything that falls outside of their neatly-designed, one-dimensional box.

I can tell you about accountants with MBAs who never heard of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, even when these institutions headlined the mainstream news each day. I can tell you about a CPA who won’t read non-fiction books because the “big words” are too intimidating. Most of my colleagues have never read a book”€”especially non-fiction”€”since the college days. Newspapers may make it into their daily regimen because, for most people, reading a newspaper is predictable in content and scope, and therefore it lacks the intimidation factor of a hardbound paperweight with hundreds of pages of unforeseen words and ideas.

In fact, some of the best accountants I know are people who:

1) Did not do well in college and/or failed the CPA exam several times before passing.

2) Are not CPAs.

3) Have no accounting degree or any formal education therein.

4) Attended what are deemed “inferior” colleges.

Understand that corporate America desires mediocrity in filling its job ranks. Mediocre people are smart enough to get the job done but they are not so bright that they can cause upheaval for the established blue bloods. They are willing to be pigeonholed, trivialized, or dumbed-down in exchange for a sense of belonging within a collective framework. Mediocre people are less likely to overpower their superiors. They secure only the necessary amount of formal education needed to paint the right picture on their resumes.

Formal education is just a process. It is an approach for starting a career and sustaining a suitable occupation, because nowadays a college degree is necessary for so many well-paid jobs. People don”€™t want to do hard labor anymore, as with the skilled trades, so they compile their honors certificates and squirrel away in the classroom, even if they aren”€™t committed to bona fide personal enlightenment. Formal education doesn’t mean diddly-squat if a person cannot raise himself above the level of a task-driven android and engage many of the endless possibilities for knowledge on the job, and especially, in intellectual life outside of the place of employment.

For many people, their job is their life because it is something they are “trained” to do. It’s all they have outside of kids, a lawn to cut, and golf on Sundays. For me, my formal education garnered me an established career”€”a satisfactory and oftentimes challenging occupation that both feeds and funds my passions. If I knew little about the world outside of my job, the one-dimensional life would crush me with boredom and leave me with the life of a trained monkey.


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