“So, I figured I’d ask you,” said my contractor. “You’re a lot smarter than me and—”
That’s when I stopped him.
Tom knows I am a college professor, and he wanted to ask my advice on his daughter’s education. He’s an ex-Marine who never went to college. It makes sense to ask an educator for advice about education, but why does that make me smarter?
I thought about all the times I’ve asked Tom’s advice about the house we are renovating, and about all the times he answered with a tone that implied, “Well, obviously you should…”
“Tom,” I said, “I wouldn’t say I’m smarter than you. It depends on the topic.”
He smiled politely and moved on to his question.
But even if he dismissed my objection as perfunctory, I can’t let it go. Why does our culture trivialize nonacademic intelligence and knowledge?
I think the existing structure of schooling plays a big part.
Why does our culture trivialize nonacademic intelligence and knowledge?
Let me tell another story, this one from my days as a high school special educator. I was teaching a study-skills class to students with learning disabilities. Partly, this course provided students extra time on assignments for other classes. One day, I sent two students to the library to work on a written project assigned for another course. About 10 minutes later, I received a call from the school librarian.
“You should come up here and get these kids, because they are off task and disturbing others!”
When I got to the library, I didn’t want to confront my students immediately. I wanted to see how, exactly, they were being disruptive.
What were they doing? Adjusting their fantasy football rosters.
As anyone who’s really played fantasy football knows, adjusting your weekly roster involves contemplating a lot of statistics: What are this player’s chances against this team? How does this team do against this type of running back?
That’s what my students were doing in the library: arguing over statistics. Not bad for kids considered learning disabled in subjects like math.
Like a good teacher, I interrupted their passionate dispute and instructed them to come back to the room, where they could get going on the more important work of writing an academic paper.
Whether we mean to or not, we constantly reinforce the message that only the stuff kids are taught in school counts as serious learning. Extracurriculars are fine, but what really counts is in their textbooks and homework.
We send them to school precisely because we believe that’s where they’ll be taught the most important subjects. We grade them on those things, and in many ways we measure their worth (at least while they’re in school) by how well they do on tests and school assignments.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice this. Education theorist John Holt wrote about it in his frankly titled essay “School Is Bad for Children”:
Oh, we make a lot of nice noises in school about respect for the child and individual differences, and the like. But our acts, as opposed to our talk, says to the child, “Your experience, your concerns, your curiosities, your needs, what you know, what you want, what you wonder about, what you hope for, what you fear, what you like and dislike, what you are good at or not so good at — all this is of not the slightest importance, it counts for nothing.”
Ivan Illich made a similar point in Deschooling Society. Illich suggests that schooling makes us dependent on institutions for learning by convincing us that what we learn in school is important and what we learn outside is not.
Likewise, in Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher and auto mechanic Matthew Crawford bemoans the dichotomy we set up in our schools and society between knowing and doing. Schools are increasingly cancelling programs like shop class to make way for more knowing and less doing. Crawford points out that this drastically underestimates the crucial role of thinking in manual labor.
If you are still in doubt, think about this: earlier, I talked about learning disabilities. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), learning disabilities can only exist in academic subjects like reading and math. If you are bad at playing music or drawing, you are not learning disabled — just bad at music or art.
There may be good reason we leave teaching biology to the schools and teaching car care to the home (or to “extracurricular” apprenticeships). There may be good reason we teach algebra in the schools but not the statistical analysis needed to adjust a fantasy football roster. But the standard segregation of subjects sends the message that what is learned in school must be more important. We send you to a special building to learn it, we grade you on your ability to learn it, and we socially judge much of your worth by your success at it.
Almost by reflex, we ask kids, “What did you learn in school today?,” not, “What did you learn today?” The existence of school has conditioned us to regard what happens there as important, while we relegate what happens outside of school to the dust heap of “extracurriculars.”
So, no, Tom, I am not smarter than you; we’re both pretty smart. It’s just that our school-influenced culture wrongly tells us that what I do is more cerebral and therefore requires more intelligence than what you do. And that’s a bad assumption.