Assertion: academic success does not equal intelligence.

I’m a university student, and I constantly hear other students saying things like, “Matt’s really smart! He gets great grades in everything!” as though anybody who gets good marks is automatically intelligent. But the thing is, I don’t think they do.

Of course, intelligent people often do well in school. I won’t dispute that. However, there are a lot of really smart people who don’t do well, and a lot of people who do well that aren’t very bright. At least at my university, all you need to do well is a good memory or good study skills.

Few people I talk to agree with me, though. I’m not sure what it is, but many think that you just have to be smart to do well in school, and if you don’t, then you’re probably a bit dim. I’m curious to see what a wider variety of people than I normally get to talk to thinks about this.

So, what do you think?


For most courses that I have taken, good grades = good (relatively short term) memory. I know many, many “grade-A” people who retain far less a couple of years down the road than some “grade-B” folks. Add to that the fact that many courses require repeating knowledge, but not as much application, and I also postualte that you don’t need to truly understand a topic to get good grades in it.

I agree with you 100%. I have asserted that grades don’t give a very good analysis of a student’s intelligence in a subject for years. I give you the following live example from my life:

When I was dating my wife, we took the same programming class together. She was ALWAYS copying code from me and never really knew what was going on, but she got the A and I got the B in the class. She knew how to take tests better than I did and also knew how to give the teacher what he was looking for.


Although I question whether one can have academic success without intelligence, there are many times when persistance, knowing how to write well, or otherwise testing well, can make up for a world of gaps in understanding.

Also, some highly intelligent people just don’t have or choose to use their intelligence in such a way as to get high grades.

On the other hand, it is certainly possible to define intelligence as “the ability to get good grades, as demonstrated by getting good grades”. In which case, academic success does equal intelligence.

As soon as you hit the workplace you will see how correct your assertion is, academic success has very little too do with intelligence in many fields. All that is required is a modicum of discipline, good study habits, a reasonable memory and sufficient brain power to understand the material. For many subjects at tertiary level any evidence of original thought is frowned on, you are required to simply regurgitate other people’s ideas with appropriate cites.

My favourite quote about modern tertiary education is that it is the means by which the notes of the teacher become the notes of the pupil.

don’t forget “…without passing through the brains of either”

I got high grades and I’m a total numpty.

I used to look around my classes at everyone else thinking, “Geez, do THEY understand this? They look like they do. I sure don’t.” This was especially true in the more math-heavy classes. Then I’d go back to daydreaming about pretty girls or baseball or being a rock star.

Yep, this is me. I know I’m not all that smart, yet I get (fairly) good grades. I try very, very hard and study tons.

I think a better question would be, what constitutes Intelligence?

Is it being observant? Is it being a good writer?

Is it being witty? Are people that are geniuses in one are, good in another?

Will a genius mathematician be good at, let’s say, relationships?

Intelligence, whatever it’s definition may be, is simply too broad a term…

I agree. It seems whenever you hear about one of those super-business people who made a million before they were 24, they always did really badly at school.

Of course, this is assuming business ability is linked with intelligence.

I knew plenty of people in college who were really smart and shot themselves in the feet, by doing things like not bothering to go to classes. So that side of the equation works.

On the other hand, for academic subjects like math and engineering, I think you do have to be reasonably smart to get good grades - or at least smart relative to your peers. RickJay’s classmates may think they know it, and don’t, or put on a good show. If you consistently do well on tests, you’re smart. Even smart people have to study, you know.

It is also possible that one or two classes you just get, and are really smart in them if not in other things. So by the time you get to college general intelligence don’t cut it anymore. That’s why you specialize - it is a good idea to major in the field you get As in, not Cs.

In high school that I was smarter than 98-99% of my classmates, but got C’s (or lower) because I didn’t do homework. However, people who got A’s were definitely smart and/or hardworking.

…and since high school I’ve learned that last-minute edits should be accompanied by a preview…

An assumption just as spurious as the one being questioned by the OP.

I think The Fury is asking the question of primary importance here. After all, if you define intelligence as the ability to pass tests, then academic ability does, in fact, equal intelligence. I’m not convinced that the two things are perfectly similar, but nor am i convinced that there is no correlation.

Another problem is that we confuse intelligence with erudition. That is, we confuse how intrinsically capable a person is of using his or her brain, on the one hand, with the accumulation of knowledge through the education system, on the other. A person might have the native intelligence of an Einstein or an Emerson or a Plato, but if that person has never been given a basic education, his or her chance to show that intelligence in modern society might be severely circumscribed.

I’m always bemused by the notion that original thinking is discouraged, even beaten down, in universities. I’m even more bemused when such critiques come from the business sector which is, which a few notable exceptions, a veritable ocean of stale ideas and conventional wisdom wrapped up in nonsensical bromides and colorful powerpoint displays.

I’m not saying that university students are wellsprings of original thought. Nor am i saying that we who teach undergraduates expect our students to discover something brand new and exciting with every class. Hell, some of the history i teach has been so well-studied and so frequently written about by historians that it would be hard for anyone to have an original thought about it. Go on, i challenge you: give me an original (and supportable via evidence and research) thesis about the origins of the US Civil War or the consequences of the New Deal.

The thing is, the sort of people who are really intelligent, who are really going to increase the wealth of human knowledge in some substantial way, will probably do it at some stage or another anyway. They’ll do it whether their teachers are great or mediocre, they’ll do it whether they get good grades or average ones.

