It’s back to school time, and that means it’s time for Americans to renew their annual rite of blame shifting attempts of why their view of what is really wrong with American education is the correct one.  This blame shifts from parents to teachers to administrators to politicians and back to parents again, always to one specific group after another rather than to anything more wide spread.

While we’re spinning our wheels in this blame game, nobody bats an eye at comments such as these:  “You’re just trying to be smart.” or “You think you’re better than everyone else because you’re smart.”  And then there are the blank stares of disapproval when you tell somebody in America that you’re interested in art, philosophy, or history.  These are just more things considered attempts to get up on some high horse just so I can look down on everyone else – something Americans have no problem with when athletes or entrepreneurs try to better themselves.

But actually, no, I’m not trying to be better than everybody else.  I just happen to think intelligence is a valuable thing.  My desire to be smart has nothing to do with you or with anybody besides me.  It’s about living the best, most fulfilling life I can, something which learning helps.  A lot.  It never ceases to amaze me the disconnect between how consistently our culture devalues intelligence through the comments and blank stares and everything else, and how consistently ignored is this stigmatization when Americans try to fix our educational system.

One of the reasons for the stigmatization for intelligence is no doubt political.  In a country where groups are frequently sought out for demonization for political purposes, yes, some have consistently sought to add to the list of communists, foreigners, atheists, etc. the group of intellectuals.  For some, it’s better to have a “them,” any “them,” something to which the Ivory Tower syndrome of aloof elites has unfortunately contributed.

Additionally we have this hide your head in the sand mentality.   We tend to esteem the outward appearance of not making mistakes over the process of learning from our mistakes, and we tend to ignore the success stories of others simply because they are the success stories of others and not ourselves.  We don’t learn from other countries, such as in the areas of health care, education, and the other things that they accomplish that contribute to greater overall well-being, because well, what they’re doing is not what we’re already doing.  Sure there are historical reasons too for our nation’s academic antipathy.  That our forefathers coveted physical labor over intellectual, and that they also often appeared to our shores driven from conflicts caused by other country’s elite, who were incidentally educated, has certainly contributed to all of this.

So what can be done to improve?  For one, we can recognize and value the hard work involved in mental labor.  Yes, learning, whether it be facts or skills, takes lots and lots of work, the product of which should instill pride.  Not arrogance, but pride.  When others are trying to learn a skill, whether it be auto mechanics or art history, we should be supportive and complimentary, not resentful and envious.  At least as often as kids are complimented for athletic accomplishments, they should be praised for academics.

We also need to be open to the fact that intelligence is not just a trait that we inherit, but a skill that must be developed.  And like anything, to get smart, you have to not only go through the stage of being ignorant, you must acknowledge your areas of ignorance and seek to improve them, something which Americans are notoriously lousy at.  Usually you can’t improve unless you make an honest critical examination of yourself.

smart ain't cool eagleAmericans have a reputation for respecting emotions over intellect, and faith over reason.  We reject evolution in numbers that make others around the world scratch their heads, and we accept a spirit of “coolness” in which museums and books are boring, and explosions, hot rods, and special effects are awesome.  America is falling behind because other countries are realizing all of this long before us.  Any ultimately successful effort to fix what’s wrong with American education must start at the ground level with fixing what’s wrong with Americans ourselves.

I’ll wrap this post up with, yes, a nerdy quote from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre:  “Everything we do affects not only ourselves, but by our choices and actions we set examples for the rest of mankind.”  Ultimately, that’s how many of our problems get fixed.  It starts with a few good examples.

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