As a sophomore, I was immensely frustrated with what I called “the empathy gap” at Yale. I wrote a piece detailing the lack of empathy among many people who loudly say they are advocating for social justice. Since then, I have been more proactive about the people I choose to spend my time with, knowing that I can find kind people here if I just devote my energy to finding them. Although I have met some of the kindest individuals here, I’ve come to the conclusion that many people still believe that intelligence supersedes kindness. Anyone can be kind, but not everyone can be smart. Or so, we tell ourselves.
I fundamentally reject this claim. First of all, I think it is often harder to be kind than intelligent. Given the right resources and the drive, many can sit in their rooms forcing themselves to memorize endless facts and equations. But with kindness, we must be constantly adapting to different situations. Even if you already practice being kind, life is unpredictable and will throw difficult moral and ethical dilemmas at you. Being kind is a daily decision.
Kindness takes work, too. Arguably, harder work. Empathy takes emotional energy. Taking yourself out of your own perspective and thinking about others requires you to be thoughtful. Kindness is more than saying “please” and “thank you” — though some people could surely say both more often. Kindness takes vulnerability — a willingness to open up and invest yourself in the people around you, even if they fail to reciprocate.
My junior spring, I was at a fancy dinner, my steak and potatoes fully funded by Yale. I was partly delirious from a fever, wondering what I did to deserve the linen tablecloths and a very expensive meal. We were speaking with a panel of three highly renowned professors. During the Q-and-A session, one of my peers asked about how different generations’ political attitudes were shaped by major political events in their childhood.
One professor took this question to expand upon his belief about how our generation was less intelligent, that the issues we were grappling with were of a “lower level” than when he was in school. The other two professors laughed it off, as if what he said was a symptom of “pessimism” rather than the fact he was being, well, rude. Feeling both physically and emotionally sick, I left the dinner. I was not about to have an entire generation’s intelligence insulted and a professor excused for it because of his prominence.
It seemed that being smart warranted one a “free pass” to act in any way one wanted, excusing even the most obnoxious behavior. That being smart means that others are simply unworthy of your time. That being smart was more important than being kind.
At Yale, we are surrounded by scholarship and brilliance. Arrogant professors perpetuate this narrative that we should be lucky to be graced by their presence. I am grateful for many of the professors I have had the privilege to learn from, but I also want to be treated with reciprocal respect. For me, kindness is just as, if not more, important than intelligence.
My first semester here, I was reluctant to go to office hours, as professors were quick to dismiss my ideas. I lacked the confidence to assert my opinions and comments in front of esteemed authors and researchers, as if it wasn’t their literal job to educate me.
The issue is not just personal — it’s institutional. Just look at how difficult it has been for Yale to remove professors who have known records of sexual misconduct. Their academic reputations precede their behavior. Kindness encompasses far more than just the way you engage in conversation — it extends to the way we treat people when nobody is watching. It’s upsetting to me how unsurprised I am when academic prowess trumps baseline ethical behavior in how the university evaluates its faculty.
This year, I am trying to pick classes with professors who are kind and intelligent. I can always read a professor’s brilliant works, but I want to have professors whose office hours I feel comfortable going to, who want to teach me, who value me as a student. When I think about where I want to be after I graduate, I intend to pick a place to work where people are both kind and intelligent.
Kindness does not require grand gestures. It comes by practicing thoughtful, sometimes small, acts. Clean up after yourself in the dining hall. Be sympathetic to others. Give people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want you to only be kind when you run for office in twenty years. I want you to be kind and thoughtful now.
I’m not asking you to be walked all over, either. I’m asking you to dispel the notion that being kind requires you to shed some sort of intelligence, that you can only be defined by one or the other. We always joke that Hufflepuff is the lamest Hogwarts House, but honestly, we could all be a little more Hufflepuff.
Stop giving intelligent people a pass. Arrogance is not warranted, even if you win a Nobel prize. Kindness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. If you have the latter, start getting to work on the former.
HALA EL SOLH is a senior in Berkeley College. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .