It’s OK to be Smart

My mother gave Daughter some “Brain Quest” cards for her birthday. Daughter loves this sort of thing; she has been reading the questions out to us and letting us know whether we got the answers right. In the process she is remembering the answers herself, asking a few questions, and therefore learning a great deal. 

The cards came with some printed material, and all over them is the slogan “It’s OK to be Smart”. Daughter started saying this alot and so I asked her what she thought it meant. She didn’t know, so I tried to explain that, in school, kids who enjoy learning are often teased for it. I said that alot of kids don’t like having to go to school and making fun of those who do is one way of coping with those feelings. 

I really hated that I had to have that conversation with her at all. 

The idea that we need to Market the belief that “learning is Fun!” or “it’s cool to be an A student” is, I think, an indication of what is so wrong about the way we have institutionalized learning. The social dynamics of age-segregation has fueled the sort of bullying that promotes persecution of those deemed “different” (and being “square” is one of those differences). The “mass production” nature of school, combined with a lack of resources (money and people), means that learning programs must attempt to be “one size fits all” leaving many children to fall through the cracks simply because they don’t learn in that particular fashion. The emotional consequences of being a kid who doesn’t understand, is falling behind, and who can’t succeed even despite their best efforts get played out in the “smart kids are nerds” attitude. In other words, the marketing campaign that seeks to convince kids that “It’s OK to be Smart” is just a reflection of how we have failed our children. 

The other thing that really irked me about having to explain this slogan is that I have deliberately avoided the word “smart” since my daughter was born. And certainly over the last several years as she has shown herself to be a precocious reader and learner, I have wished to avoid putting labels on her. Up until now, I doubt my daughter gave much thought to what she knows compared to the average 3 or 4 year old, or what she enjoys doing (like workbooks and quiz cards) and what that says about her in society’s eyes (“you must be smart!”). 

I grew up with the burden of “you must be smart” and it has always made me uncomfortable. As a child I couldn’t see it and often dealt with self-doubt that I was not living up to this label. I also learned to associate the notion of self-value with intelligence; something I’ve worked hard as an adult to shake off. These days being called “smart” doesn’t bother me; I consider it a collective misunderstanding and try to clarify: Everybody is smart in their own way, and academic smarts are just one form of intelligence. I lack political smarts, certain social situations give me challenge, and I’ve never been athletic. I just pursued what I loved, science, and it led me to my doctoral degree. Not because I was “smart”, but because it interested me so much. Anybody who shared my love of science and had the basic support mechanisms in place could have done what I did.

Meanwhile, Daughter goes along quizzing and learning and enjoying her game, still blissfully unaware of the heavy emphasis our society puts on Learning as something somehow separate from just Living.

Categories: learning is fun, natural learning | Leave a comment

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