Heavy on abstract and analytic reasoning, light on emotional understanding, this type of mental prowess is great for getting someone into Stanford and on to a job at Google. It’s far less useful when viewing the world as something other than a set of facts and statistics — and making the kind of choices a president faces. And it will take more than electing a University of Delaware graduate president to extricate ourselves from this cult and its consequences.
Trump is a long-standing member of the Cult of Smart. Whether he’s anointing himself a “very stable genius,” obsessing over his IQ and that of his allies and enemies, suggesting that his uncle’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology professorship means he has smart genes or name-dropping his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Trump preaches the cult’s doctrine constantly.
But Trump’s attack on Biden for going to a state school and for his grades there missed an obvious fact: There are many ways to be smart, and a president can call upon people who represent all these different dimensions of intelligence. There is little reason to think that the president won’t have access to people who did well on the SATs. There are better attributes for the person who sits in the most powerful seat in the world than skill at high-stakes test-taking: maturity, poise, receptivity to new information, compassion, levelheadedness, charitability and grace.
Yet would Trump have reacted so violently if he felt his sense of charity had been insulted? Of course not — and not just because he has a long record of miserliness. But in fairness to Trump, he might not be alone in reacting this way. Only smart gets to people so viscerally. Say someone is no athlete, and few will complain. Say that someone’s not smart, and you’ve cursed their very being.
Yet the incident on the debate stage revealed more than Trump’s anxiety about credentialism. We live in a society where, to pick a depressing example, many parents scramble to enroll their children in preschools with extremely competitive admissions — despite the lack of evidence that such selectivity provides much educational benefit. In a society that subjects even its youngest children to the pressure to succeed academically at all costs, how could our young people not absorb the message that they are only as good as their grades say they are? The sheer weight we place on standardized test-taking associates the life of the mind with fear of failure.
We should instead be cultivating a sense of adventure and play in education, showing children that learning can be stress-free and, often, a source of joy. The high-stakes atmosphere in which we force them to learn compels them to see learning as just another chance to fail.
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.
Dismantling the Cult of Smart will take more than getting rid of one terrible president. It will take a sea change in some of our most basic attitudes about human success. But if we use someone like Trump to hold a mirror up to ourselves and take care to catalogue all of the ways our obsession with schooling is destructive, big and small, we may just build the will necessary for real change.