Archive for Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is ‘smart’ the new ‘in’ thing?

January 31, 2009


Last week, Robin Roberts of ABC News interviewed Beyonce shortly after the world-famous singer and sex symbol performed for Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dance at one of the inaugural balls.

Beyonce, so happy she was almost in tears, told Roberts that Obama’s victory has changed her life. “He makes me want to be smarter; he makes me want to be more involved,” she said.

This was alarming. Here’s a woman who, according to Forbes magazine, made $80 million in 2007. She and her husband, the hip-hop entrepreneur Jay-Z, were ranked by the magazine as Hollywood’s richest couple. And now, after getting involved in politics for the first time, she has decided she wants to be smarter.

Not richer. Not more beautiful. Not more successful. But smarter. And more involved.

What if this starts a trend? What if all the young people whose ambitions extend no further than to be like Beyonce and Jay-Z decide that they, too, want to smarter? Are schools prepared for this? Are teachers?

What happens to institutions like People magazine, the E Network, MTV and their ilk, those that cater to the vapid? What happens to the whole celebrity culture? Will all those perky anchor creatures be tossed onto the unemployment lines?

Can America survive it if being smart suddenly becomes cool?

Of course, there are many ways of being smart. You can be street smart. You can be smart as in practical and shrewd. But if you’re going to be Obama-smart, you’re going to have to be educated smart. There’s a lot of reading involved.

George W. Bush, if we can believe Karl Rove, did a lot of reading, too. The former president and his political guru used to engage in reading competitions, Rove told the Wall Street Journal, and while Rove usually won, the president was no slacker. By December, Rove wrote, Mr. Bush had read 40 books in 2008, including David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”; Rick Atkinson’s “Day of Battle”; Hugh Thomas’s “Spanish Civil War”; Stephen W. Sears’ “Gettysburg”; David King’s “Vienna 1814”; U.S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs”; Jon Meacham’s “American Lion”; James M. McPherson’s “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” and Jacobo Timerman’s “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.”

But to be Obama smart, you have to read a lot of stuff by dead white males. And that stuff is hard.

Some two decades ago, the groves of academe began to shake over the alleged cultural exclusiveness of literature and history courses dedicated to the works and achievements of European masters, most of whom were male and all of whom were dead. Where were the great women authors? Where were the great thinkers of color? In fact, who said Shakespeare was any better than the guy working down the street at the multi-ethnic theater society?

Oddly, America’s first black president went to college at Columbia University, which resisted the trend. For 90 years, every Columbia undergraduate has been exposed to its “Core Curriculum,” at the center of which are two two-semester courses, one in Western civilization and the other in Western literature.

“The Core classroom,” Columbia boasts, “thrives on the most difficult questions in the human experience: What does it mean to be an individual? How does one live with the certainty of death? What kind of life is most worth living? What responsibilities does membership in community entail? How do we evaluate and judge the impact of humans on the environment?”

Now Beyonce (if she’s serious) would be able to afford Columbia’s $35,000-a-year tuition (not counting the $320 million she’d lose by taking four years off work), but she might want to think about it. Here are some — just some — of the books in Columbia’s Core Curriculum:

Literature Humanities — “The Iliad”; Homeric Hymns, “Gilgamesh”; “The Odyssey”; “The Histories” of Herodotus”; “Oresteia;” “Oedipus the King”; “Medea”; “History of the Peloponnesian War”; “The Aeneid”; Shakespeare’s “King Lear”; Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”; Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”; Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”; the Bible’s books of Genesis and Gospels of Luke and John, and “To the Lighthouse.”

Contemporary Civilization — Plato’s “Republic”; Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics”; Aristotle’s “Politics”; Augustine’s “City of God”; “The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an”; Machiavelli’s “The Prince”; Hobbes’ “Leviathan”; Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.”

The list goes on and on until your head explodes.

It gets a little easier after you leave college. Obama’s Facebook page lists his favorite books as “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison; Melville’s “Moby Dick” (spoiler alert: it’s not really about whales); Shakespeare’s tragedies; “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch; Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”; Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; the Bible and Lincoln’s collected writings.

Obama’s reading list is pretty intimidating; my tastes run closer to Bush’s, which I suppose makes me “Bush smart.” I find this very troubling, so I’m going to spend the next four years becoming a world-famous singer and sex symbol.

— Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His e-mail address is


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.