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On borrowed time: the downside of being smart in all the wrong ways

I had a great elementary school education. I am grateful to my mother for working hard to send me to a wonderful after-school daycare that taught me how to braid, bake banana bread, and ice skate (not to mention, the absolutely vital fact that I really don’t like ketchup on macaroni and cheese). During school, I spent a lot of time in the library due to being impaired in the enjoyment of physical play. I learned through social conditioning good grades were something to not draw too much attention to, like how it’s bad form to talk too openly about your salary amongst your co-workers. Chances are someone saw that straight row of checkmarks when I was getting that spelling test back anyway.

My elementary school teachers, were (and continue to be) wonderfully nurturing, and progressive. We spent some time learning mind mapping, following an environmental science and social justice curriculum that they beta-tested on us, and put on our Six Thinking Hats. The different kinds of intelligences were explained. I quickly intuited that my interpersonal intelligence was missing something.

High school continued to be more confusing, as the student body was cleaved into the hard-working science keeners, shuffling off to tutors every other evening, and the creative ones in drama, fashion, photography or writing. Most of my friends were the ones who did well enough at what they had to and excelled proudly but quietly at the sort of thing that wouldn’t necessarily boost their provincial exam score high enough to be on the early admission list to UBC. I, the perpetual black sheep, did well enough to be on those lists, didn’t hang out with the people who lined up to check, and cared just enough to have absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about when they told me my name was there.

Meanwhile, I continued to be curious about what we tell children about being smart, what it means and why. The article in the New York Magazine about praise continues to resonate. What I hear is that traditional education systems are for cranking out compliant worker bees who are stilted, not creative, and maladapted to today’s collaborative workplace.

…And as a person who found relative success in that system? I think I hid my fear pretty well. I think most people felt like they were giving me my just desserts, that all those years of feeling good about my marks were a lie and everything was evening out.

Of course, people don’t really mean that. What they really mean is that my friend, who’s an excellent singer and, like many others I knew, barely met the high school math graduation requirement, is gifted in as many ways or in more ways than I am. It’s just coincidence and historical short-sightedness that has led to there being an AP exam designed for people to measure and deem worthy that thing that I seemed to be good at. And, as Daniel Pink points out, it’s not so much that left-brained people have become entirely unnecessary; just that people who have strong interconnections, strong right brains, and the ability to collaborate with those of all brain-stripes will become equally vital and important.

And other times the imposter syndrome rolls over me like a wave, and I realize that everyone, me included, has been complicit in pretending that doing it was all that mattered. The fact that I only sort of tried, and only sort of cared, never seemed to be reflected in the grade, and that learning – arguably the most important – is the stuff I’m still in summer school for.

One Comment

  1. I burnt out in some ways a bit before high school – it was rapidly becoming clear that as interested as I was in physics, it was not going to be my forte. And there was something exhilarating about being a Communication student in a Computing Science class – even if I was doing badly, I knew I was doing something good for myself just by being there and sticking it out. And now, the only thing I’ve left with is the difference between a stack and a queue, and less fear. ;)

    re: theme, thanks! I probably shouldn’t draw attention to it but I’m going to need to play around with the CSS to fix a bug in it…for some reason the default install of the theme on the themer’s site doesn’t have the problem, but something about my install – my pictures expanding the container, perhaps? – breaks something badly. A good excuse to finally have to learn CSS now.

    Posted July 30, 2008 at 7:26 am | Permalink

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