In the meantime, we who teach undergraduates do the best we can to pass on what we consider to be essential knowledge, as well as a certain set of skills. For me, as a historian, its a knowledge of history and its importance, as well as skills like close reading, analysis, synthesis, writing and communication, argument and debate. It’s also, when possible, as sense of the wonder of the past, of its mystery and its banality, of its strangeness and its familiarity.

Most humanities teachers will admit that one probably doesn’t have to be supremely intelligent to pass a history or an English course. It’s also possible for very intelligent people to fail, not because they don’t understand or can’t do the work, but because they fail to turn up for class, or fail to hand in assignments. I agree that the low grades such students receive are not necessarily a reflection of their intelligence, but until someone gives me the ability to mind-read, the only way i can assess my students is by what they show me in their class discussion and their written work. If a student misses half the classes, and hands in essays that have obviously been thrown together in an hour with no thought or effort, then that student might be the smartest person in the world, but i cannot, in fairness, give him or her an A.

And, while it might be relatively easy to pass a history course, i do think that it’s hard to get a very high grade. For me, an A student will show a level of engagement and understanding well beyond the average, and will be able to deal with complexity and nuance in a way that other students cannot. I fully concede that history is not some arcane or specialized subject that only a few geniuses have access to. In fact, for me, one of the attractions of history is that anyone with the desire and the time can understand it and appreciate it. But i also think that, however imperfect the system we have for evaluating students, we do our best to reward the sorts of abilities that reflect a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the student.

There’s also a certain paradox when those out in “the real world” criticize academia for its grading systems. I know plenty of academics who would be happy to abolish the grading system altogether, and to teach in an environment where each student simply takes from the class what he or she feels is useful and necessary. We would also like to teach only students who are really interested in being in our classes, rather than a bunch of students who are forced to take certain subjects or courses for their major, or whatever.

But the “real world” into which we send our students—the business and government and organization world—insists that we come up with a system for ranking them. At the same time as many of these places mock academia, they rely on it to weed out people that won’t fit in to their structures. While declaiming academia’s lack of originality, they often reject anyone who shows any tendency to buck the system or go his own way. While claiming that grades are no measure of “real world” success, they will often throw out the application of any candidate with a GPA under 3. Despite claims about “ivory tower” aloofness, academia is, in many ways, simply a reflection of the society in which it dwells.

I have a neice and nephew who demonstrate this very well. She’s older by 3-4 years. She always had to struggle for grades, but she stuck w/ it when I know it had to be very hard. Her brother always got it w/o much effort. He was quick and he knew it. He’s also a handsome young man who has no trouble attracting the ladies.
She is now in her mid thirties w/ a great husband and two nice kids. She’a also a successful elementary school teacher. Her brother has moved back home, never finished college and has a mediocre job, is still playing the field and, imho, has very poor prospects for the future. Oh, BTW, he still has a superior attitude, but I’m not impressed anymore. I truely feel sorry for him.

mhendo, very good points there.
I’d also like to point out that some are not afforded the opportunity for much academics - yet they are obviously intelligent.

My first (ex) husband can barely read or write, but he can eye a window opening and cut trim pieces to fit. Perfectly.

My now-Hubby is a mechanic by trade. If he is trying to figure machinery out, he can look at any gearbox and tell you, with a great degree of accuracy, which shaft mates with which gear , what the gear ratios are, how to time the thing, etc. Yet he did not even get a Junior college degree.

Any mother can tell you, a baby is born with intelligence. Book learning is another thing. I’ve seen this with my 4 children. What one struggles with academically, another just “pick up” along the way.

BTW Speaker I think you alread know the answer to your question :slight_smile: .

I find this to be especially true in nursing school. Nursing school does not have difficult concepts, I have yet to come across a subject that is truly difficult to grasp. What they do to make up for this lack is to pile Hours and Hours of busy work upon its students.

Who is more likely to prevail? Judy Type A who spends 5 hours in the library every night, who may not be the smartest tool in the shed. Some of the questions these girls come up with are astoundingly stupid…but they are still going to outperform me on every test because I CANNOT lock myself in the library and drill soul numbing facts into my head, or write one more cultural competence paper. So I would definitely agree, academic success does not equal intelligence. However, in a field like nursing, I think that intelligence takes a backseat to “she knows her stuff, and has a good work ethic”. Unfortunately for me :slight_smile:

Of course.

This semester I’m sitting next to this guy. Every week I come to class. I’ve read the material and done the homework. I pay attention in class and take notes. I redo the homework with the instructor as he does it in class.

Every week he comes to class. He spent six weeks NOT HAVING THE BOOK. Once he got the book it isn’t like he comes prepared. He hasn’t read the chapter. He hasn’t even tried the problems.

I’m doing well, he is failing. His comment “of course you are getting a good grade, you are smart.”

Thanks for the compliment on my intellegence, but there is SOME actual work involved in doing well, too.

It’s interesting how our perspectives on History differ. I was entirely expecting you to say something about the French or Russian Revolutions, which in my circles (I’m a history major) are the dead topics that everybody works on but nobody thinks of anything new about.

This is very interesting. I have to meditate on it for a while, but I wanted to thank you for making me think.

The best one is the Financial Times MBA rankings - it transpires that for Exec MBAs at any rate, 40% of the score comes from how much the salaries of alumni go up in the 3 years after they graduate. The quality of the education or the skills imparted doesn’t figure at all. Yet this is the leading metric by which the business schools measure themselves :rolleyes: