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. TC mark

image – Jeporday


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  • jereich2

    What a wonderfully well-written meditation. You go, Daniel Coffeen!
    PS I wish I had you as a professor when I took rhetoric courses back in the day.

  • Ann

    Thank you!

  • kkbrew

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. I, too, am a teacher, and my main goal in that teaching is to help students learn to think, to sharpen their critical thinking skills and to enable them to make connections more effectively. That’s what smart is all about to me. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://philosophicalscience.wordpress.com Rajat Gaur

    Yup! Very well written post…reminded me of Einstein. He also believed that ideas are more important than facts…

  • L

    I disagree. Being smart – efficient thinking – is not an excuse to be ignorant – not knowing relevant facts. A smart ignorant is just as useless as a driver without a car. I understand this instinctive rejection for fact-learning because it has been overemphasized for too long, but we shouldn’t fall in the opposite extreme (and that seems to be the trend).

  • http://suzukimiho.wordpress.com Miho

    I couldn’t agree more! This is the very reason why I hate exams that require you to “fill in the blanks” or worse, “identify what is being described.” Well, they’re not bad per se. It’s just that students (Not gonna exclude myself. I was once guilty) tend to focus on memorizing facts too much that they forget the reason behind doing so… understanding why and how things are. Learning and making sense of things, more than getting good grades or earning bragging rights, should always be the main motivation for studying.

  • justagirl

    Thank you so much for your article. I am a reference librarian and facts (some useful, most not) drive me crazy. My head is always full and I attempt to use this constant overload like your brother – by making sense of things by using connections that often seem unrelated. I often see the community college students I work with confuse information and knowledge. I used to try to use it as a “teaching moment” but have been told by my boss to “give them the information they request and forget about how the info is interpreted or used” – sad, but true. The rare student that truly wants to learn to “think” is what keeps me going.

  • Elizabeth Gale

    As a student in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley, I found this incredibly refreshing to read. I’m always trying to come up with ways to define the “point” of my major, and this describes the purpose of rhetoric in an incredibly precise way. I only wish I had had the chance to take a class with you!

  • Mary

    Are you BFFs with Judith Butler?

  • Ally

    My history teacher tells us the same thing and the assingments we recive are aimed at connections and real learning, not memorizing fact after endless fact. Because in all honesty, nobody cares if you can recite all the presidents in order, but if you can see how everything is a domino effect and how each presidents decisons impacted the next- then you have learned.

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