You Think You’re So Smart: Greetings from America’s Second-Dumbest City

The other day, which by my reckoning could have been anywhere between last Thursday and Thanksgiving of 2004, I was talking with a good friend about the Daily Beast’s annual ranking of the smartest cities in America.  Although my stomping grounds of San Antonio ranked 54th out of 55, that didn’t offend me; I didn’t need a widely publicized study to tell me that this town isn’t the brightest light on the Christmas tree.  (I was somewhat amused that we rank just above Las Vegas, in dead last – which is to say that the only metropolitan area in America less intelligent than the one where I live was essentially built by professional criminals as a fleecing pen for whoremongers and compulsive gamblers.)

What bugged me was their method.  The Beast arrived at its so-called “civic IQ” using some pretty curious metrics:  A lot of weight is given to the number of institutes of higher learning in a city, which, in addition to bringing up the town vs. gown issue, leaves open the question of how good the schools are.  If you have two cities of equal population, the one with four colleges will rank higher than the one with two, even if the second city’s two colleges are Harvards and the first city’s four are Oral Roberts Universities.  Counting the total sales of non-fiction books is completely egregious; one assumes they chose non-fiction rather than fiction to avoid categorizing consumers of Dan Brown and Sue Grafton as intellectuals, but non-fiction best-sellers tend to be diet books, grade-Z confessionals, self-help drivel, and ‘political’ propaganda.  As I write this, the non-fiction best seller list features George W. Bush’s self-serving memoir, a full-length adaptation of a Twitter feed that is also a failed sitcom, and ‘books’ by Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Nothing, in short, on which a self-respecting metropolis would want to stake its intellectual reputation.

Speaking of right-wing demagoguery, last year’s survey featured as a criterion the city’s average voter turnout, but even Americans aren’t naïve enough to think there’s a correlation between voting and intelligence.  The Beast replaced it this year with libraries per capita, which isn’t a terrible measure, but still problematic; budget issues aside, many libraries are used for children, or as video rental facilities for cheap adults.  Even the seemingly sound method of counting the percentage of residents with college degrees really measures how educated the population of a city is, not how intelligent it is – and may unfairly reward cities that attract a degreed but transitory population, such as New York and D.C.

Of course, like every other dumb person (I can’t help it, I live in San Antonio), I’m keen on finding problems without necessarily having any solutions.  When my friend asked me what I would use as benchmarks for measuring a city’s intelligence, I was mostly stymied; I had very little idea as to how I’d measure urban IQ beyond simply totting up graduate degrees.  IQ tests are hopelessly unreliable, and most of what I came up with past that was colored by my own biases.  Patterns of tax expenditure may be a measure of political agreeability, but it doesn’t mean a city is smart.  Some ideas I came up with (number of independent bookstores) seemed too insignificant; others (symphony orchestras, independent radio, theater companies) were more a measure of taste than intelligence.  At this point, I’d spent a lot more time thinking about the problem than the Beast probably had in putting the whole piece together in the first place.

In the end, it’s not that I don’t think the right standards are being used; it’s that I don’t know of a good universal definition of intelligence.  Education, as noted, is not intelligence; neither is aesthetic sensibility, political affiliation, economic expenditure, or even sound decision-making.  Why aren’t machines more intelligent than we are, even though they have access to much more data and can make decisions faster and surer?  Because they lack volition, and the unpredictability that makes humans capable of catastrophically bad decisions as well as unalloyed genius.  That’s the contradiction of intelligence (and the reason the Beast should drop this whole charade and simply call its shit-stirring exercise “The Most Educated Cities in America”, a much easier claim to quantify, albeit one that will result in less incensed web traffic):  the qualities that form intelligence, that make humans superior in thought to animals and machines, are the same ones that form stupidity.  The thing that makes us creative and capable of vast leaps of intellect also makes us destructive and capable of dire acts of foolishness.  And there are as many flavors of ignorance as there are of intelligence; the ignorance that says ‘I do not know this’ tastes humble and accepting, waiting only for knowledge to change it into something proud; the ignorance that says ‘I do not know this, therefore it has no value’ bears the rankness of idiocy.

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