on teaching, smartness, and empathy

12:29 AM

One of my favorite quotes from Cedric Villani, the Fields Medalist and mathematics professor at UC Berkeley who spoke at TEDxOrangeCoast along with my sister and me in September, was one about teaching--to paraphrase, he said that he wasn't doing his job if he made people feel dumb when he was talking to them. True teaching, he said, was making people see a complex issue as simple. It clicked with me because it made total sense, and it distinguishes between good teachers vs. the folks who interject to "help" someone when in truth they're just trying to emphasize how smart they are. (Of course, there are also just folks who genuinely don't know how to simplify things.)

I guess this came to mind because I was thinking of all the teachers I've had. Undoubtedly, the best have been the ones who treat everyone with respect, never assuming that one person is somehow less capable of learning a subject than another. Across the disciplines, there are teachers who make individual students feel this way. Maybe you had one in high school--the calc teacher with the caustic sense of humor who made fun of the kids who got answers wrong, the sophomore English teacher who walked into the room after a big essay turn-in day and declared it the worst batch of papers she ever read, the science teacher who treated you to a stare you couldn't identify as contempt, disgust, or both when you failed to answer a question--these folks who focus on "weeding out" students versus helping them.

"Weeding out" students who have little aptitude for a given topic has its (arguable) merits in higher education, sure; if someone is going to major in a topic, they should be fully aware of the challenges that will face them. The problem is that in secondary education, we don't really have a choice like that. We take classes because they're part of breadth requirements or they look good for college apps (and because of that pesky second thing, you can't really argue "It's your choice to take a harder class where teachers will have higher expectations"--taking a few APs is, it seems, practically a necessity to get into most selective colleges). To expand on that "higher expectations" thought--why should we think that higher expectations must mean making individual students feel less capable?

I care about this because it's not just about individual teachers and individual students. It's not just about the kid who's going to go home today thinking, "I suck at [insert subject here]" because of seeing, feeling, or hearing enough disparagement (explicit or implicit). It's about a larger culture that needs to realize, in the words of Jessica Jiang (a TEDxRedmond committee member), "intelligence means nothing if you don't use it well." In addition to pointing out that "the way schools measure aptitude is ridiculously skewed and so are certain cultural assumptions," she added,

"there are a million things more important than being smart, like being kind and fair and brave. don't let anyone tell you you're not smart because of a number. don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough because you don't spell words right or because you don't get their jokes. conventionally "smart" people do not have a monopoly on good decisions."

Her points--that intelligence and empathy must go hand-in-hand, that "smart" people don't make all the good decisions--are supported in one of my favorite articles, Why Elites Fail. Everything in that article resonated with me because the elites described within--"hyper-educated, ambitious, and well-rewarded"--are precisely the type of people the education I know helps create. One quote hit me in the gut.

"Of all the status obsessions that preoccupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one that stretches back to the early years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment. Intelligence is a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a Cult of Smartness in which intelligence is the chief virtue..." - Christopher Hayes
Smartness, as it's measured in school, is the virtue we're being conditioned to provide by those teachers who make us feel like crap when we stumble.

Something that seems innate and impossible to reach for, something we perceive as a "you have it or you don't" quality. And so can the pursuit of smartness really be that motivating?

We learn to chase smartness.
Not learning from failure.
Not sticking our necks out in the future.
And certainly not empathy.

If we learn how to behave toward our peers from our teachers, then we are learning dangerous lessons when smartness is the only rewarded value.

The tl;dr version:
Don't make people feel stupid.

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