My friend Anne* (not a real name) and I were eating lunch and discussing our latest art projects. Occasionally, I riff on projects, free-associating wildly across genres, philosophies, art styles, and, if not stopped, musical styles and poetry.
Anne is a studious, meticulous designer whose work I admire. She has been exploring the same project for three years, trying tiny-step different experiments that have not yet yielded her a usable answer. She and I admire each other’s work in totally different ways. I admire her precision and perfectionism; she admires my ability to make connections between diverse thoughts and processes.
Looking at my art project, she said, “How can you think of something like this?” Without giving it much thought, I said, lightly, “I’m really smart.”
Instant silence. I had said something I should not have. I had dared to say I was smart. She leveled me with a stern look and said, “Who was Grover Cleveland’s Vice President?” “First or second term?” I answered before admitting I had no idea. She then asked me to explain logarithms. I could only say they came in lists of tables. She looked at me with great pity. “Smart?” she said. She has not spoken to me since. I was not supposed to say I am smart.
I hesitated three days before writing this post. I am embarrassed to admit I’m smart. I don’t want to face people’s obscure questions to prove I’m smart. I don’t want to have to quote my IQ or answer if I am in Mensa. Because, of course, “being smart” depends on the definition of smart. Another (not related) Quinn McDonald appeared on Jeopardy and knew an amazing amount of obscure facts. I know a good deal of odd facts–mangoes are related to cashews; the skin and vine of the mango contain urushiol, the active ingredient that makes poison ivy poison. But that’s not what makes me smart.
We live in an anti-intellectual culture. Saying you are smart is either an invitation to fight, to be smacked by the obscure-fact challenge, or to be made fun of. In our culture it is good to be athletic, rich, slim, beautiful, or a celebrity. Smart is not good. If you are smart, you deny it. If you are a smart woman, you act helpless. You make jokes, you point to what you don’t know. Because smart is not the coin of the realm.
I’m writing this because I worry about American schools and their mission. We no longer have an education system that turns out smart people. The idea of a classical education is dead. A classical education was not perfect, but it did something important–it taught problem solving, analytical thinking and how to think rather than what to think. We now have an education system that teaches to tests, that assigns kids into career tracks before they have a chance to explore what a career is, that doesn’t teach the basics of communication–grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Our education system teaches kids to value sports, competition, beauty, celebrities and wealth. It also teaches them to de-value music, art, creativity, theoretical sciences, and independent, analytical thinking.
It’s odd, but we don’t have to de-value one thing to promote another. We can have both. We can be more. We can be smart. But only if we want to change the direction we are heading in now.