Saturday, January 2, 2016

Exploring the Concept of "Smart" in 2016

Just to get this out there, I come from an educated family.

The question was never, "Are you going to college?" but "Where are you going to college?"  My sister has a PhD in Microbiology. My mother is a nurse practitioner. My father is a lawyer. As merely a teacher, I'm in fact under-educated for my family.

I'm sure you've all heard of "book smart" versus "street smart" ... virtually everyone in my family falls in the "book smart" category, high on analyzing Shakespeare but low on common sense.

I used to buy into that line, that you were either smart at learning or smart at learning how to do stuff. Instead, I've come to believe, both as a teacher and as a person, that we all have a combination of these basic intelligence slants, some higher than others but some combination thereof.

Much of my changed thinking on the nature of intelligence is based on someone near and dear to my heart, a friendship that goes back to high school.

Let me introduce you to "Will" (obviously not his real name), an ironworker and a musician. Will graduated from high school in 1995 and has had almost exclusively labor-intensive jobs since then. (He took one college course along the way and, of course, earned an A.)

Will is gifted at working with machines and metals, often coming up with innovative solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. He does this at work all the time, and he does it in other facets of his life as well. He has done lots of work on various cars I own over the years, sometimes a simple brake job, sometimes greater challenges (one of my headlights did not work on low beam; it was not the bulb, and the mechanic couldn't figure out the problem. I kept getting pulled over for having a headlight out, but I'd take it to the mechanic and it would suddenly be working. In desperation, I called Will; he simply cross-wired the low beams and the high beams, and everything worked just fine).

I said to him just yesterday, "One of these days, something is going to come up that you will not be able to fix."

He shrugged (he's kind of cocky about his skills) and mentioned a couple of failures he's had.

Will is often on fire (literally) at his job, so he is usually dressed in dirty jeans with burns in them and t-shirts stained with steel dust. His hands are permanently discolored despite the fact that he washes them regularly. He is tall and big, wears glasses, and the overall effect upon first glance is, "Laborer. Good at his job. Not smart enough for anything more, but he looks like he works hard."

But I have known this man since we were fourteen-year-old kids. I know that he took college-prep classes and got As and Bs with pretty much no effort, that he is a bookworm that can understand and discuss literature that I studied in college (I was an English major, too), that he reads informational magazines, that he watches the History Channel, Discovery, Nat Geo, and so on obsessively.

While Will never went to college (for financial reasons, not because he didn't get a much higher SAT score the one time he took it than I did in my five attempts), I would argue that he is educated because he takes the time to educate himself--through books, through documentaries, through conversations with experts.

And then, of course, there's Will's other passion--music. He has been playing with live bands, guitar and bass guitar, since we were in high school. Music is an art, but it is one that requires strict discipline and regular daily practice. He is a gifted musician, can tune a guitar in minutes (and tell if it's out of tune in a nanosecond or two), and is able to think on his feet quickly enough to stay in synch with other band members.

When ice fishing or boating or hiking or fixing cars or replacing drywall or rebuilding a garage, Will keeps us a running commentary on what is happening or why. He's taught me, among other things, that you can see where stripers are running by watching the seabirds flocking; that setting up a tent requires a lot of concentration (but not a manual); that you need to hold a nail gun flat and squeeze the trigger quickly; that you should be absolutely sure that you got the right oil filter before asking someone to change the oil on your car; that you should take the cover off the brake fluid reservoir when doing brakes; that getting your mom's Jeep stuck in a mudhole isn't totally insurmountable (but it will not be clean); that there is one person in the world that I have never beaten at chess (Will, of course); that meals should always begin with onions, mushrooms, and garlic and almost always include beer; that Lord of the Flies was a depressing book because the boat that came and stopped the massacre of Ralph just in time was itself on its way to massacre human beings; and about a million other things over the years.

Both in terms of learning (book smart) and in terms of learning by doing things (street smart), Will is the smartest person I know.

If you met Will, though, I doubt that you'd share my opinion on that. He often looks like a big dumb dirty ironworker (and will, in fact, often say, "What do I know? I'm just a stupid ironworker". The idea that he could be not just street-smart but book-smart might appear ludicrous. I stand by what I said, though.

Will might be the only person I know that is incredibly "smart" both innately and by education, but I have recently started to notice the different combinations that make up people I know.

My father, a lawyer, has always enjoyed building stuff. He used to be terrible at it, but he has improved greatly over the years. Carpentry is a learned skill for my father, not an innate one, but he is good at it.

A family member was recently hanging a TV and needed some help. I am married to a highly educated man with some innate intelligence, and he went and mounted the TV for my family member. I could not have done that as I have no knowledge whatsoever of wall studs and such, yet I have a beautiful college transcript (both undergrad and graduate) that contains more As than other letters.

In 2016, "smart" means something different different than it has traditionally. I am convinced that we have to focus not on book smart vs. street smart but on knowing and understanding the checks and balances necessary to maximize our own innate potential with education.

What are your thoughts?

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