If our nation is to dramatically improve its educational system, we need get smarter about being smart. We need to create smart educational systems that address the whole learner. And we need to change the national attitude about being smart.
The media plays a key role in shaping this attitude. But most films and television shows, striving to entertain, tend to ridicule science and math whizzes, make fun of educators, and create characters eternally dumb and dumber. In the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the principals and teachers are clueless. Remember that too-familiar scene of the high school economics teacher pleading with his class to identify the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? "Anyone? Anyone?"
Matthew Broderick, who played the title character in that film, is a funny guy, but I yearn for a hit TV series or an Oscar-winning movie that would show kids it's cool to be intellectual. In sitcoms, the geek with the glasses is the socially awkward butt of jokes, but in the real world, the math and science wonks are creating the innovations and companies of the future.
Terence Tao, a mathematics professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, awarded every four years to the world's top young mathematicians, has characterized his own niche notoriety in mathematics as the "Paris Hilton effect": You get famous for being famous. But if Tao had 5 percent of Hilton's name recognition, I'd end this column right now.
Certainly, the recent film Freedom Writers, starring Hilary Swank and based on the educational exploits of English teacher Erin Gruwell, made the point that inner city kids living in a gang culture can love literature and history. That film can trace its own history to Edward James Olmos's marvelous portrayal of another southern California teacher, Jaime Escalante, in Stand and Deliver, which showed that those same kids can love calculus, too. But for a fresh take on kids being smart on the boob tube, I was surprised and glad to see Fox's new game show hit Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
The show is the most popular program on Thursdays at 8 PM, attracting 12.2 million viewers during one March broadcast. Fox hasn't done that well in that time slot since 1998, when it aired World's Wildest Police Videos, suggesting that perhaps the cable network's own TV IQ is rising.
In the show, articulate and well-educated adults have to rely on a brainy group of fifth graders to help them answer questions that cover knowledge in science, math, geography, grammar, and other topics that children in grades 1-5 are expected to know: "How many sides in a rhombus?" "How many states border the Pacific Ocean?" There are many wonderful, spontaneous moments in each show as the students outshine the adult contestants.
In one program, for example, after Alana, an African American girl, has just helped a young accountant with the right answer, host Jeff Foxworthy asks him, "What would you do with $50,000?" The young urban professional answers that he would take his buddies (cut to them beaming in the audience) to party at Australia's Great Barrier Reef and, when they return, party some more.
Foxworthy then asked Alana what she would do. She answered, "I would buy my mother a new car, since she really needs one, and I'd give some money to charity." The shameful look Foxworthy gave the accountant said it all, showing that fifth graders can be smart not just on curriculum but on character as well.
(By the way, the answers are four -- a rhombus is simply a square or a diamond -- and five: California, Oregon, Washington, and don't forget Alaska and Hawaii. But you knew that.)
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Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.