What Is Smart?


When I was, like, 9 I was reading some book that had some facts about the moon in it. I came upon one fact — or thought I did — and just couldn’t believe it. I was so blown away by this fact that I ran to tell my big brother, then 13: “Can you believe,” I panted excitedly, “that the moon is only a quarter of a mile long?”

Ok, so perhaps I should have known this was absurd. But, c’mon, I was 9. Distance at that point was literally meaningless. Well, my big brother — certainly a smart boy, to say the least — knew this was absurd and immediately began laughing. He took the book from me and read the entirety of the passage: “‘There are craters on the moon a quarter of a mile long,’ you dufus.”

I was humiliated.

But not that humiliated. Because I just didn’t care.  I didn’t read carefully because knowing this or that was never of great interest to me.

To this day — and, yes, I have a PhD from UC Berkeley where I taught for eons — I know shockingly few things. History, countries, presidents — I just don’t know about these things. And, frankly, I don’t care. It’s not that these things are inherently uninteresting or not worth knowing. It’s that I, me, Daniel Coffeen — I just don’t care (A Man for All Seasons, anyone?).

It’s metabolic. I’ve just never taken to facts and, when they do come my way, they find their way out, quickly. It’s the same with tempura — comes in, goes out.

In our society, we take smart as knowing things. Jeopardy, we imagine, is a smart person’s show. Me, I’ll know some obscure answers because, well, I have a PhD in Rhetoric for christ’s sake and certain things did make their way into my memory. But I don’t know the overwhelming percentage of answers.

My brother, on the other hand, soaks in data. He knows things. He reads about something and he remembers it. He is an ardent, and successful, pub trivia game player.

Whenever there’s a question about knowing something or there’s a game of Trivial Pursuit afoot, people think I’ll know the answers. And I feel, for some insane reason, that I should. Ain’t I the smart guy, after all? (Mind you, this all could be an internal dialogue. Still, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is a moment in a discourse which exceeds it and defines it.)

When I was teaching a large introductory lecture to rhetoric, I used to open the course with, among other things, the declaration that I’d be teaching them nothing. Rather, I’d be teaching — or trying to teach — a skill. This was not an introduction to human biology or Medieval history; it was an introduction to rhetorical theory. And I never saw it as my job to teach terms or facts; I saw it as my job to teach a certain way of thinking rhetorically — of thinking critically about anything and everything.

So what is smart? My brother knows a lot of things. But, I have to tell you, this is not what makes him smart — it’s what makes him both pedantic and dangerous in an argument. But he’s smart because he makes sense of things, because he makes connections between disparate realms, because he can make sense of anything.

I used to tell my students that the rhetorician — the sophist — can figure anything out because he (or she) is trained to figure out the terms of any discussion — whether it’s heart surgery, the flute, theoretical physics, or macro economics.

This is to say, I tried to teach the skill of thinking. Douglas Rushkoff says that this is, in fact, the mandate of today’s teacher. After all, with the interwebs, the kids can know more than you in a matter of seconds.

What makes a good teacher today is remembering that teaching used to be done from a book. You stood up there with a book, and told the kids what they needed to know and remember from that whole book. Or you were the provider of knowledge – the actual data. Now kids have the data at their fingertips. Wikipedia knows more about the subject than most people teaching it. So what’s your job then? To help with pattern recognition, making connections, understanding context, story, and so on. Helping students try on different strategies as if they were character sheets in an FRP (read the interview here).

This, alas, is always the way I’ve measured intelligence — by the speed and creativity with which one a) gets it, whatever “it” is; and b) makes surprising sense of things.

Smart is not knowing things. Smart is knowing how things go.

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image – Jeporday