Question: In life, which is more overrated — looks or brains?
I would argue that it’s a tie.
But there is a difference. For better or for worse, valuing beauty is built-in to human nature. Notions of beauty may differ from culture to culture, but every culture values beauty. Tests done with infants show that even they are drawn to faces most adults deem beautiful.
But the valuing of intellect is much more of a cultural matter. And no culture values brain power more than Ashkenazi Jewish culture.
There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this.
Take, for example, the famous Jewish joke about a birth notice: “Jacob and Sarah Birnbaum are proud to announce the birth of their son, Dr. David Birnbaum.”
Today, of course, the announcement would apply equally to a daughter.
Another example: I only exaggerate a bit when I tell audiences: “When you ask a Jew, ‘How are you?’ you will often receive this answer: ‘Great. My daughter is at Dartmouth.’ ”
Likewise, I tell audiences, “When a stranger recognizes me and approaches me — a somewhat frequent occurrence — unless the person is wearing a kippah, I have no way of knowing if the person is a Jew or a non-Jew. But there is often a giveaway: If the person tells me what college their son or daughter goes to, I know it’s a Jew.”
To demonstrate how cultural the Jewish preoccupation with the intellect is, the different reactions these lines receive from Jewish and non-Jewish audiences are telling. There is loud laughter in Jewish audiences but only a few chuckles from non-Jews.
Jews completely relate to what I said; to non-Jews it is just odd. Non-Jews rarely tell anyone, let alone a stranger, what college their kid goes to, no matter how prestigious. But for many American Jews, their meaning in life and social status are predicated on getting their child into a prestigious college.
Now, to be sure, this preoccupation with prestigious colleges is not only related to Jews’ valuing the intellect. It is at least as related to a preoccupation with professional success and the future earning power of their child. And, yes, ego. In Jewish life, what college one’s child attends is often seen as the single greatest proof of achievement as a parent.
This preoccupation begins at the birth of one’s children and grandchildren. Is there any Jew whose 2-year-old child or grandchild isn’t “brilliant”?
What’s wrong with all this preoccupation with brains?
First, it often overshadows the far more important trait of goodness. I am certain that for many Jewish (and, increasingly, non-Jewish) parents, their child’s brilliance is more important than his or her goodness. This is easily ascertainable: Compare how much time and effort parents spend working on their child’s moral character as opposed to their child’s intellect.
Here’s a test. Ask your child, no matter how young or how old, this question: What do you think I most want (or wanted) you to be — happy, smart, successful or good?
Here’s another test. Would you tell your high school-age son or daughter, “You need to know that I’d much rather have you attend a local state college than cheat on even one test and get into Stanford”?
And how many parents speak to others about their children’s intellectual achievements as compared with their goodness? Jewish parents who speak about how fine a person their child is usually are assumed to have a loser for a child.
The fact is, there is no correlation between intellect and goodness. In fact, a disproportionate number of intellectuals, in the 20th century and today, have been, to put it bluntly, moral idiots — and therefore disproportionately supported the greatest evils of their time. Almost all the support in the West for Soviet Communism came from intellectuals, not hard hats. Within Germany, the university was one of the most passionate pro-Nazi institutions. In America today, a Christian plumber is far more likely to support Israel than a Ph.D. in sociology, or in any other subject (including Judaic studies). And the number of bright, even “brilliant,” college students whose moral compass is broken is enormous.
Finally, intelligence not only is not as important as goodness, it is not nearly as important as common sense. A person of average intelligence with common sense will navigate life far better, by making far more intelligent decisions, than a brilliant person who lacks common sense. According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, in at least one important area — binge drinking and getting drunk — more intelligent people actually have less common sense. They do both more.
Parents who overemphasize brains to the detriment of other positive values, such as character, common sense and the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes (think of all the bright college students who need “safe spaces” because they can’t deal with speakers with whom they disagree) are doing long-term damage to their child. And, to return to my opening question about looks and brains, they are not doing their daughter any favor if they neglect looks. In real life, they matter, too. But you need common sense to acknowledge that.