Rachel Tomlinson's plagiarized letter to pupils has been attacked by two of our nation's greatest living dickheads. There's one line in it, however, which is important and true. It's that there are many ways of being smart.
First, cleverness is multi-dimensional. It comprises virtues such as: being quick to grasp an idea; being able to explain things clearly; breadth of reading; a depth of understanding of a subject; originality and creativity; rhetoric and persuasiveness; an ability to tell listeners what they want to hear. Many people we call clever score highly on some of these aspects but not others: think how many good mathematicians are inarticulate. I do well on the first three of the above, for example, but badly on the others.
Secondly, smartness is context-specific. Many people are brilliant in their own spheres, but stupid when they stray outside of them: James Watson, Gilad Atzmon, Glenn Hoddle and Bobby Fischer, among many others, probably fit this description. There are few general purpose experts, not even those who know about decision theory. There's a (possibly apocryphal) story of an economist who was thinking about getting married. A friend asked: "why don't you use the expected utility theory you teach your students?" He replied: "you can't use that for the important decisions."
Now, you might reply that Ms Tomlinson didn't have these ideas in mind when she copied those words. Maybe not. But, in one sense, she's right and her critics are wrong even in the context she intended. Toby Young says the many ways of being smart
certainly don't include things like being someone your friends can rely on or being able to take care of a little brother or enjoying "spending time with special family members and friends". Those are all admirable qualities, but they're not evidence of intelligence.
These are, however, skills which equip one to earn a living. Reliability and an ability to get on with people will help you succeed in life; most employers would prefer the second-rater who shows up to the genius who doesn't. Here is Miriam Gensowski: "men earn substantially more if they possess strong social skills." And here is James Heckman:
Achievement tests miss, or perhaps more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills – personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains...Soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective portfolio of public policies.
If Young or Littlecock want to call Heckman a "soppy airhead" I'd buy a ticket for that fight.
And herein lies a paradox. Whilst Ms Tomlinson has been seen as a dopey relativist, in this one line at least, she is expressing a hard-headed utilitarianism - that the way to succeed in life is to realize that there are indeed many ways of being smart.