Be Generous. Speak to the Smartest.


When I was teaching, I generally geared my lectures towards the smartest students and beyond. Indeed, I was often accused of speaking over the heads of my students. This, alas, was thoroughly intentional and stems from my ethics of generosity: contribute the best possible discourse to the world. Speak to the smartest and most interested. Speak to the vitality of spirit and thought.

This may sound obvious but, needless to say, many in the pedagogic community believe just the opposite: aim for the lowest common denominator, for the stupid and least interested. This, alas, is what guides so many of the precious few dollars we have for public education. We don’t use these dollars to spur the smartest and brightest; we use these dollars to hand hold the dumbest.

I’m not saying we should leave the stupid behind. Not exactly. I’m saying we should emphasize the smart, the critical, creative thinking, lively thinking — and make everyone follow.

I was in a client meeting today with a very large, very well known software company. We were presenting concepts and language. Much of the language was sophisticated, clever, challenging — not like Kant is challenging but challenging for this world. To which the client responded, “Well, I like these. But I have to think about all those people out there.”

This, alas, is our prejudice, our assumption: the people out there are stupid and — and! — we should cater to them. Those are two disastrous assumptions that lead directly to the endless parade of dreck that passes for movies, television, and literature — not to mention politics and newspapers — in today’s world.

People often say to me: “It’s great, Coffeen, that you and maybe three other people get what you’re talking about. But who else?” This drives me insane. Because I’m more generous than that. I speak to the smartest inpeople and, frankly, to the smartest people. If the dummies don’t get it, fuck ’em. It’s not the job of smart people to cater to dumb people. It’s the job of dumb people either to shut the fuck up or try and be smarter.

And the fact is: I actually think people can be smarter than many assume (did I just say that?). Hear me out…this may seem odd.

I recently watched the first season of a television show called Friday Night Lights. And I am impressed with the complexity and ambivalence it manages to maintain throughout the entire season. Unlike the television shows I remember, this one seems to have no real tonic note per se. It shifts perspectives and sympathies, often relishing the multiplicity of said perspectives and sympathies. There are no clear good guys, no clear bad guys. People in the show are complex human beings. There’s some schmaltz, sure, but it’s rarely egregious.

I have enjoyed television shows before but they’ve usually been on HBO — The Wire, of course, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. And the fact that those shows were not only made, not only broadcast, but that people seemed to like them made me wonder if people, perhaps, are smarter than I gave them credit for. But then I assumed, well, it’s HBO and maybe only a few thousand people have HBO.

But this other program — and I’m not comparing Friday Night Lights to The Wire — was on network TV (I think). So maybe there is an appetite out there for multivalence, for multiplicity, for things that are not just straightforwardly stupid. And maybe, just maybe, there is no such thing as the lowest common denominator, not when it comes to people.

But perhaps that’s irrelevant. Because the fact is I will continue to speak to the smartest and the brightest — not necessarily the most learned, by any means, but the most intellectually creative and lively. And I do that out of an ethical obligation I feel to be generous to the world, to spur its collective intellect on.

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image – Betsian