Intelligence Without Education

A friend recently sent me a video of a mutual acquaintance who had spoken on a subject in which they expressed great confidence, but did not exhibit a level of knowledge that would justify the confidence.  The individual’s intelligence was evident. Their lack of education was also evident.

Throughout my career in ministry, I have discovered that the stronger one’s conservative theological opinions, the higher the likelihood the person has not attended seminary. In fact, they often have not even received a bachelor’s degree.

I do not believe you need a Master of Divinity degree to be a good pastor, but I do believe a post-graduate degree in almost any field will help you become a more critical thinker. Learning the breadth of information in a field of study helps you realize the importance of broadening your horizons before reaching hard and fast conclusions on any subject.

If all you know is the hills of eastern Kentucky, you might use that limited knowledge to determine the measure of a mountain. The first time you set eyes on the Rockies, you realize your previous knowledge was inadequate. The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

When you add high intelligence to the lack of formal education, the problem is exaggerated. Your intelligence gives you the confidence you can process and categorize information quickly, and indeed you can. But your conclusions are drawn on limited information.

I was talking with a seatmate on an American Airlines flight, and he was quite confident that American Airlines flew only one kind of Airbus 321. As some of you know, I am a bit obsessed with airliners, and I happen to know American flies four different versions and two different types of A321s. (My least favorite is the 321neo, by the way, a plane they are increasingly using on longer over-water trips.)

I didn’t argue with my seatmate, because there are certain people with whom you know better than to pick a fight. His confidence knew no bounds. Lives were not at stake. No one was going to need therapy based on his misinformation, so I left him alone. His supreme confidence was a telling sign of someone with more intelligence than knowledge.

While I know an A321neo has new engines and a better climb rate and range than previous 321s, I am not a pilot, and I know virtually nothing about the inner workings of the plane. My knowledge is limited to my level of education and experience. Recognizing the limits of one’s education and knowledge is important.

When I look at the polarization of America, I think of Nick, the sweet-spirited bagel maker at my favorite bagel store on Long Island. Nick was intelligent but had ended his formal education after high school. He arrived every morning at 2:00 AM to start making bagels and listened to talk radio until the shop opened at 6:00. His favorite show was one that focused on aliens. I was frequently traveling between Denver and New York at the time, and Nick confidently assured me that aliens were living in the concrete corridors beneath Denver International Airport. Nick was intelligent. Nick was not well-educated.

Nick wanted to be credentialed as a person of intelligence, and in his mind, that meant having information the “average” person did not have. I wish he been given the opportunity for a good education. Instead, his circumstances were such that he could not further his formal education, so he subjected his intellectual curiosity to the pundits of talk radio. There are a lot of Nicks in the world.

When I look at the number of people who believe the absurd claims of the Q conspiracy theory, I see lots of Nicks, intelligent folks with an inadequate education, and therefore the inability to discern the difference between truth and fiction.

Nick’s views about the existence of aliens beneath the Denver airport is misguided, but not dangerous. That is not the case with the speaker who was on the video my friend sent to me. The speaker has a lot of influence with a vulnerable population. Claiming a clear hold on objective truth, the speaker chastised the rest of Christendom for being dismissive of biblical authority.

What exactly would “biblical authority” be? Are we talking about the absolute accuracy of the original autographs of the scriptures, which do not exist? Are we talking about a literal interpretation of the scriptures? Or is “biblical authority” just a catchphrase of a certain kind of insider Christianity, pretty much meaningless to everyone except evangelical Christians? I believe in the inspiration of scripture, though I am not certain exactly what that means. I really do not know anyone who is exactly sure what that means. Appealing to biblical authority is hardly the way to win a theological debate.

At Left Hand Church, all our pastors are well-educated in their respective fields, and have also completed some form of advanced theological education. But they tend to defer to me on issues of theology because I have two master’s degrees in the subject, and a Doctor of Ministry degree.  I do not have a PhD degree in theology however, and I am aware that when it comes to theological knowledge, I also need to lean on others with a better education than my own. This is how life works. You don’t claim knowledge you don’t have. The truth matters, in every endeavor, all the time.

To be sure, it is difficult to discern the truth. It will always require rigorous intersubjective discourse, as we study and probe and compare notes to get as close as possible to something approaching objective truth. But the truth is that you cannot do that without a good education.

I hope the speaker reconsiders their future course and finishes at least a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Should they do so, I have a feeling they might look back on their speech with more than a little regret.

And so it goes.

6 thoughts on “Intelligence Without Education

  1. Well said Paula. The only concern is what individuals will choose for their ‘educaion’. So often, they neglect writings/speakers who might disagree with their own personal beliefs. There is a good editorial today in the Washington Post by Gina Opdycke Terry discussing the VA parents wishing that certain books be banned and preferably burned because they do not want their children to be ‘educated’ by them. It is a challenge for all of us. Even universities sometimes have this problem.


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