It's Stupid to Be Smart

by Tina Blue
August 11, 2000

          Surely one reason why American students rank so low when compared academically to students from other countries is that for the most part Americans think it's stupid to be smart.

          We admire "smarts," of course, the sort of cleverness that allows one to manipulate people, play the game, acquire power and wealth, and get away with almost anything. But a love of learning for its own sake, or even a willingness to be taught something by someone more knowledgeable than oneself or to study diligently to master a subject--these are the hallmarks of the geek, the nerd, the loser.

          Nor is it just students who convey to their peers the message that intellectual excellence is at best a second-class achievement. In high school or college, a championship sports team is lionized, and classes are sometimes even cancelled for victory parades. A student is more likely to get a full-ride scholarship to college if he is an exceptional athlete, even if he is only a marginal student, than if he is a talented scholar. Teenaged athletes, even merely adequate ones, are glorified as the elite in most American public schools, while students who focus primarily on academics receive only the sort of recognition that provokes jeers in assembly--plaques, certificates, or perfunctory verbal congratulations.

          When my children were in junior high, students who maintained a 4.0 average all year were rewarded at the end of the year with a "4.0 pizza party": they got out of one hour of class to go outside and eat a slice of pizza and drink a can of soda. (What a great message: Do well in school and we'll reward you with an hour free from learning and a helping of junk food. But, hey, that's another essay.) No parades, no full-color photos in the newspaper, no mention on the local newscast that evening--all rewards routinely given to successful student-athletes. Just a slice of tepid pizza and a can of pop.

          Oh, sure, learning is its own reward. I actually believe that--know that--to be true. But it usually takes years for a child to really absorb that truth, especially in a society where other sorts of achievements are so conspicuously over-rated and over-rewarded, especially while one is in school. (Maybe if your nerdiness is concentrated in a field connected to a high-growth industry, you will someday grow up to be Bill Gates; but maybe if someone had thrown Bill Gates a parade for being smart while he was in school, he wouldn't feel the need to own the world today.)

          Most young people desperately want to be recognized for their achievements, and when that doesn't happen, or when the recognition they get is so vastly overshadowed by the rewards their peers receive for success in other sorts of endeavors, then a given student is likely to internalize that undervaluation of his own activities and his own success. Even if a student achieves success both in highly valued activities (say, in football, or in dressing fashionably) and in academics, he or she is being taught that while being intelligent and doing well in school may be nice, they aren't as important as those other things, and the less important activities should not be allowed to interfere with the more important ones. In fact, in many schools the popular, high-profile students actively downplay their intelligence and the time they spend studying, because to appear too studious or intellectual would diminish their status among their peers.

          In the movie Stand and Deliver, Lou Diamond Phillips plays a member of a high school gang who discovers that he has an interest in and an aptitude for mathematics. Knowing that his friends in the gang will go rough on him if they catch him showing an interest in learning the stuff or doing well in class, he ends up getting three math textbooks from the teacher: one to leave for use in the classroom, one to keep at home for homework, and one to keep in his locker, so that every time he opens his locker his friends will see that his math book is never used.

          Several years ago I had as a student in a freshman composition class a member of our university's football team, who ended up also taking his second English course (Composition and Literature) and his third (Introduction to Poetry) from me. During his comp and lit class he discovered that he loved poetry--not just the sort of "street verse" you find in rap music or at poetry slams, but also, and even more so, such poets as Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Tennyson, Browning, Cummings, and Dickinson. (Emily Dickinson was his favorite of all.) He so enjoyed reading and writing about poetry that in the English 210 (Introduction to Poetry) class, he had written all five required essays by the seventh week of the semester, and continued to write and turn in--for no extra credit, but just because he wanted to--an essay a week for the rest of the semester.

