I had a head-spinning, fly-completely-off-the-rails moment in my classroom yesterday.
Not because students were misbehaving. No...the students in that class are awesome kids. I went berserk because more than half of the students in the class said they don't think of themselves as "smart people." Then, they went further and said they don't want to be labeled as "smart people." It's just not cool.
This from advanced English students...pre-AP kids who jumped through rigorous hoops to be in the class...kids who are reading and discussing Plato's Republic.
Are you kidding me? Are you FREAKING kidding me?
Let me take a few deep breaths and back up.
As I said, we are reading Plato. After each reading assignment, I prepare three or four questions that serve to illuminate the reading and bring the concepts into the 21st century. I lob those questions into my classroom like conversational grenades. These kids are tremendous readers and thinkers, and they lob their responses right back at me. The discussion is always vigorous, and one of my goals is to teach them how to listen to a different point of view and disagree respectfully (a lost art these days).
So yesterday, we reached the section in which Socrates says that philosophers should be kings. The first grenade I tossed out there was this: Should the smartest people in a group or community be the leaders? Turns out that question wasn't a grenade. It was a thermonuclear weapon of mass destruction.
Overwhelmingly, the kids said no, the smartest people shouldn't necessarily be the leaders of any given group or community. I pointed out that a room full of smart people were arguing against smart people being in charge. That's when they started denying being smart.
"Oh, Ms. Owens, there's lots of people smarter than us."
"We're not really that smart."
"I don't think of myself as a smart person."
WTF? My goal of teaching respectful disagreement went out my nonexistent window, and I flipped.
"What do you mean you don't think of yourself as a smart person?"
I heard myself getting loud, and I knew my tone had changed from calm facilitation to righteous indignation.
"It's not cool to be smart."
Shrugs all around. "You know...everybody."
"Oh. Everybody. Of course. Everybody says it."
Yes...now we were firmly in the land of derisive sarcasm.
"I've got news for Everybody. Everybody is going to wake up when he graduates from high school and realize he needs the smart people. Everybody is going to need a smart person when he gets sick. Everybody is going to show up in a smart person's office with his hat in his hands when he needs legal help. Everybody is going to be a slave to the next must-have gadget that a smart person designed. Everybody is going to be punching the clock in a company a smart person runs. Everybody is going to realize that he is just a cog in a big machine that has a smart person at the controls."
I think I might have slammed my copy of Plato on a kid's desk at this point.
"Or even worse...maybe Everybody will never figure it out. Maybe he'll just be an ineffectual, frustrated underachiever who stays stuck in a rut his whole life and never figures out why he's so unhappy. Or he'll find a scapegoat to blame for his stupid choices...the government, his boss, his teachers...and the BEST part...he won't even be cool anymore. Because while Everybody has power in the halls of a high school where he preys on the inherent insecurity of his fellow students, once he graduates, he realizes the smart people have moved on. They are doing important smart people things, and he is nothing more than a dim, unpleasant memory."
A moment of silence descended when I stopped to breathe. I knew my blood pressure was up because I could feel my pulse in my forehead.
The kid sitting right in front of me said, "You really don't like stupid people, do you Ms. Owens?"
The class erupted in laughter, and so did I. The tension was broken, and I was able to answer his question like a reasonable person.
"I have no problem with people who are ignorant because they haven't been taught yet. I'm a teacher. That's what I do. My problem is with people who not only choose to remain ignorant, but who revel in their ignorance...wear it like a badge of honor."
The dumbass has become a staple of American TV and movies. Watch one episode of The Jersey Shore, and you'll believe with certainty we are doomed. Really. Is it any wonder kids think stupid is cool? But I didn't say that to my class.
I told them to be happy they could be counted among the smart people. I told them to believe it and to own it. Philosophers might not be kings, but smart people are captains of industry. The big problems our country faces will be solved by smart people, not pundits, talking heads, or self-serving politicians. Smart people are doing all the work that truly matters.
Like it or not, smart people rule the world.