Having been in education now for depressingly close to three decades, I’ve noticed that educators are very careful when the opportunity presents itself to describe a student as “smart”. When I changed teaching jobs and moved from a Connecticut high school to a South Carolina high school in the mid-eighties, I was struck by how teachers used the S-word freely but almost always in a whisper, as in He’s really smart or Oh, she’s smart. I had never heard any teachers in Connecticut ever label a student as smart. But in South Carolina I heard it fairly often, as if a news flash or notice of some special case. I won’t attempt to theorize why – it’s just something I noticed.
Then there are those teachers who call everybody smart. In addition to cheapening the attribute, it’s just not true. This isn’t Lake Wobegon, after all, where “all the children are above average.” No one in education seems to want to admit the obvious: All kids are not smart. It may be politically correct to say they are, but it’s a lie. I guess I’d rather be honest than politically correct.
I should also point out that my premise that not all kids are smart does not in anyway lead to the conclusion that they cannot learn or that they should not be taught. Quite the opposite: All kids can learn, and it is our job to find a way and a pace that accommodates them wherever they may be on this continuum of smartness. If they’re on the low end (i.e., not smart (there, I said it)) we must work even harder to reach them so that they do learn and are successful.
Why do we have such a problem saying some kids are smart and some are, well, not smart. We immediately acknowledge without pause that some kids are athletic and some are not athletic. Or that some are creative and others are not creative. Why is smart any different? Is it that, as a society, we place more value in being smart than, say, being athletic? Not really. Look at the mean salary of professional athletes compared to the mean salary of rocket scientists.
So what’s the deal? dven.