For the next week or so, Jeopardy! has put pause on its regular shows to air The Greatest of All Time, a tournament featuring the show’s three highest-earning contestants, James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter. As of January 9, Jennings has won two of three matches; Holzhauer, one; and Rutter, zero (poor guy has been struggling with the Daily Doubles). The amount of information they have packed in their heads is astounding. I, for one, am shocked when they can say a tongue-twisting foreign word with ease.

Jeopardy GOAT
Photo credit Michelle R. Martinelli

When we witness someone who exhibits incredible trivia mastery or who has their hand perpetually in the air to answer the teacher’s questions, we quickly brand them as smart. I started to wonder what that really means.

At my college, the math program is extremely small – probably the smallest program offered. The average graduation class is two or three students. (It looks like my class will graduate four or five. Maybe that breaks a record!) That makes sense, considering that I attend a small college that is more well known for its law and business schools.

Most students I run into on campus have divinity, business, or psychology aspirations – all worthy studies in themselves. When we go through the usual college small talk (What’s your name? What year are you? What are you studying?) and they learn I’m a math major, I typically receive one of two responses:

  1. Ugh, I hate math (don’t like math/am bad at math/wish I was good at math, [insert other variation expressing their thanks that they are not majoring math]).
  2. Oh, so you’re smart.
Photo found on

Laying aside the first response (for my thoughts on people not liking math, see this post), let’s consider the second. When one student calls another student smart for their academic accomplishments or pursuits, what beliefs about “being smart” are they revealing? It often seems based on one of two criteria:

  1. the perceived difficulty of the area in which the student is excelling
  2. the student’s laudable grades

By and large, at least in the United States, the hard science subjects have garnered reputations for the first criteria. (Sorry, social science and psychology, you’re not invited to the party.) (It’s probably for the better. You’re too cool for all those hard STEM geeks.) (Anyway.) The second criteria can apply to any student.

Is that fair, though?

Photo credit Judy Pluto on Dribble

To the first criterion: Yes, hard STEM classes require an oomph that, say, a history or business class does not. Not everyone wants to sit down and memorize the location and function of every muscle and organ in the human body or trudge through the proofs of the Invertible Matrix Theorem. Consider, though: Doesn’t it take another caliber of oomph to scour hundreds of documents for research on the Church’s role during the time of Nazi Germany (shout out to my church history professor!) or to examine a range of modern and contemporary poets with the aim of defending poetry as a multi-faceted art (and to my English composition professor)?

To the second criterion: Grades are overrated. As much as I care about the letters and the three numbers and decimal on my transcripts, grades aren’t always representative of someone’s abilities. They provide a convenient measure of school achievement, but they don’t fully capture a person. Some of the students I know don’t score outstanding grades in their classes. Does that mean they’re not smart? Of course not. One of my guy buddies has a knack for design, particularly animation, which is his major. He admits to not doing well on written assignments or tests, but if someone declared that he wasn’t smart, I would fight them with help from my alien comrade who hails from n-dimensional space.

brain bag
Photo from TeePublic

See, I think we should view “smart” more broadly than “person in hard class” or “person with grades to rival Hermione Granger.”

In my household, we use smart to talk about:

  • our dogs when they circle around my almost two-year-old nephew when he’s eating or when they find their toys hidden in places that we humans didn’t know
  • the aforementioned nephew when he begins using a new word the moment we introduce it to him
  • my older younger brother when he is coming up with new entrepreneurial schemes or video game tactics
  • my younger younger brother when he memorizes all of the appointments in my mom’s planner and the routes to drive to the various doctors’ offices
  • my younger older sister Emma when she creates a particularly striking piece of work (check her out here)
  • my parents when they excel in their respective work (parts director and homemaker/home school teacher)

The range here is considerable, and few of them refer to school subjects or grades or, to return to what started these musings, to trivia knowledge.

brain colorful
Photo from iStock

What with this uncategorizable mass of supposed smartness, how are we supposed to define “smart”?

A smart person might study biochemistry or aerospace engineering or might graduate summa cum laude from his or her Ivy League university or might make it through 74 consecutive games on Jepoardy, but those accomplishments are not a requirement to “be smart.” In my view, being smart is capitalizing on what you are capable of. This “what” can be in academia or sports or leisure. Maybe it takes place in the gym or the office or the kitchen. Whatever it is, seeking to know more about that “what” and improving in that “what” is what it means to be smart.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you have a different view from me on what “smart” means? Share in the comments!