Beauty vs. brains

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In the same way that beauty contests evaluate different expressions of beauty, they should also value different expressions of intelligence
 21-year-old Dang Thu Thao (C), a finance and banking student at Tay Do University in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, was crowned Miss Vietnam 2012 on August 25

A string of beauty queens have been virtually crucified for not performing well in school, but the backlash misses two points: first, many Vietnamese beauty queens have in fact excelled in academics, and second, "school smarts" are only one kind of intelligence.

Dang Thu Thao, the latest Miss Vietnam crowned last Saturday, is a finance and banking student at Tay Do University in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho.

Though the school is not one of the country's best, the 21-year-old Thao would have achieved more academically than at least half her predecessors.

The educational competence of Vietnamese beauty queens has been a hot topic of debate ever since it was found out that Miss Vietnam 2008 Tran Thi Thuy Dung did not finish high school.

Dung was found to have dropped out of 12th grade at a private school.

Pressure from the public after her victory forced her to resume her studies and take the high school graduation exams: she got 33 out of 60 in her six core subjects, including a grade 3 out of 10 for Literature.

Related agencies at the time announced plans to revoke her title as she had violated the contest's regulations for not having a high school diploma.

But her crown was never taken away.

Dung is now attending the private Australian-owned Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Ho Chi Minh City and was a judge for the Southern Round of Miss Vietnam 2012 while the public fumed that she did not deserve the position.

But the mostly-negative attention on Thuy Dung has since been redirected to Luu Thi Diem Huong, Miss Vietnam World 2010, who has taken the spotlight for a similar "scandal".

Huong lost public favor when her college-system academic record from the private Hoa Sen University in HCMC showed she failed seven subjects in one semester and scored a C or D in her other 11 subjects.

But it's important not to forget that Bill Gates dropped out of school completely. The richest and arguably most "successful" man in the world and possibly one of the most admired men in Vietnam never completed a college degree. Is there anyone saying he hasn't got enough brainpower?

However, Huong's problems weren't over with the release of her grades. At the Q&A session in the contest, she wrongly stated that Vietnam's first university, the Quoc Tu Giam in Hanoi, was built 700 years ago while in fact it was built in 1076.

But after doing well in the bikini and dress categories, she finished top.

An angry public prompted local media to dig more only to discover that she had referred to Thuy Kieu, a Chinese character in Vietnam's most famous epic poem Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyen Du, as "an iconic Vietnamese woman."

Miss Vietnam 2008 Tran Thi Thuy Dung (Top) and Miss Vietnam World 2010 Luu Thi Diem Huong

Some have argued that the problem is that the judges for Vietnamese beauty contests are mostly those concerned with beauty and nothing else. They are mostly painters, cosmetic surgeons, actors and some are reporters and former beauty queens. But why wouldn't these people artists, doctors and writers not be able to judge wisdom in whatever form it takes?

Many people have claimed that the quality of beauty pageants has deteriorated as the beauty queens of yesterday were almost all good students.

Miss Vietnam 1988 Bui Bich Phuong gained a master's degree in business administration soon after she was crowned at age 17, and has run various community projects and charity programs in Vietnam and the Southeast Asia since.

Dieu Hoa was crowned Miss Vietnam 1990 as a senior at the University of Languages and International Studies at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. She is now a businesswoman with a master's degree in economics.

"I had planned to continue studying whether I won the beauty contest or not," Hoa said.

Miss Vietnam World 2007 Ngo Phuong Lan, a graduate at the University of Genève, Switzerland with an international relations degree, is studying further overseas while running several charity projects in Vietnam.

Still fans of several of the "fallen" beauty queens have pointed out that it's a bit unreasonable to demand that beauty pageant contestants be good at everything.

They say that these people are essentially performers and as such must focus on their particular performance strengths and weaknesses more than anything else, the same way actors and artists must focus and train to hone their craft. Some don't have time, or even money, for school and what little time and energy they have left needs to go to PR and publicity as rabid critics hound their every move.

But the critics' evaluations of book smarts which are often not even an evaluation of intelligence at all but judgments of how well a student followed directions, was punctual, pleased teachers and prioritized school over other rewarding things in life ignore other important and valuable kinds of intelligence: emotional intelligence, creative/aesthetic intelligence, social intelligence, and "street smarts," i. e., the ability to adapt to one's environment outside of school.

What good is an education in the classroom if the student is merely indoctrinated with official propaganda in support of the status quo? Students don't necessarily know anything about the outside world just because they memorized a textbook in school. What about the intelligence it takes to love, live compassionately and/or dream, wonder and imagine? Certainly some graduates of some of the planet's "best" schools have had none of these.

But none of this is to ignore the value an official classroom-based education can provide most people, particularly given the weight society places on it. It is true that a diploma or degree can open up employment opportunities, particularly for the poor, that they wouldn't have had otherwise. And certainly, many beauty queens have been able to rely on their degrees and diplomas once the wrinkles began to show and the entertainment industry had no use for them anymore.

However, we all argue that our educational system is deeply flawed and even oppressive, full of rote-learning and corruption. Why then savage the people who don't do well when playing a broken game?

The famous Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti might have put is best: "It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

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