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The Case Against “Smart”

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Sure they like to read. But can they screw in a lightbulb, unlike their father?

What does “smart” mean, really? Within the context of formal education, it seems to indicate some variation on the phrase “good at school.” But when we break it down, does that mean you’re a good reader? A good writer? A Math whiz? A test-taking machine?

Oxford’s etymology:

“… related to the verb, the original sense (late Old English) being ‘causing sharp pain’; from this arose ‘keen, brisk’, whence the current senses of ‘mentally sharp’ and ‘neat in a brisk, sharp style’.”

“Causing sharp pain” resonated, as I recall as a child my mother saying “Don’t get smart with me, young man,” which often came a few hours after a well-meaning teacher directed a “Nice job on that test, Rory! You’re a smart little guy!”

So when we talk about a smart student, what do we actually mean? They process information quickly? They’re creative? Their insights in class discussions are more sophisticated than their peers’? And then what if none of this translates to good grades? Then bring on the cliche: “He’s so smart; if only he applied himself!” And what does that mean for the kid who works incredibly hard, but is not as “bright.” Do we label her as “successful” even though “she wasn’t that smart”?

And once you’re labeled a smart kid, watch out. Any behavior deemed “not smart” yields double punishment. “Hey, why’d you do that? You’re supposed to be one of the smart kids.” As if that label exempts you from being human. Worse yet, there’s the entitlement for kids who’ve been told how smart they are their entire lives. Any criticism comes as an affront to their identity and can spin them into a cycle of self-doubt. I know this all too well as a “smart” kid myself and the coordinator of a program of, you guessed it, “smart” kids.

In many areas of my life, I’m not smart at all. I have a Master’s degree, but I’ve got a grill that’s been sitting unfixed on my deck for two years. I barely know how to use a leaf blower. And anything with pipes or wires is totally off-limits.

If you were to add up all of my “smarts,” Master’s and all, I would probably be pretty average, as would most PhDs. Even a medical doctor is plenty “smart,” but if you’ve ever had one with poor bedside manner, you know many lack social intelligence.

Meanwhile, one of my students, Devin, buys and sells car parts and builds engines from scratch. Who’s smarter, Devin or the doctor? Depends on if you need a new heart or a new engine.

The “smart” label probably causes more harm than good, especially when we’re dealing with adolescents who are hyperfocused on where they fit among their peers. So let’s replace the “smart” label with something else, although I’m not sure what. Any ideas?

Sorry, I’d help – if only I were smart enough.

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