Gifted Kids and Other Myths

Intelligence at UChicago has largely been framed as a competition. We should reevaluate it based on what we want from our college experience.

By Rachel Ong

America’s fixation on raw intelligence runs deep. Shows like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader and Jeopardy! have amassed groundbreaking popularity in the states; they’re displays of sheer intellect packaged as a beloved national pastime. These contestants—America’­­s most impressive vessels of knowledge—are plucked from corners of the nation and set on podiums where they’ll be televised. In an eerily dystopian fashion, a game board flashes before them on a bright monitor, promising an exorbitant sum of money if they can guess an obscure fact. And, sure enough, we can’t help but be glued to the screen. We also root for them: Isn’t there something so captivating about watching someone flex their intellectual prowess with ease? But part of this obsession lies in desire. We want what these contestants have: pure, cerebral talent.

At UChicago, we immerse ourselves in an environment similar to that of America’s favorite game shows. After nearly two years at this school, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people here are just plain smart. For better or for worse, intelligence seems to be the hallmark of this college. But what does intelligence really mean? Can it be measured by the awards plastered in each corridor, the number of Gothic buildings on our campus, the Nobel prizes won by our professors, or the GPAs of our students?

On Jeopardy!, intelligence is rooted in the idea of fervent competition. UChicago is no different. When on a college campus, this notion of intelligence can be harmful. We should instead start independently questioning what we each want from our college experience and reshape notions of intellect around that. You shouldn’t have to put yourself through a notoriously difficult course here just because “everyone else has taken it” (do you really need to take Gen Chem if you really just want to go into philosophy?). On the other hand, if you’re getting stressed about selecting a major, you could explore UChicago’s more interdisciplinary options—the sky’s the limit, despite what you may think.

Defining intelligence is a tricky thing. At our school, intelligence looks a lot like our favorite fact-based game shows—minus the bright lights and the fun music. It appears in several ways: contributing an insightful comment in a seminar, writing a Ph.D.-level argument in a discussion post, and winning awards (yes, even after high school, the culture of awards and recognitions still rears its ugly head). On a personal level, though, we define intellect by the strange and the peculiar: knowing an obscure fact, having a skill that no one else has, becoming a human collection of trivia in niche subjects. To call upon old tropes, intelligence is often linked to a not-so-robust social life. Where fun comes to die, one might even say. The word “smart” can bring about several different definitions; when we apply it to a place like UChicago, though, things get messy.

If we attribute all of these characteristics to a single type of person, one that we know or want to become, we think of intelligence less as an acquired trait and more as something that is naturally ingrained. School, then, isn’t an exploration to build your skills or focus on personal pursuits—it’s one big test, and it benefits the “naturally gifted” type the most.

UChicago values the idea of raw talent, leaving students feeling isolated if they don’t match a certain standard. Our school shouldn’t be a petri dish, though: It should be a place that values the diverse backgrounds, personalities, and lifestyles of its student body. While our school seems to embrace these traits, reality can fall short when a survival-of-the-fittest mentality reduces the livelihood of students to an exclusive culture of intellectualism.

There’s no doubt that mechanisms of competition are baked into every aspect of this school. Ruby Rorty’s 2018 column touches on the “Harvardification” of UChicago on an administrative level. On the student level, though, the culture amongst our student body has turned dramatically towards pre-professionalism. Each year, admission rates drop, and internships get more selective. Even the essentials of college life—housing, study abroad, pre-registration—all operate within a competitive framework. In an environment already so steeped in competition, we should be able to flee from it in the classroom; the goal should be to learn, not to win. Luke Contreras shares a similar sentiment in his O-week column; while pressure can often loom at the beginning of first year, there’s plenty of time to reflect on how competition may help or harm you.

Who belongs in the camp of intelligence, exactly? As UChicago assigns more value to being smart, the answer becomes less clear. I often hear this sentiment: There are two types of people at UChicago: the ones who are here to get a career after college, and those who want an education. Of course, this isn’t entirely true. People who are naturally career-oriented can coexist with those who are more academically minded, and people can certainly adopt both traits. Regardless, it sends a clear message: If you can’t keep up with your peers, or if you don’t align yourself with the academic culture of your school, you are excluded from the coveted enclave that makes up the true “life of the mind.”

In the past two years, I’ve certainly struggled to adapt and have buckled under this school’s rigid expectations for intelligence. While my experience with imposter syndrome fluctuates, UChicago has certainly brought out the worst of it. In seminars, I often panic at the thought of participating and end up choking on my words. On a good day, I might be able to get one coherent thought out. Personally, I feel like I’m at my “smartest” when I’m in front of a computer: With plenty of time laid out in front of me, a mean cup of tea by my side, and the security of dumping my thoughts into a blank document on a screen, I’m able to confidently untangle my thoughts. Comforted by the safe space of a first draft, I feel a sense of freedom without the pressure of producing something polished. I’ve been taught, however, that this isn’t what intelligence looks like. Instead, it means being able to distill your thoughts quickly and convey them well: it means being under the spotlight as a Jeopardy! contestant at all times.

Bear with me as I get philosophical for a moment: What is college, really? It’s not uncommon for me to ponder this when classes feel impossible and I question whether coming here was the correct choice. Lately, I’ve been trying not to think of college in as extremes—to be honest, UChicago isn’t exactly home for me, but it isn’t just some cold, detached institution either. It’s a middle ground: To me, this place is a time capsule to capture the heady rush of college, the mundane moments, and everything in between.

Instead of letting competition structure our lives and our educational pursuits, we should be more transparent about how we actually want college to look. This could mean dedicating more time to volunteering, RSOs, or simply an old hobby that you’ve abandoned since starting college. Freeing yourself from the demands of rigorous academic culture could make your time at college more enriching. Adapting your college experience to your needs should be normalized, not treated as a luxury.

With all this in mind, I’m not surprised that Jeopardy! is a comfort show for so many people. At the end of the day, it’s a show where people can have fun and connect to something they love—UChicago students are certainly capable of doing the same.

Rachel Ong is a second-year in the College.