Big Grain of Salt: Does Education Make You “Smarter?”

Richard Florida, author of the must-read books The Creative Class and Who’s Your City? has a new post titled The Density of Smart People. It’s based on his review of analysis done by Rob Pitingolo that looked at something called “educational attainment density.

Richard begins his post with a simple statement: “Clusters of smart people of the highly educated sort that economists refer to as “human capital” are the key engine of economic growth and development.

In my work – which is coaching execs and teams – there are two words that are front and center in mind: predictive and suggestive. Predictive tells you what’s likely or certain to happen in the future. Suggestive hints as to what might happen. The error for many is confusing the two. It’s one of the reasons I usually disdain psychological tests and rely on actual client data.

Suggestive, which is what testing gets you, is not predictive. Testing measures the heartbeat but not the quality of heart.

Education gives you a broader context, great domain knowledge, but it does not make you automatically smart – or in this case smarter. As Norman Nie and Saar Golde wrote  in Does Education Really Make You Smarter, research does not support the idea that it makes you smarter.

Richard’s error is to take the suggestive, and assume it’s predictive. But it’s an error.

As a guy who lives in San Francisco and has a grad degree (in Education, none the less), it’s a nice feeling to think that my fellow citizens must be some of the smartest people around. I think education is important, to be treasured, and to be done. But the thought that more education – once you get above certain basic levels – predictably makes you  smarter is a canard – a hoax.

Smart, as noted in the post “Bright Companies Like Google: How “Smart” Can Be Stupid” – can be dumb. The thought that advanced education makes you always smarter is to assume that the highly educated folks who gave us things like the mortgage backed securities risk that led to the Great Recession, or the folks with advanced engineering degrees at BP who have given us the Gulf Coast Oil disaster were sharper than the rest of it.

It’s just not true. Suggestive perhaps. But not predictive.

Cut to the chase? Take statistics with a grain of salt and make sure you’re not confusing the predictive with merely the suggestive.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.