A Person’s Level Of Education Is Not A Measure Of Their Intelligence Or Worth

by Kristen Mae

I was in line at a fast food place with my two kids, standing behind a man and woman and their young son who looked to be about 10 years old. The man stage-whispered into the boy’s ear, “See, this is why you go to college. You don’t want to end up flipping burgers like these people.”

“These people” were standing right there in front of him where they could easily hear every hissed word.

The implicit messages in this man’s advice to his son: We can assume no one behind the counter went to college. We can assume each of them are unhappy. They are beneath us, not worthy of our compassion. They are stupid.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone say something like this, though admittedly I don’t usually hear someone say it directly in front of the person in question, as if the person has no feelings.

The “this is why you go to college” argument seems to pop up around any profession that serves others or is physically demanding — from housekeeping to waitressing to retail to any kind of handyman, farming, or construction work. The assumption is always, first, that people working in these professions didn’t go to college, and second, that they are stupid and therefore beneath the rest of us.

This is intellectual elitism, and it’s gross. Nobody should judge or speak condescendingly to someone who has less formal education than they do. A person’s level of education is actually a terribly unreliable indicator of intelligence, and it also doesn’t guarantee a person’s financial, personal, or emotional stability. It doesn’t measure anything, really, except perhaps their privilege.

Many people are perfectly able to attend and do well at college, but they don’t have the resources to do so. Access to higher education is a privilege. Looking down on someone who has less education than you is the worst kind of classism.

Let’s first be clear that having a higher IQ doesn’t make a person more worthy of respect, admiration, or success. But also, some of the smartest people I know attended just a semester or two of college or didn’t attend at all. Neither my sister nor her husband finished college, and together they run a cleaning/handyperson service and flip houses. Besides the fact that they are financially secure due to their own kickass hustle, they are also two of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known.

My brother-in-law may be “just” a handyman and house flipper, but I could listen to him talk politics and religion for hours. He reads nonstop and listens to podcasts during his long commutes to and from his jobs. He has an amazing memory and is able to analyze and articulate his opinion verbally with far more acuity than most people I know with a master’s degree.

When my sister shows up for work in her bleach-stained yoga pants with her buckets of cleaning supplies, she probably doesn’t look like someone whose financial situation is as secure as the people she cleans for. She probably doesn’t look like she’d kick your ass at any word game you could throw at her. Do not get in an argument with her. She will eviscerate you with words without ever raising her voice. She is an honest-to-goodness speed-reader.

My sister and her husband are two supposedly “uneducated” people who kick ass at life at every possible metric. They’re whip-smart, happy, and fulfilled.

Meanwhile, I have a master’s degree in music performance and, though I use it, it sure as hell is no moneymaker. The bulk of my income comes from freelance writing, social media management, and my novels — none of which even require a degree. And I’m still not finished paying off my college loans!

I suppose I’m reasonably intelligent, but I’m no smarter than my sister or my brother-in-law, and my degree isn’t what made me that way. Yes, I picked up some knowledge I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own and was given incredible travel opportunities thanks to attending college, but it didn’t make me smarter. And it sure as hell didn’t make me any more worthy of anyone’s respect or admiration than if I hadn’t attended. Without those degrees, I would have the same IQ I have now, even if my life would look different than it does.

None of the preceding is meant to suggest that going to college is useless. If your kid dreams of being an engineer like my son does, some college will be necessary. For many professions, some education beyond high school does provide a competitive edge. For many other professions, trade school is an excellent choice to provide a person with the necessary qualifications.

The point here is that a person’s education level simply is not a good metric by which to assess their intelligence, success, or happiness. It’s elitist and classist to attempt to guess about these traits based on what you think you know about someone’s education.

Beyond that, the implication that intelligence is a measure of worth is just as gross. I pointed out that my sister is wicked smart despite not having a degree. But the truth is, even if she were of average intelligence, even if she worked behind the counter of a fast-food joint, I would love and accept her just the same, and she would deserve that love and acceptance just the same.

Every one of us has value, and we need to stop using metrics that are out of a person’s control — like intelligence and access to education — as a tool to assess a human being’s worth.