About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Smart

            This reflection on the word “smart” appeared with minor differences in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review, a magazine I’ve touted on this blog before.


            After sleepwalking through high school, I landed in a senior English class that caught my fancy, and one of the first things I did was shell out 35 cents for a Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus. After years of disaffection and tomfoolery, I wanted to be smart. And one way to be smart, by my adolescent reckoning, was to pepper my essays with words like “disaffection” and “tomfoolery.” I was being a smarty-pants rather than smart, perhaps, but new words represented for me a fresh world of books and writing and using my mind.

            That old thesaurus, crumbling a little more every time I open it, has a wealth of synonyms and antonyms for a word like smart, and I would roam through it, as I am now, finding threads and connections. To be smart bears similarity to being intelligent, ingenious, or resourceful and to being clever, witty, or quick. And then there are book smarts versus street smarts. And working smart. And, look out, a smart aleck with a smart mouth. Humanity lofty and flawed lives in these definitions.

            About five or six years before I bought that thesaurus, the brilliant computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” to describe the simulation of intelligent behavior by computers: recognizing visual shapes, solving certain kinds of problems, and improving performance through repeated trials. These capabilities combined with the computer’s extraordinary processing capacity would within a few decades result in a deep embedding of the computer in our lives. By the 1980s, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff would be writing about the world of the smart machine. Now we have smart phones, smart cars, smart classrooms, even, God help us, smart bombs.

            Language is complex and adaptable—smart also means to sting or be stylish—so it’s no surprise or big deal when smart is used to describe the added cognitive processing power computer technology brings to objects and places. As opposed to the term artificial intelligence, however, there’s no qualifier in front of smart phone or smart classroom to denote the anthropomorphism. Semantically we cede intelligence to the machines we make, enhancing our era’s faith in technocratic solutions to just about any problem and, in the process, narrowing our definition of what it means to be smart.

            Consider the smart classroom or, in the more materially accurate phrasing, the wired classroom. This is a classroom equipped with computers that potentially enable students to do research on the Internet, work with all sorts of digital media, and network with others in and beyond their classroom. Students can also receive individualized instruction and have their progress monitored by their teacher. Marvelous things can happen in the wired classroom.

            Although obvious, it needs to be said that all this potential will be realized only if the computer technology is well-designed and its programming is done by people who have a deep understanding of teaching and learning. The technology also has to be integrated into a rich curriculum, and the teacher needs to be pedagogically astute about the instructional uses of the computer. Only then can smart things happen in the smart classroom. Conversely, cognitive sparks can fly without laptops and iPads. The most sophisticated instructional technology in the classroom that lit me up about language was a chalkboard.

            This distortion of the word smart, and of our understanding of intelligence in general, is also found in the commonplace distinction between the “new economy” – the emerging work of the smart machine and the smart worker – and “old economy” work of heavy manufacturing and traditional services. There’s no denying that the last few decades have seen significant changes in the organization and technologies of work, and many blue- and white-collar occupations require new skills and knowledge, particularly of computer technology. But these developments have been reduced in endless opinion pieces and popular management books to a simplistic and cognitively loaded separation between the economy of previous generations and our own. “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone,” write Sandra Burad and Sandra Tumolo in their award-winning Leveraging the New Human Capital, “in the Information Age intellect and passion – mind and heart – are also essential.” Before the era of the smart machine, it seems, you didn’t have to draw on much of your intelligence to build airplanes, or keep the books, or care for the sick.

            The word smart is being appropriated into a broad technocratic world-view that includes not only the schoolhouse and the workplace but the very space in which we live. Some urban theorists are promoting smart cities that are heavily wired and connected, driven by business development with emphasis on high-tech and entrepreneurship, and populated by critical masses of highly educated people. Smart schools provide smart citizens who work in smart corporations in the smart city. To be sure, there are many advantages to such a city, from flexible work hours to traffic control. But there are possible downsides, including the danger of expanded surveillance and lopsided, business-dominated development, for in the smart city, high-tech and managerial smarts carry great power.

            This is not a Luddite’s lament; I used Google and a word-processing program while writing this essay. My worry is that our digital rapture will blind us to the fact that smart, as my old thesaurus reminds us, is a big tent of a word. The guys delivering a truckload of stoves and refrigerators are working smart. The class clown is smart. So, too, is the kid who deflects the clown’s barb by turning away. The Mars rover team is smart, and Sojourner Truth was smart. To lose sight of this intellectual abundance would be simple, unwise, and, well, anything but smart.

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  1. Great post! I thumb through my battered Roget too, but when I asked kids "who's smart?" this is what they replied: http://www.whatkidscando.org/featurestories/2013/03_who's_smart/index.html

  2. I really like this post, Mike!

  3. I love this post. Its true that kids these days are growing up in classrooms filled with more technology than books and thus limiting the knowledge that could really be received. Its not that technological progress is a bad thing but traditional schooling still expands the mind better.

  4. I loved your article, but I am concerned about living in an era where technology has surpassed the average IQ, and every wan, woman, and child can Google any question simply by reaching in their pocket. Since we became a generation of smart phones, smart computers, smart cars, et cetera, I fear that we've lost our spark. Families sit at dinner tables glued to their phones, and rarely have conversations at the dinner table. However, if a magical force removed smart phones and replaced them with flip phones, people would react the same way a bird would if it couldn't fly.

  5. Don't forget how neatly this word fits into the American tendency for self-congratulation, which is not confined to the political sector (if we believe there is a difference between the political sector and the marketplace).