The Definition of Smart
I have been grappling with the idea of “smart” this year. Who do we consider “smart”? What fields of study do we consider the realm of “smart” people? (Mathematics is high on that list.) How are “smartness” and school success and fulfillment in life related?
I don’t have answers yet, but I came across a definition by Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) that has shifted my thinking:
“Smart is only a construct of correspondence between one’s ability, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history. I am smart in the right way, in the right time, on the right end of globalization.”
I love Tressie’s definition and until something better comes along, this is the definition I’m working with. Mostly, I appreciate the recognition of “smart” being relational, as opposed to some kind of Platonic ideal. Smart as a construct of correspondence also fits nicely in the constellation of ideas that have been helping me grow as a math educator: (1) rehumanizing mathematics (Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, @RG1gal); (2) unlearning deficit frameworks, particularly “current conceptions” (Dr. Maria Zavala @mdrzavala); and (3) redefining who is a math person (Howie Hua, @howie_hua).
Behind all of these ideas is the understanding that we are constructing mathematics, and we are constructing our measures of success (smartness). And therein lies our power: In accepting that these are things we make, we can decide to make something different. If we value different abilities (persistence over speed), and create different environments (collaboration over competition), we will produce different definitions of smart. The power is in knowing that our current definitions of both smart and mathematics are the result of decisions made by humans, and that we can make new decisions.
Two last things about this sentence: “I am smart in the right way, in the right time, on the right end of globalization.”
- I appreciate the humility in this definition. We could all use a bit of humility when thinking about our smarts.
- Acknowledging our moment in history feels like a call to action. How many “smart” people are we losing to the wrong side of all manner of structural violences?
Big, challenging questions, but I believe in our ability to figure them out together – we are a smart bunch.
by Idil Abdulkadir (@idil_a_)
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Idil for being this week’s guest writer! Have an interest in writing for the Global Math Department Newsletter? Check out the invitation at the end of this Newsletter.