Let’s Make It Smart To Be Smart
I am a child of the 80s. I am a female child of the 80s. Of small-town America. A town where, after graduation, the majority of the kids were headed for either their family farm or the local factory. Attending a D-1 University was extremely rare, and attending an R-1 University was unheard of.
It was a Pennsylvania town, so when one of my brother’s classmates, four years older than me, was admitted to “U Penn,” literally everyone thought it was “Penn State.” Those are very, very different universities. U Penn is The University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and is an Ivy League School comprised of four undergraduate colleges and twelve graduate schools. Penn State is a land grant university in central Pennsylvania currently best known for its football program and pedophilia scandal.
My mother was a teacher at my high school. She was a well-respected English teacher whose specialty was American Literature, but she, like the other teachers in the department, taught spelling, vocabulary, and composition along with Lit. Because I was a teacher’s kid, the academic expectation was a bit higher than the kids who would inherit their parents’ farms. I’d be going off to college. But even so, coming from that small town, hardly anyone thought to set the bar high. State schools. Small, liberal arts colleges. Most of my friends were looking at schools whose total student body crested 7 or 8,000. No one looked outside of the state.
Ok, but that is just a small town.
That’s fine and fair for 30 years ago. But at the same time, in that same era, we watched the dissolution of any man having a study. Any household having a den. We observed the rise of the “man cave” and the disappearance of the formal living room as it gave way to space for sectional reclining couches and wall-mounted 55-inch televisions.
It’s fair to note that the emergence of cable news and cable channels in general kept us glued to our flat screens, and the dependence on the 24-hour news cycle didn’t help, but at the same time, as an entire body culture, there’s been a palpable shift to — unculture.
Even in that measurably small town, where all evidence points to limitations on my reach, my family sat down at 7PM to watch Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom,” and veritably learned more than I can currently retain about all manner of species across the world. In time, we gathered as well to watch the miniseries “Roots,” as my parents believed it to be an important landmark in our upbringing, and there would be no DVD or streaming service, so we watched it together, week by week. The same happened with the sweeping “North and South,” and when PBS aired “I, Claudius” and others.
It’s not that I grew up in a specifically Leave it to Beaver household. It’s that over time, so many of us have decided that those opportunities for learning are not just not important, they are specifically unimportant.
Not at any point in my experience, until well into adulthood, did anyone demonstrate to me that it would be an attractive feature for me to be intelligent.
Throughout school, both elementary and high school, I was smart. Not brilliant, not exceptional, but smart. And yet, no one outside of my household encouraged me deeply to show that off. So I didn’t. I got decent grades, but not outstanding ones. I was pretty. I was a cheerleader. I was on the track team. I wanted to be in theatre, to go on to get a degree in English, maybe work with kids or in public service, but no one pointed out that it would be in my best interests to be at the top of my class. No one gave me the nod and said, “you are remarkable at language and have the vocabulary of someone who had clearly read widely” (which I had) or “how the heck do you have such an ability to spell and retain words and pronunciations?” (which I did).
It took years, more than two decades, for me to come out from that shell and decide that smart was good and smart was beautiful. Girls and women struggle with that so hard today because smart does not equal pretty. Young men have deep divides as well because sports and intellect do not seem to mesh, and handsome cannot dwell in the house of academic. And yet — it most certainly can. Why is it that the fella with the brilliant smile is not the fella with the brilliant mind? Moreover, why do we value one more than the other? I’d say the woman who can determine an AI algorithm that heats my shower water to the perfect temperature before I get in each morning or that determines the ultimate route to avoid traffic on every commute is far more valuable to me than the one who has good hair or made captain of the volleyball team. But maybe that’s just me.
Right at this moment, in the throes of COVID-19, we have a crossroads to face in America. We can choose to prioritize televising football games, game shows, soap operas. We can totally do that. It’s our option. We can make the focus of our reopening all about entertainment, enjoyment, fun.
Or, we can look to the gaps we have and the opportunities that lie ahead and seek out those spaces — those crevasses left when we leaned away from “Roots” and “Romeo and Juliet” on PBS. Some wise folks have already begun clamoring to open Broadway theatres not to live patrons but to skilled camera operators so that talented casts and crews can perform live on stage and those performances can be streamed for a fee to services like Netflix and Hulu and purchased by those of us who would love to support live theatre again. We can imagine a world full of paid, livestreamed lectures again like those at The Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, like Ted Talks, and live performances like those at the Lincoln center and Heinz Hall and the Hippodrome and the Hollywood Bowl — all brought safely into our homes.
We can fill those gaps with learning, with getting smarter and more satisfied, becoming a rich tapestry of knowledge and wisdom and shared experience. We can choose to make it smart to BE smart.