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The Culture of Smartness in Education Essay



“The Myth of the Ant Queen” by Steven Johnson describes complex systems that run with no external management. The author provides an example of an ant colony, where each ant instinctively knows what it is supposed to do. Therefore, the notion of the queen is rather nominal, as she does not rule the members of the colony. They operate on their own, knowing instinctively on the genetic level what should be done so that the colony keeps thriving. Johnson also provides an example of the town of Manchester that operated by the same principles.

There was no organized way of life there. Instead, each member of the community did what they thought should be done naturally. The essay raises the question of the necessity of external control of a complex system, as well as of the motivation that the members of the system might have. Cathy Davidson in “The Project Classroom Makeover” suggests that relevant learning and individualized curriculum based on the use of modern technologies should be introduced, which would greatly improve the students’ motivation to work towards developing their full potential. To this end, acknowledging the unique way of learning in each student is the first step.

Davidson stresses the importance of inspiration, learning, unlearning, and the necessity to transition from the idea of assessment to the idea of creating assets. In “Biographies of Hegemony” by Karen Ho we learn that the so-called culture of smartness, perpetuated by the Wall-Street and overall standardization processes is aimed not at developing creativity and independence but rather at strengthening the positions of the elite that is currently calling the shots.

Upon reading the mentioned articles, it is possible to assume that the culture of smartness has a disturbingly negative impact on the individualization of education. Encouraged by Wall Street and related institutions, the culture of smartness sets a global standard of success with rigid principles that ambitious students strive to follow. This external motivation acts as a rigorous official authority that makes every effort to standardize the process of education.

Self-Interest and Self-Organization

Davidson argues that children would rather motivate themselves to study if it yielded pleasing results, not by “what is won or achieved in statistical terms, but what is won and achieved inside in the sense of self –confidence and competence” (67).

Amid the ongoing debates about the need to choose between individualized and standardized education, Davidson provides valid arguments for the former. Indeed, if the standardized approach is abandoned, we will be able to see students developing their fullest potential. The author emphasizes that each person has a unique learning curve. Moreover, using inspiration one can encourage children to learn with no external imperative.

While it can be argued that children cannot have that degree of self-discipline, it is important to notice the relationship between self-discipline and self-motivation. The latter usually precedes the former, forming a causal link. As indicated by Davidson, with the proper inspiration, children will propel themselves to learn since they will understand the results and feel successful and confident. Such motivation is a driving force for every other aspect of education, including self-discipline.

While in the case of an ant colony described by Johnson, the ants did not need external management due to their instincts encouraging them to work towards maintaining their colony in order, in the case of children’s education the instinct would be replaced by inspiration encouraging them to learn. In this case, self-interest is a crucial concept, as it points towards how inspiration might be delivered. For children to understand the benefits of what they are about to learn, their self-interest must be activated.

By providing them an opportunity to see what it feels like to have mastered something, feel confident, and competent, we would teach them to work for themselves towards developing their full potential. Out of pure self-interest and encouraged by inspiring tutors, they will anticipate the results of the learning process and see them as personal benefits and something to look forward to. Johnson describes complex systems based on self-interest that have a “bottom-up intelligence” (Johnson 206) framework, as opposed to a uniform intellectual structure controlled from the top. The idea is that a complex system, which runs on the “bottom-up” intelligence principle, is self-sufficient and able to self-organize.

The standardization processes perpetuated by the culture of smartness in the modern world prevent such a self-sufficient system to emerge, thereby creating obstacles for the individualization of education.

“One-size-fits-all” approach described by Davidson (63) cannot be but an obstacle for the individualization of education. This approach aimed at unifying the way children think and solve problems prevents them from developing their full potential. The process of standardization hinders the development of creativity, as it does not permit any deviations from the norm. Johnson provides an example of a self-learning computer that was a dream and an ultimate goal of Alan Turing (205).

Self-sufficiency in the sense of ability to self-organize, prioritize, and manage the learning process is what individualized education should be aimed at. The culture of smartness that unifies the notion of success and does not allow for variations is a clear hindrance to the development of individuals capable of independent, rational thought. Self-organization can be seen as a threat, as it does not need any control or supervision.

