The classic dichotomy is “book smarts” versus “street smarts.” In the 1980s, Howard Gardner came out with his multiple intelligences theory of eight “modalities”: visual–spatial, verbal–linguistic, logical–mathematical, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. More recently, in How Children Succeed Paul Tough “argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.”
My personal wrangling with what it means to be intelligent dates at least as far back as a conversation I overheard in 1997, in which a Sudbury colleague shared with someone his views on the relative unimportance of college. At the time this really jumped out at me, as I was pursuing a second master’s at the University of Chicago a few years after earning a B.A. at Northwestern—which is to say, this hit very close to home. After all the money, stress, and ego I’d invested in my education, after being frequently told, growing up, that I was really smart, I was not prepared to hear that maybe there were other ways of thriving, of doing well at the game of life.
Over the course of my Sudbury career, however, I’ve come to appreciate that colleague’s insight. While not downplaying my ability and background, I can now frame it in a more realistic perspective. As a student I did very well in school thanks to a perfect storm of qualities: strong verbal and quantitative skills buttressed by a largely unquestioning acquiescence to authority. Put another way, I did quite well at doing what I was told. I mastered the school game and was well compensated in grades and praise.
What I didn’t realize back in the day was the high cost of this game. Yes, I developed my natural ability to manipulate words and numbers, but the way this occurred came at the price of a limited skill set and an atrophied sense of direction. I learned compliance, not self-awareness. I became quite good at completing assigned tasks, but my non-academic skills remained woefully underdeveloped. Knowing how to deal with people, how to make and maintain things, took a back seat to boosting my GPA. Knowing what I wanted to do with my life, what it would mean to succeed, never really entered my thoughts. Even my writing ability was distorted, as I learned to craft words only in a style that, I later discovered, is not particularly well-suited for connecting with general audiences.
Let me be clear: Sudbury schools are not anti-academic: in fact, as training grounds for critical thinking and articulate communication, I find our “do what you want” schools every bit as rich and stimulating as any collegiate environment I’ve ever known (and I’ve known a few). It’s simply that Sudbury doesn’t privilege the sort of information, skills, and attitudes that dominate the scholastic landscape. Instead of presenting students with a particular, and limited, agenda or set of values for defining success, we allow them to define success on their own terms. Intelligence, in a Sudbury context, becomes something like adroitness at identifying, pursuing, and achieving whatever it is that makes a given individual happy and fulfilled.
I was either a student or a teacher in conventional schools until my early 30s, and as such, I feel too often like the cliché of the institutionalized prisoner at a loss when adapting to life in the world. It’s too easy to imagine how many more things I would know had I been schooled in a setting that valued all sorts of abilities and interests: how much better I’d be at cooking, or home repair, or event planning, or dealing with difficult people, or picking up a new hobby, or starting my own business/nonprofit; how much more comfortable I’d feel in the fact of uncertainty, with doing things I’m not proficient at already; how much more confident I’d be in my ability to handle whatever life might send my way.
A mother of an Alpine Valley School alumna once asked me what I thought her daughter had gotten out of attending our school. This was a student I’d known better than most, which is saying something, a bit of a kindred spirit. I considered the question a moment, and then replied, “I think she got about a 15- to 20-year head start on her adult life. Where she’s at in her early 20s, in terms of knowing who she is and how to make her way in the world, is a place I didn’t arrive at until my mid- to late-30s.”
I think people like Gardner and Tough are on to something, and I believe that Sudbury schools take the notion of alternate or multiple intelligences to its logical, happy conclusion. As for me, I still feel a little awkward when people assume I’m intelligent based on my appearance or manner, the way I talk or write. I still fear that all the many areas in which I’m ignorant or unskilled will be exposed. Yet I am smart enough to know that what my colleagues and I are doing is preparing future generations to launch themselves into the world in the most intelligent way.