I am used to the low expectations people have of me: I have a bubbly personality, I smile a lot; I am very feminine. Combined with my Essex accent these are apparently sure-fire signs that a person has the brain cell count of a jelly fish (that’s none).
I’m also used to the floods of messages I get on social media every time I have an opinion that just so happens to brush upon education. People like to inform me that I’m “thick”, “dumb” and “stupid” and tell me that I shouldn’t have – lest express – any opinion on such matters because I’m not smart enough to.
This was, again, the case last week when, during an appearance on Loose Women, a topic segued into discussion about the value of going to university. A couple of the women felt extremely passionately about going to university and getting a degree. I felt that, while I advocate further education and think it’s a wonderful opportunity to specialize in a subject you feel passionately about – as well as growing as a human, living independently in a new environment – I don’t think it’s right for everyone. Not only this, but I feel strongly that university, for some people of my age, was simply not accessible. And I don’t feel that defines their intellect or prohibit their ability to become a well-rounded individual. I think that’s fair enough.
One of the messages I received after our discussion really got under my skin. “I’m not being funny,” it read, “I really doubt Stacey could have gotten into a university. And truth be told if it wasn’t for a lucky break on X Factor [sic], then she’d probably still be working in a café (nothing wrong with cafe work), but she certainly wouldn’t have the same money.”
“I have a national diploma equivalent to 3 As at A-level & could have gone to university, if I could afford it,” I replied. “I’m an intelligent capable human. Your opinion demonstrates a lack of education & ability to see past stereotypical traits in a human that society deems unintelligent.”
I was humbled to see the response – tens of thousands of people showed their support. I realise that I don’t need to explain myself or prove my intelligence to anyone, but I admit it’s disheartening to be constantly faced with barrages of presumptions that, because of my upbringing and personality, I’m not good enough. All of my life I’ve been met with shock and disbelief if I’ve ever come out with anything remotely smart, as if people are thinking, ‘how does this happy little Essex girl know anything’?
It has its advantages – if people have low expectations because of their own stereotypical beliefs, it’s a lot easier to impress. I remember going for my first job in an office greatly impressing my interviewer: after our initial bubbly, happy-go-lucky chat, me in my pink, pin-stripe suit, I managed to work out some basic mental arithmetic quicker than my interviewer. He almost fell out of his chair. Had I gone in with a degree, a more masculine grey trouser suit, been a little more monotone and serious I don’t think quick math would have made so much of an impression.
So much of our assumptions about someone’s intellect is associated with what somebody looks like, what they sound like and where they come from. We don’t even just limit these assumptions to intelligence. It’s also associated with talent. Why were the X Factor judges so shocked that someone with my accent could sing the way I did? I look back on the Xfactor and I’m grateful for my accent, without it would I have been just “another singer”. Would there have been enough of a shock factor for me to be a part of the show? Probably not.
There are so many different ways in which someone is “intelligent”. In my opinion this doesn’t always have to be measured by academic achievement. I know plenty of people who ooze intelligence and have never passed an exam. My dad for example. He left school at 15, built a dark room in his mum’s flat cupboard in Manor House and eventually owned his own shop and photography business at 20.
Emotional intelligence is also hugely underrated. I have friends who don’t have doctorates or Bachelors’ degrees but possess the ability to be able to connect with people in a way I’ve always coveted. Sometimes I’m blown away by the way people can be so connected to other humans and what they can achieve in terms of building strength and helping people through some of the toughest times in their lives. Practical intelligence: my brother-in-law can fix anything in the house! Joe, my wonderful partner is just incredible in social situations. He knows how to make everyone in a room feel like they have his undivided attention (which they do) and he gives them every inch of him for the length of conversation he’s having.
What I’m trying to say to those people who message me to tell me that I am “thick” on a regular basis is that intelligence doesn’t always look the same, and those who are intelligent don’t either. It takes hard work and determination to get a degree, and I am a big supporter of further education. It’s something I’d love to do myself sometime in the future – I adore learning new things. I’m not taking away from that. But I am asking for people to open up and consider that our looks and backgrounds do not define or limit our intelligence.
Let’s stop telling people from modest backgrounds that their education is capped at a certain level because of where they grew up. In fact I can attest to the fact that all this attitude does is put people off wanting to test the waters and apply, or push themselves towards higher education at all. We end up perpetuating the cycle that education is only for the elite.
Ultimately the message is an age-old one of “never judge a book by its cover”. There’s so much more than meets the eye and our stereotyping, cruel assumptions and inability to open our minds isn’t helping anyone. I, for one, have had enough of it