          Several of this young man's teammates were in the same English 210 class (not because they loved poetry, but because I teach required English courses at times that fit in with the athletes' scheduling needs), and their response to the course was precisely what most people would expect from a bunch of football players who were in college for the sole purpose of being discovered by professional football teams, not to get an education. (In fact, two of them are now quite successful as professional football players.) These fellows were merciless in the ribbing they gave him. He would glare at them and mutter obscenities as he lumbered up to drop yet another unrequired essay on my desk, and they would howl and guffaw and slap their desks at this poor fool who was studying poetry as if it actually mattered. At six foot five and 285 pounds, this student was a mountain of a man. But under the relentless teasing of his teammates, he would hunch down and pull in, trying to shrink and disappear to escape their notice.

          I don't think it was courage precisely that drove him to face his friends' derision. I think he would have stopped studying poetry and writing essays if he could have made himself stop. But the stuff was like a drug to him--he couldn't give it up. I don't know where he is now (last I heard he was a cop somewhere), but I'm quite sure he isn't making the money his old teammates get for playing pro football. I'm betting, though, that he still reads poetry. If he has children, maybe he has tried to get them to read poetry, too. But if so, he's had to contend with the anti-aesthetic, anti-intellectual pressure their peer group and indeed our entire culture brings to bear on them. If he has children, they probably won't discover a love for poetry--and if they do, it will come about by sheer luck, as it did for their father.

          Not many high school or college athletes get multimillion-dollar pro contracts. Unfortunately, not many get much of an education, either. Even if their athletic schedule left them the time or the energy to really devote themselves to their studies, virtually everything they've absorbed from their years in school has taught them that school is a waste of time and that studying is for fools.
          It isn't just athletes who internalize the message that school is a stupid waste of time, of course. They're just a prominent and easily identified example of what is, in fact, a pervasive attitude.

          An eighteen-year-old acquaintance of mine (call him "M") made a couple of complaints to me one day while talking about two courses he was enrolled in as a part-time college student. His first complaint was that the classes were over too fast: he was enjoying both classes so much that he hated when the fifty-minute periods were up. His other complaint was that most of his classmates typically began shuffling their feet and packing up their books three or four minutes before the period actually ended. In one class, the low-level noise drowned out the last points the professor made. In the other class, taught by a young and inexperienced teaching assistant, the instructor's insecurity led her to accede to the pressure applied by impatient students and to end the class a few minutes early each day.

          Most students hearing this story will have certain predictable responses. Some will think, "What a dork!" Others will think, "Yeah, but he probably had really good classes and his teachers were really interesting. If he had my classes and my teachers, he'd be anxious to get out as soon as possible, too!" Almost everyone, of course, will assume the guy is a suck-up.

          But this young man has hated school since the eighth grade (before that, he had his ups and downs), and he has been famous for giving his teachers attitude. Also since eighth grade, he has been too impatient and distractible to read anything that doesn't "grab" him within the first two sentences or that requires any sort of attention or intellectual effort on his part. It isn't just great teaching that has caught his interest, either. The professor in one course is dynamite in class, but the TA in the other is barely adequate. What's got him so involved in both classes, though, is the subject matter. Just as my football-playing student fell in love with poetry, M has gotten hooked on the subjects in these two classes, and he can't get enough of them. He's disgusted that nobody else in his classes seems to realize how fascinating these subjects are. All they can think about is getting out. Not very long ago that's all he could think about, too. "School is bunk," he used to say, and that's also what he said about everything else that required any thought on his part (including, by the way, the subject matter of those two courses that he's so interested in now).

          I'll be the first to agree that most classes in American schools are abysmally taught, and that everything that can be done will be done to make an interesting subject excruciatingly dull. But these conditions are not in themselves sufficient to account for the extreme aversion most American students seem to have to learning anything at all.

          The powerful peer culture that dominates all our school environments (for in American schools the inmates are running the asylum), and the popular culture that supports and feeds that peer culture, are so incredibly anti-intellectual that it's a wonder anyone ever gets to the other side of the Beavis and Butthead fog that fills the corridors of our educational instutitions. Some, like that football player and M, discover (after wasting years being woefully ignorant) that they've been missing out on something more fun, more enriching than they ever imagined. Too many of their peers, however, continue to slide through what remains of their education, getting as little as possible for the huge amounts of money and large chunks of their youth that they spend in school.
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