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Balancing equations

My boyfriend came to visit me last year and eager to show him Duke in all its glory, I spent the subsequent days showing him around all the obligatory visitor hotspots.

As his visit drew to a close, we stood in the midst of Duke’s Gothic splendor. He gazed upon my peers and with an incredulous shake of his head and pronounced: “I’ve never seen so many smart people that are so incredibly stupid.” This simple utterance shook the very foundation upon which I had built my vision of Duke. It had been beaten into my head since commencement speech by Nan: “Duke students were some of the most intelligent of the world, they rejected [insert number here] number of valedictorians and [insert another impressive number] amount of SAT 1600 scorers.” It took a special kind of someone to go to Duke. I was driven! I was smart! But not only that I was well rounded, gosh darn it!!

So was everyone else here and that, we were told, was the perfect equation of intelligence. I mean sure, the boys in their popped collar shirts and pleated pastel shorts may look silly, but under that roguishly disheveled head of hair lay a mind like a steel trap… right?

Despite my vehement insistence that he was wrong, the irksome statement lingered, like an irritating itch I just couldn’t scratch. No doubt most people perceive students that attend such esteemed institutions as Harvard, Yale and Duke, as intelligent. After all, knowing that people will be impressed is what has us Dukies, pronouncing with varying degrees of smug, self satisfaction, “Oh, I go to Duke.” It’s what has us observing the visiting pfrosh in their doe eyed wonder and their parents firing a never ceasing barrage of insanely specific questions at the tour guide, and mentally giving ourselves a pat on the back for getting into Duke and never having to be in that position again(at least until grad school, anyway).

So what exactly quantifies intelligence? Is it that student from high school that didn’t catch concepts as quickly as the rest of the class, but who worked twice as hard and got the “A”? Is the intelligent person that slacker, who doesn’t believe in studying hard to get good grades, but can take an analytical test like the SAT and score off the charts? This person has the sharp mind most of us are envious of; simply lacks the motivation to do anything with it. Or is it the happy medium, the person who gets stellar grades, but doesn’t have to study as hard as everyone else because they just “get it”? And do characteristics like common sense that are actually useful outside the realm of academia even figure into the intelligence equation?

I often hear students discussing a professor saying things like: “That professor is so smart; she can talk about any subject!” Which raises another question: Is intelligence simply the lack of ignorance? If that’s true then we as a human race are infinitely stupid, because there are an infinite number of things to learn about, due to the infinite nature of the Universe.

Therefore, in the grand scheme of things, we know nothing. Zero. So then why do we think we are so intelligent? Because we don’t compare ourselves to the things that can be known or we’d realize how stupid we are. We compare ourselves to other people, simply because statistically, there is always someone “dumber” than us, and that makes us feel great. That also means there is always someone smarter than us, but we tend to ignore that logical assessment.

However, this complex world of ours is overflowing with too many variables to adequately decide who is “intelligent” and who is not. “Being intelligent” requires a myriad of characteristics, but most of all it requires the grudging acceptance that everyone, no matter how “dumb,” knows something that you don’t. Whether you loathe them for it, or learn from them because of it, is your choice. So the next time you judge a fellow classmate, or secretly praise yourself for being an intelligent student at Duke, instead of an empty headed baboon at that dreaded University down 15-501, just remember. You’re not as smart as you think.


Carolina Astigarraga is a Trinity sophomore.


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