Culture of Smartness and Its Impact on Individualization of Education

The culture of smartness is a modern phenomenon that envisions a unified understanding of the notion of success. Karen Ho argues that it is spread and encouraged by various institutions, Wall-Street circles, as well as educational facilities and eventually it “narrows students’ interest” (181). By encouraging students to believe that there is only one way to become successful, the culture of smartness does the future world a great disservice.

Neglecting children’s abilities that may be hidden for some time during the learning process is one of the gravest problems in education. Standardization processes leave no room for working towards developing a unique approach to each child. However, it is only through personalized education that a hidden talent may be discovered. The culture of smartness prevents that from happening. As indicated by Davidson, it centers the students’ attention on the notion of profit. Ironically, the profit they are talking about is not at all beneficial for the children, except perhaps in a financial sense in the future. The profit in question pertains to the ideals of Wall Street.

It is an instrument of maintaining a continuous flow of capital, which is supposed to support the enormous machine of the corporate world. Davidson makes an excellent remark that captures the essence of the problem. She emphasizes that the modern educational system emerged as a consequence of the “industrial model of the world (…) in the nineteenth century (57). The principles that governed the increasingly technology-driven world were borrowed by the educational system. Time and precision, efficiency, and schedule were accepted as the most important aspects not only in industry but in education as well. The repercussions of this approach are visible today in the process of standardization. The latter, coupled with the culture of smartness prevents the individualization of education.

As was mentioned earlier, Davidson points out that the phenomenon can be traced back to the industrial innovations of the nineteenth century. The notion of efficiency became a “byword of the day” (57), with consequences far more fatal than they seem. It could also be that the idea of high standards is confused with standardization. There is a striking difference between the two notions. However, such an idea strengthens the link between standardization and the culture of smartness, causing a great number of students to choose a career as described by Wall Street. Karen Ho describes the culture of smartness as a phenomenon perpetuated by investment banks, consulting firms, and the associated seats of learning.

These institutions define the notion of a successful career and “monopolize the attention of the student body” (171). Ho describes the degree of dominance and influence exerted by Wall Street on students of such colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. A vast majority of students at these facilities are convinced that the only fitting careers are possible in the banking and investment sectors. While it cannot be denied that these professions are much in demand and of utmost importance, they should not be regarded as the only possible pathways to success and rich life. The notions of prestige and a direct association of success with a job at Wall Street are among many causes of this phenomenon.

It is important to stress the significance of the perception of smartness formulated and encouraged by Wall Street and the financial sector linked to the mentioned universities. Smartness is perceived as an ability to work rapidly and efficiently, which is an effect of the changes that took place in the nineteenth century. Industrial innovations of the time ensured that the educational process transformed into a process of task solving. Thus, today, future graduates are eager to choose the ‘elite’ career opportunities offered by Wall-Street institutions.

By monopolizing the idea of smartness, these facilities dominate in the mentioned colleges, working towards convincing the future graduates to join the financial machine of Wall Street since it is the only possible way to be successful and have it all. It is rather easy to see that the culture of smartness cannot but hurt the process of individualization of education. The unified understanding of success, smartness, and career effectively prompts the majority of students to choose a job in a field that they consider to be the most prestigious. Their potentially exceptional capabilities remain neglected or even never discovered.


All things considered, it is possible to conclude that the culture of smartness exerts a negative influence on the individualization of education. The culture of smartness is perpetuated by the ongoing process of standardization of education. The authors of the analyzed works emphasize the importance of a proper degree of self-interest, self-organization, inspiration, and self-motivation in schoolchildren. The mentioned aspects are the indispensable components of the process of individualization. However, standardization and the culture of smartness effectively hinder the personalization of the learning process.

Works Cited

Davidson, Cathy. “Project Classroom Makeover.” New Humanities Reader. Ed. Richard E. Miller and Kurt Spellmeyer. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015. 47-72. Print.

Ho, Karen. “Biographies of Hegemony.” New Humanities Reader. Ed. Richard E. Miller and Kurt Spellmeyer. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015. 165-192. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” New Humanities Reader. Ed. Richard E. Miller and Kurt Spellmeyer. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015. 192-210. Print.

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