How Smart Got Its Groove Back

I enjoyed Thomas Friedman’s column today.  thomas-friedman-swimming-without-a-suit It is correct. We need to find those best practices and use them. But, he is missing a big point and what I think is ultimately the biggest problem.

Smart isn’t cool.

This morning was one of those mornings for me and my boy. Started off great. I come out of my bedroom from getting dressed and he is already dressed and in the kitchen trying to stuff his lunch bag into his book bag. Wow. Then I realize he has rushed to get dressed and in there and get his lunch in his bag so I am not the one doing it. He hadn’t brushed his teeth or made his bed. He wasn’t ready. He was trying to sneak a toy to school. I removed it and told him to go finish getting ready. On the five minute drive to school he asked about playing after school and I reminded him about his homework. Then, I went into why it is important to do well in school. That school is not a place to bring toys, it is not about friends and playing – it is about learning. I told him his friends were the icing on the cake. It was great that he got to see them at school, but that wasn’t the reason he was there. I told him that his friendships came with responsibility. If he were really their friend, he wouldn’t distract them from learning either. He was mad at me and told me he didn’t like me yelling at him. I pointed out that I wasn’t, just telling him things he didn’t want to hear – like that he actually had to prepare for the standardized tests he has coming up. He got out of the car mad at me.

There are many problems with our schools. Those standardized tests are one of them. So much of the time is taken up with making sure they pass the tests that they never really learn anything. And it is boring. I cringe every time I tell him he has to do what he is suppose to do at school, that he has to mind. Of course I want him to be well behaved, but I don’t want him to be an automaton just remembering factoids by rote. I want him to think, not just remember.

As hard as that problem is to solve, it doesn’t even touch the coolness issue. Smart is not cool. Smart = nerd (and not the good tech-nerds). Smart = more work. One of the most popular books over the last year was “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”. I made my boy quit reading it a short ways in when the main character explained that he tried to moderate his performance on a test so he wouldn’t be put in with the gifted students. You want to get your kids to read, but do you want them to read something that says “Hey! Don’t try your best you might have to work!” They get the same message on TV. The smart sister is a brat and pain. The smart kid never gets the girl and never has any fun. Even the parents roll their eyes at the smart kid. Ordinary is better. Average is good. Fitting in, looking like everyone else. Being just like everyone else – that’s cool. Being smart? Nope.

Some days, like today, I feel my quest is Quixotic. I cannot shield him from the influences of culture or his friends. Obviously my most heartfelt talks don’t get through either. Praising him for A’s use to work. Then paying him for A’s worked. Even monetary incentives are not enough to induce a fire in him. My approval is no longer an indictment. As he gets older and the pull of his friends get stronger, it will only become difficult to get him to see the importance and value of learning. It’s not just me that needs to change. It’s not just my boy. It’s society.

How do we make smart cool?

Why can’t the homecoming queen be a straight A student and the top jock also be in the chess club? When did we disassociate success from smart? How can we get it back?

President Obama is not a panacea. He has a lot on his plate. But, he is smart and he is cool. Maybe just like a CEO can moderate a company’s culture just by example, he can do the same. Maybe the coolness of smart could trickle down to the masses. That’s a trickledown theory I could actually get behind.


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