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4 Reasons People Assume I’m Smarter Than My Contractor

In “Don’t Assume I’m Smarter Than My Contractor,” I recalled an incident where my contractor, Tom, asked me a question prefaced with, “You’re smarter than I am, so….”

It led me to think about how our culture tells us that intelligence means having academic smarts and being well schooled, which devalues other kinds of smarts. The article was well received and seems to have struck a collective nerve. It also elicited one common follow-up question: Why does our culture lead us to assume that I, a PhD, am smarter than my contractor?

A number of factors are involved in this cultural message. I want to highlight a few of them.

1. The Comprehensive High School

Before the mid-19th century, there were no public high schools. There were private academies, and their job was primarily to prepare well-to-do and middle-class kids for college and the learned professions. Public high schools started appearing in the 1860s, and by the turn of the century, they were common. Compulsory education laws and other factors led more and more teens to attend these public high schools.

Our culture tells us that intelligence means having academic smarts and being well schooled, which devalues other kinds of smarts.

But there was a problem. These academically focused high schools saw a big influx of immigrants and poor children in the early 20th century. What was society to do with these students, who seemed ill suited to academic pursuits? Reformers argued about this. Some believed these students should receive the same academic curriculum as everyone else; others believed they needed a different curriculum and maybe even should attend a “vocational” school.

The compromise was the comprehensive high school — a model everyone who’s attended high school in the past century or so is familiar with.

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