The longer I work in schools the more I am convinced that we do students a great disservice by identifying them as "smart," just as we add to the travails of artists and athletes we tag as "talented." I'd even go so far as to take issue with what's intended to be a compliment of what we do at Randolph. Rather frequently I hear the School described as the kind of place where "it is cool to be smart."
I appreciate that those who see Randolph as a school where "it is cool to be smart" are more often than not suggesting that we are the kind of community that values academic excellence. And it's true--we value the life of the mind and we care deeply about the pursuit of truth and challenging students to reach beyond themselves in the classroom and beyond.
But the trouble is that the descriptors "smart" and "talented" do little to reveal qualities of character like grit, persistence, perseverance, and curiosity that mean so much more to life-long learning than mere natural ability. Some who have been described as "smart" live almost exclusively for robust test scores and lofty grades as external validations of a kind of ability that they come to take for granted.
Most of us, however, know plenty of folks who are "smart" and "talented" and are at least a little lazy, and a good many, too, who aren't very much inclined to make positive investments in others or in their wider communities. And those who are determined to be "smart" and "talented" don't always have the bravery and courage to risk that perception by trying something new or stepping outside their zone of natural comfort.
Far too early in their lives children tend to type-cast themselves and each other in categories that can be self-fulfilling, if teachers, coaches, and parents aren't standing by to propose a different narrative. Hanging out with students in the lunchroom or on the playground or in the hallways provides me an opportunity to hear how they describe themselves and each other. If you’re a parent, maybe you hear it at home. It's not all bad by any means, but my ears prick up when I hear "smart" and, though I don't often hear it, whenever I hear a reference to "dumb."
Once I heard a group of Upper Schoolers who were not on the fast track to take BC Calculus comment that they were in "dumb math." That’s crazy! There is no such thing as “dumb math” at Randolph. Last year an alumna who had sailed through her first year in college but struggled some at Randolph told me pointedly and with some relief, "I haven't felt so smart in years."
This is exactly the problem with typecasting. We aren't valuing what really matters. I care much more about ceaseless and relentless learning than I do with who is perceived to be "smart" or "talented," or those awesome-looking /non-performing athletes whom salty coaches mockingly describe as the All Airport Team. Initiative is an enormously important character trait to nurture in our students, and leveraging curiosity in order to become a creative problem solver is what the best and most fulfilling jobs of the 21st century will require.
If we eagerly and enthusiastically invest ourselves as learners in everything we do, we will over time develop enduring qualities of character that will hold us up in life no matter where we go or what we do. We’ll enjoy better friendships that stand the test of time, and we will make lasting contributions to the world around us. Being a lifelong learner matters far more than being born "smart" or "talented," and developing and building upon this mindset is the essential value of a Randolph education for the children under our care.
Several years ago a fifth grade boy wrote me that "I love Randolph because I can be myself." It's among the most profound descriptions I've ever heard of a school community. That boy is a fine student, a committed thespian, and a devoted athlete. To date he has invested greatly in a wide range of our programs, and he is well on his way to becoming a life-long learner in everything he undertakes. Again, that's far more important to me than being labeled "smart" or "talented."