Why Don’t We Like Smart?

Two interesting things happened on Monday. Littlest and I were having lunch at a local eatery and seated next to us were  two dads. The one dad commented to the other that his daughter could be an amazing softball player if she would just be more committed to it.

And then he said, “I want her to push it so she can play softball for a good school, but all she wants to do is go to the U. and study things. Can you believe it?”

Later I removed from Littlest’s backpack the accrued homework and practice sheets from missing a week of school. Included in the stack of mostly recycling was his last reading test. I was thrilled to see he had passed it with such high marks, so I set it aside to show Mister Soandso.

The next morning, Mister Soandso took a picture of the test and posted it on his Facebook account. A bit of a disclaimer here. Mister Soandso uses his Facebook primarily to share info with his family and a small group of friends. He was proud of his kiddo and so shared that with the same folks he would verbally.

But that night he mentioned that he very nearly didn’t post the picture because he was wondering if it would be seen in a less than positive light, seen as bragging. Mister Soandso also remarked that he hadn’t worried about posting a picture of Littlest earning his karate badge after only 4 lessons a few weeks ago. Both are examples of Littlest’s natural aptitude as well as his hard work paying off.

Mister Soandso isn’t the only one caught in deciding what achievements can be shared. And the softball player’s dad isn’t the only one pushing athletics over scholastics. Both dads reflect the majority of perspectives on the roles of education, athletics and academic success in the United States today. Sure folks want kids to do well at school. But we brag about when our kids do well at the athletic aspects of school. Not the academic ones.

Which leads me to this question: Why don’t we like smart?

I will clarify my question. It appears that while parents and adults often say we encourage children to be smart or good learners, why is it we are uncomfortable with sharing children’s academic achievements the same way we do their athletic achievements?

I think the answer is complicated.

First off, most people perceive academic success to be a natural extension of one’s genetic capacity. And, of course, a person’s intelligence is influenced by genetic codes and heredity. But with practice, most kids are good learners and being a good learner is a big part of being what we call “smart.” If a child practices academics with the same intensity and effort as most sports (or other things like a musical instrument) require for most children, we would have lots and lots more “smart” people.

Secondly, for a nation founded on the tenets of education, the United States has lately become a place where education with a capital E has become far less important for our general population. As educating our population gets more and more expensive and fewer and fewer young people see a formal “liberal arts” education in their future, the attainment of an education after high school becomes less and less of a foregone conclusion for youth today.

When I was still in the parent-teacher conferences arena as a high school English teacher, each year the number of disgruntled parents who said in their child’s hearing some version of “what did school ever get me?” grew larger and larger. The American Dream of getting farther ahead of your own parents has become tarnished for so many and the only glimmer of hope for many remains not via education but via athletics.

One way I saw this fading dream in action was as a speech coach. My classes were filled with children of widely varied ethnic backgrounds. And yet my speech team was not. When I went to district competitions and then on to the State speech competitions, I would see round after round of homogeneous teams. And when we did have multicultural students participating, it was often a very limited group of kids in a very specific category.

I would start each season with high hopes of recruiting my African American students to join my speech team. One young man, with his resonant voice and perfectly dry sense of humor, particularly drew my attention. I actually begged him to try his hand at the Humorous category in speech. My gut told me he would be great. He refused.

“Why would I do something where other kids would think I’m smart? Besides, we all know the money is in being a baller.” To say his voice was incredulous would be putting it mildly.

I looked at him. And I tried really hard to look at the world from his perspective. He was a starter on the JV basketball team, living on the dream that his coach had offered him: if you practice really hard you might make varsity by your junior year. That means two years to play before the scouts.

All I had to offer him was an hour of my attention every day and a good shot at placing at State.

There was no contest, especially not when his peers told him being smart was for dorks (not their word) and being a “baller” was better.

I still think of that young man, who never went on to play basketball for any college, who stopped thinking of himself as smart or gifted by the time he was a high school graduate. If only he had believed that being smart was better than being a “baller” he could have possibly done so much more. The last time I saw him, he was doing fine. He was working, dating a girl from the neighborhood and playing a game of basketball with his friends on the weekends. They’d drink beers after the game and talk about the good ole days. He was 23.

