What can we do to tear down the Cult of Smart? The real heavy lifting must be economic. We must change our economy and our education system to no longer treat academic ability as the coin of the realm — especially given the basic economic fact that, as more college degrees are awarded, the less valuable they become. We should view schools not just as institutions of learning but as personal enrichment centers, places where we inculcate respect and compassion as well as academic skills.
And we must institute a Scandinavian-style social democracy to lower the stakes of schooling. If our students knew that they would be taken care of by a strong social safety net, regardless of their academic performance, they would approach school with less fear of failure and be more ready to learn for learning’s sake. And if we dramatically loosened restrictive graduation and advancement standards for high school and college students, we could ensure that their paths through our institutions are ones that play to their strengths and true interests.
If, like me, you viewed Trump’s paranoid and obsessive rant about “smart” with disgust, perhaps you’ll join me in working to build a world where we do not associate intelligence with virtue. If you are a parent, consider whether the way you talk about education suggests that your esteem for your children is dependent upon their performance in school. If parents speak with a little more care, they can represent the front lines in our efforts to tear down the Cult of Smart.