Education Opinion

The Smartest Kid in America

By James R. Delisle — June 21, 2000 6 min read
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“The Smartest Kid in America” was an intellectual trial that bordered on abuse.

Recently, the Fox Television Network, in a bold and misbegotten attempt to garner high ratings during the “sweeps month” of May, decided to locate the smartest kid in America. Call it a pint-sized version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?,” for the questions dealt with the kinds of trivia important only on game shows or their educational equivalent, those silly state competency tests that inflict pain on students and teachers nationwide.

So, the smartest-kid nominees paraded onto the stage; a beauty pageant of the mind, with the contestants wearing just a tad less makeup than JonBenet Ramsey often wore to events like these. Each spoke about academic accomplishments that would make viewers go “Wow!” and, like their Miss America equivalents, some of the kids spoke of their future goals and ambitions as scientists or technicians or doctors.

The competition began, the questions were asked, and child after child fell victim to one of the most common maladies of being human: They made errors. When it got down to the last two contestants, the tension was as high as the stakes. Face it, in the world of competitive TV, there lies a big gulf between being named “The Smartest Kid in America” and being named ... well, nothing.

It was then I noticed the tic. One of the two finalists, obviously showing signs of nervousness (who wouldn’t?), had a noticeable twitch in his eye, a nonverbal indicator that he was not comfortable. He didn’t win.

Applause, applause for the victor. Break to commercial. Add up the ratings.

Just one question: Were you proud, Dick Clark, that you had just presided over an intellectual trial that bordered on abuse? Shame on you. Shame on Fox.

I’m not sure what upset me more: the fact that a contest based on silly questions could actually qualify as the sole indicator of finding America’s most gifted child, or the willingness of millions of viewers to believe that, indeed, this was possible.

But then I began to think. If I had been asked to locate the smartest child in our nation, what criteria would I have chosen? So I put myself to work, coming up with the following.

First, I’d have to determine what is meant by “smart.” Does it mean answering multiple-choice questions about math and reading and science? Does it imply a deeper knowledge of the concepts that underlie the facts, like knowing that the reason people choose to fight wars has as much to do with economics as it does ideology? Or, does “smart” mean having the common sense to know that although I may win at the blackjack table often enough to entice me to stay, the odds are with the house no matter how lucky I appear to be? “Smart” is not as easy to define as it appears, despite what Fox TV might want us to think.

Since defining the word “smart” didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere, I decided I would merely revert to the experiences I have had with children over the past 22 years as an educator and look there for guidance in describing “smartness.” In doing so, I relived some fond memories and found some interesting data:

  • The kids who left the biggest impact on me were seldom the ones who got every answer right on their tests or turned in all their homework on time.

To be sure, my most memorable students were generally conscientious and motivated, but occasionally, they just blew off or forgot an assignment because something else ignited a passion that they just had to explore. If I argued with them about “setting priorities” or “acting responsibly,” they’d look back at me with glazed eyes, asking without words whether I understood the true meaning of being turned on to learning.

But when I was wise enough to ask what they were doing that prevented them from completing their assignment, I was often rewarded with an animated review of an area of knowledge or fun that taught them more than any of my assignments ever could have done.

  • The students who looked beyond the school and the classroom for their learning arena were both better informed and more interesting than the “bookwise” kids.

I’ll never forget how Brian, a 6th grader, took on a social studies project that involved furnishing an entire household for a family of seven after they lost all their possessions in a house fire. Brian corralled his classmates and made them care as deeply about these strangers as he did—and he did so without ever opening a social studies book or a “how to do it” guide on community service. What he opened, instead, was his heart, and the beneficiaries were seven people who now sit in chairs, sleep in beds, and cook on a stove that were all due to Brian’s initiative in combining his loving heart with his fine mind.

  • The boys and girls who were the best thinkers always had more questions than they did answers.

For proof of this, I looked at 4-year-old Lisbeth, who asked her mommy if people felt the same way right before they were born as they did just after they died. I also thought of Justin, one of my current 8th graders, who asked out loud which property of matter—gas, liquid, or solid—did a fire’s flame fall under. And I looked at 5-year-old Matt, my son, who asked for clarification on the following: If butter melts yellow, and chocolate melts brown, why doesn’t snow melt white?

It is these kids, the question askers, who always appeared much brighter than did their counterparts, the question answerers. With both people and ideas, their innate curiosity caused them to take nothing and no one at face value.

  • The children who were my most memorable scholars understood that their learning would neither end nor expire.

Every fact these students learned got stored alongside others like it, eventually causing them to make generalizations about ideas and people. Each learning opportunity was seen as just that: a chance to pick up something new, so that even if these kids knew how to spell “bored,” they didn’t know how to feel it. They could always find something intriguing behind even the most mundane activity or lesson.

Using these criteria, I’m afraid I’d never be able spin off a two-hour Fox TV special on picking America’s smartest kid. That is because, in addition to the above qualities, I’d also need something that the medium of television is loath to give: extended time to know these children from the inside out; to determine how “smart” they really are using the multiplicity of definitions of intelligence that we now have at our disposal; to ask the finalists not only “What do you know?” but “How do you know it?"; and to publicize not only these kids’ test scores but also the contributions they have made to a society very much in need of tenderhearted kindness and honest compassion.

Perhaps a bigger question is why search at all for the Smartest Kid in America? What does it prove?

The Smartest Kid in America? I have no idea who it might be, and I wouldn’t know how to begin to make that choice without adequate exposure to the “candidates” over a long, long time. But what I do know is that this choice cannot be made in two hours, waffled between commercials for athletic shoes and promotions for “That’ 70s Show.”

Perhaps a bigger question is why search at all for the Smartest Kid in America? What does it prove? I can’t imagine whom this contest helps, but I already know two children it hurts: the boy who was selected as the “smartest” and who will now be living down that reputation for decades to come; and the runner-up, the boy with the tic in his eye, for whom second place was seen by millions of viewers as a sign of inadequate brainpower on a TV show that should never have been aired.

James R. Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and a part-time teacher of middle school gifted students in Twinsburg, Ohio. His newest book is Once Upon a Mind: The Stories and Scholars of Gifted Child Education (Wadsworth, 2000).

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Smartest Kid in America

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