How To Be Intelligent

“It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.” -Robert Anton Wilson

Recently I finished my undergraduate education. Back in high school, when I was nurturing a borderline-obsessive interest in stand-up comedy, I listened to an interview with Jerry Seinfeld. Speaking about his education, he said that college is where you “learn how to learn”. Now that I’ve gone through those motions, I agree. The most important part of learning is learning how to learn.

I figured this out after attending a liberal arts school in New York City and realizing that many of the smart people I spent my time with were susceptible to the same sort of thinking that they said they disliked. These self-proclaimed progressive and open-minded individuals expressed an often deep hatred towards those who disagreed with them, the same sort of hatred that made them disagree with those people in the first place.

This is a lifelong process, the narrowing of one’s reality to include only ideas that reinforce our beliefs and cater to our insecurities. It begins in childhood, with parents and television and continues as other influences creep in. Some people exit college with intelligence, but don’t know how to be intelligent. And without understanding how to be intelligent, wisdom and self-education after college get put on the back burner.

“What do you mean?” you ask. “How come you think, you’re some authority on who’s intelligent and who’s not?” Well, I’m not. I have lots of flaws and shortcomings and I’m certainly not the type that finds himself at home in the world of academia. That said, I’ve tried to be mindful of my education and I’ve tried to keep a certain breadth to my learning. If we only expose ourselves to ideas that comfort us, we become closed-minded, no matter how compassionate or progressive we claim to be.

The way to build a healthy sense of intelligence is to expose yourself to things that make you uncomfortable. This is why people still read Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Mao’s Red Book. It’s also why Marquis de Sade is still so popular alongside 50 Shades of Grey, and why Chaim Soutine’s paintings of animal carcasses or Francisco Goya’s paintings of executions still entrance museum-goers. Morbid curiosity is a natural inclination, and it’s good for you in moderation.

But being intelligent goes a step beyond what you read, look at, and consume. It relies on a compassion that transcends simple good-vs-evil dynamics. Real intelligence relies on a compassion for what we find ourselves pitted against. If you make a list of all the qualities you deplore in people, and all the people and institutions you think are evil in the world, you’ll begin to get an idea of your personal bias. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just what you believe right now. Probe these things and try to pin down what it is that you dislike so much about them.

Whenever I do this, I find myself fascinated by the things I hold a position against. I think war and physical violence are appalling and cyclical, but I enjoy learning more about the history of war and violence and how these human activities have impacted the world in a nuanced way. The biggest problem with disliking something is that you end up avoiding that thing, when you could be exposing yourself to it and building a fuller and more cohesive understanding of the world.

So, to be truly intelligent, expose yourself to a wide range of ideas. Read opposing columnists and newspapers. Study multiple religions at the same time, and experiment with their practices. Learn without discrimination, whether you’re a leftist or a rightist thinker. Break out of that dichotomy. It can only open your mind and it can only make you a stronger and more compassionate person.

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