He traded his “smarts” for his athletic abilities which, while good for a teen, were not good enough for a professional athlete.

Why don’t we like smart?

Because it doesn’t sell much beer or tee-shirts. Advertisers don’t want to endorse it. There are no NASCAR decals for smarts.

I remember the first time I watched my Oldest thinking. He was so tiny, laying on a blanket in the summer sunshine. He was holding his hand in front of his face and turning it front to back, back to front. He was learning about his world and it was such a beautiful thing to watch.

Of my three children, none can throw a perfect spiral. The basketball hoop dangles, molding and frayed, unused but for a few neighbor kids. They outgrow their sneakers before they ever wear them out.

But they learn every day.

They are good learners and dammit, they are smart.

And in this house, we like smart. So we hang up their reading tests and their essays on volcanoes. And for now on, we just might be posting their scores on our Facebook pages. Because one thing my 43 years have taught me more than anything else is that my body was only a teen once. But my mind can always be learning, and growing, and getting smarter. Every day.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no trade.

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6 thoughts on “Why Don’t We Like Smart?

  1. I echo your frustrations. That said, I’ve come to appreciate the quote from Elwood P. Dowd in HARVEY:

    “My mother used to say to me, ‘Elwood’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘Elwood, in this world you must be oh-so clever, or oh-so pleasant.’ For years I was clever. I’d recommend pleasant — and you may quote me.”

    Whether you’re athletic or smart, at the end of the day success emerges from our relationships.

  2. Yup. It’s a sad thing. I was always smart. I was never athletic as far as anyone else knew.(I actually had some pretty good athletic skills, just not in team sports)

    With attitudes like the softball dad and some of your students displayed being as prevalent as they are, and only getting more so, it doesn’t seem likely to change soon.

    That said, the Elwood P Dowd sentiment above is also valid. I learned this watching a number of very smart people, very competent people, who were unpleasant to the point of frequently hurting people around them.

    It occurred to me over time that when one is watching the final display of one’s life, if you believe that sort of thing – and I do, Ultimately Nice is More Important than Competent, whether that’s academically, fiscally, athletically, musically or what ever. Obviously, that’s only my belief, not a fact.

    Thanks for this, another in a long line of very thoughtful and well put posts. Sometimes you just freakin’ blow me away.

  3. This has my mind spinning in a bunch of different directions.

    I love smart kids, but I’m not sure testing is always the best measure. I had plenty of smart students in my classes. In fact, I’m kind of inclined to think they were all smart.

    What they sometimes lacked was spark.

    Personally, I think the spark dies out when we don’t see a point to the work we’re doing. That’s as true for adults as it is for kids.

    My goal as a teacher was always to reignite a love of learning. I didn’t want an A-student to be satisfied with jumping through those A-level hoops for no reason. I didn’t want a struggling student to feel the point of education was torture for the sake of a piece of paper.

    Education is the fulfillment of curiosity. We’re born looking for answers in the same way we’re born needing love.

    Sometimes we reach far beyond our abilities and we don’t reach our goals, but we grow tremendously in the process. And sometimes we set such low goals that we get the grade without challenging ourselves.

    It seems like we usually equate “smart” with the kids who don’t work very hard and still get good grades. This isn’t something I’d want for any of my kids. I’d much rather they be curious and passionate.

  4. You’ve sparked a great conversation in our house this morning, Kristina!

    Oldest just placed 2nd in our regional history contest–and gets to go to state–yay! She’s also starting track. She says the problem is that kids think they have to choose academics or athletics. She says the two should complement each other. What we need is balance.

    Husband says there’s an American reaction against intellectualism that stems back to the founding of the country and a rejection of royalty. In our desire to be ruled by the “common man,” we distrust people who think they’re smarter than we are. It has everything to do with our feelings about a ruling class. He still doesn’t like the anti-intellectual sentiment, but there is a context for it.

    Fascinating. Thanks for your post.

  5. It is complicated. As individuals, we all have talents and interests. Sometimes they match up; sometimes, no matter how hard we strive, we will not be that good. As parents, we have to be careful of laying our trips (particularly frustrated goals we did not achieve on our children). It is hard to find the right line between encouraging a child to develop and simply trying to lay our own trip on a child who should be allowed to go in a different direction.

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