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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: On ‘The Martian’ and Celebrating Smart

By Rick Hess — February 04, 2020 4 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

The first time I read Andy Weir’s book The Martian, I was gobsmacked. Let’s be clear: The guy is not a great writer. But the book was brilliant nonetheless. Amidst education debates dominated by back-and-forth over standards, reading and math assessments, and college readiness, I was delighted to stumble upon a book that celebrated the joys of problem solving, the wonders of invention, and the power of the educated mind. In the movie, unfortunately, either because this didn’t translate to the screen or because the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience, it all got dumbed down to the pluckiness of Matt Damon. Now, onto number 19, originally published on October 19, 2015.

When it comes to education, we talk a lot about policy and instruction and much less about culture. This is true even though we all know that it matters immensely if we celebrate the value of knowledge and expertise, as well as ingenuity and imagination. We know that culture shapes what our children value and respect. We see this every day in national cultures and in individual schools. But it’s hard to know what to do about it, so we tend to lament it and then lay it aside.

After all, in the U.S., we celebrate wealth, fame, athletic prowess, and good looks. We celebrate people who land a reality show, pander in sound bites to the like-minded, or know a Kardashian. As to being savvy, clever, or informed? Not so much. This is especially true when it comes to pop culture. Whatever one thinks of massively successful young-adult book/movie franchises like Twilight or The Hunger Games, they don’t involve much in the way of smarts. Katniss Everdeen may be brave and good with a bow, but she’s always a step behind when it comes to the not-so-clever stratagems and conspiracies that dotted the books (which got even less clever in the movies).

This is why I was psyched to see Ridley Scott’s film “The Martian.” If you haven’t read the book by Andy Weir, it’s worth checking out. It’s as fascinating for its backstory as for its tale of a stranded astronaut’s struggle to survive on Mars. Weir is a retired software programmer who wanted to write but couldn’t land an agent or a publisher. So he dabbled and wound up self-publishing The Martian in serialized form online before eventually issuing it as an e-book. The result was so good, and did so well, that Random House wound up buying the rights and publishing it as a hardcover.

Now, it’s true that one can tell a similar tale about the author of 50 Shades of Gray. The difference is that The Martian is an incredibly smart book with a ridiculously clever hero. It’s not an extremely well-written or plotted book (though it’s at least as good on both counts as plenty of best-sellers) but it’s very smart in the challenges it devises for its hero, the precision of its science, and the way protagonist Mark Watney solves problems with ingenious applications of science and math. Without ever once straying into preachiness or dropping even a hint of “eat your vegetables,” this is a book that makes being educated and clever seem practical, important, and kind of cool. There’s not nearly enough of that, and schools, educators, and reformers don’t really try to do anything about that fact.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, Ridley Scott’s film bleaches out 95 percent of what made Weir’s book such a celebration of smart. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an entertaining flick and there are still a couple places where bits of knowledge pop up. But the film generally deals with knowledge and smarts the way movies do—as something that involves drinking coffee, waiting for inspiration to hit, and solving life-threatening problems with a look of fierce concentration or a music-assisted montage. Portrayed that way, smart people come across as quirky science geeks who are just naturally intelligent . . . not as heroes who can save lives or create happy endings because they summoned the discipline to master botany, chemistry, engineering, materials science, or orbital dynamics.

Maybe celluloid just isn’t a great medium for representing smart. Maybe you can’t really market smart to a lot of Americans nowadays (though that’s belied by the remarkable success of the book). But my sense is that we haven’t really tried any of this. We do public service announcements telling students to stay in school and to value their education, but we don’t do much to make them think there’s anything particularly exciting or inspiring about being educated. For all the energy and attention that we devote to education, I’d love to see us try a helluva lot harder to support, fund, honor, and promote popular culture that celebrates smart.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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