When I was in high school, we all knew who the smart kids were. They were the ones who had the most answers, solved problems the quickest, scored the highest on tests.
I suspect nothing’s changed. Go into any high school today, pick out any student at random to ask, and you’ll discover who the smartest ones in that school are. You won’t need a battery of state-mandated tests or psychologist-approved yardsticks.
It was, admittedly, a little easier in my day. Back then, our schools were “laned” so that students of roughly equivalent academic abilities had their classes together as a group.
Fort Wayne high schools had five lanes — x1, x2, y1, y2 and z. School could be a wonderful intellectual adventure for those in the x lanes — we were the best and brightest and were told so all the time. We never stopped to consider how school must have seemed for those in the z lane who constantly got the message they were the dumbest and slowest.
Of course, I know now. Have you ever heard that question about whether it’s better to have the worst house in the best neighborhood or the best house in the worst neighborhood? Just think about whether you’d rather be the worst student in the top lane or the best student in the bottom lane.
I’ve thought a lot since high school about the kids we defined as the smartest and whether they really deserved that designation.
They were, I’ve come to understand, those for whom school was the easiest. They were in a closed, structured environment, clearly understood the rules of that environment, and followed those rules to achieve success as defined by the standards of that environment. Is that really what it means to be smart?
When I think of all the smart people in history I wish I could have a conversation with, two names among the top are Hedy Lamarr and Ben Franklin.
Lamarr was a huge Hollywood star of the 1940s, routinely called the most glamorous woman in the world — she was the Angelia Jolie of her day, and then some. That brought with it the sleazy attentions of predatory moguls in a culture of sexism so toxic we can barely imagine it today.
Yet, she used her creative ability to invent a frequency hopping technology, a way of jumping around on radio frequencies that could keep the enemy from interfering with a ship’s torpedoes. That invention led to the Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth that are now propelling the digital age.
Franklin was easily the most debauched of America’s Founding Fathers. A hard drinker, womanizer, vain, bawdy, vulgarian pursuer of life’s excesses. As a joke, he once wrote an essay on how to improve the odor of human flatulence.
Yet, he was an inventor without equal, eloquent writer, brilliant statesman. He helped write both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Even among the members of the Constitutional Convention, arguably the greatest collection of intellectuals ever gathered in one place, he stood out as a genius.
That’s what being smart is: If, despite all the obstacles in your path, whether put there by society’s demands or your own character flaws, you still achieve the best you are capable of.
I started thinking about all this when I encountered another silly article about the Hoosier state’s pitiful showing in one of those artificial categories lame websites trot out periodically to rank states in.
“Indiana ranks toward bottom of ‘smartest states’ study,” the headline said. We came in at No. 38 out of 51 (Washington, D.C., was included), so best forget those plans for a “My state is smarter than your state” bumper sticker. I feel even more chagrined that my birth state of Kentucky fared worse — in the bottom 10.
But perhaps I should try to think of myself as the smartest citizen in the dumbest states.
We lane everything these days, put every person, place and thing into boxes with their respective counterparts and sort them and rank them and reduce them to their simplest components.
But they are closed environments. The “best” within those environments means something only by the rules set for them.
This particular smart list was created by considering the number of people with college degrees, the percentages of high school graduates and student scores on the SAT and ACT. Basically, a state’s smarts-level is determined by education levels.
A bit narrow, especially considering the state of education in America today.
The smartest state by the selected criteria? New Jersey, which also usually tops the list of states with the highest taxes. If such lists were kept, the state would undoubtedly be ranked first in corruption as well.
We can only conclude that the smartest state is being run by the dumbest people in the state. Certainly not by any Hedy Lamarrs or Ben Franklins who might still be trapped there.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was namead a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.