Space, and not being smart in an e-mail.

Sorry, readers. The end of the month is usually the time when I’m trying to meet all the end of the month deadlines that I should’ve started to work on a month or more ago. I’m swamped. In the meantime, here’s an e-mail I just sent to my Foundations of Educational Thought class. You might find it interesting.

Some context: I often assign an infamous first paper where students must describe the word ‘word’ in one page. The better way to put the prompt is like this.

Describe the following shape: word.

I also send long and weird e-mails to my students, especially here since we only meet once a week. In this e-mail I try and explain the assignment a bit more and my motivations for assigning it.

Hi everybody!
Two things: about your papers and about the false virtue of smartness. 
When you’re writing your papers, don’t try to be clever or profound. That will come. The truly original ways of doing this only come from the most ordinary and obvious work. OBVIOUS. That should be the impression left when your paper is done. Try to leave no questions or guessing or waste any space with anything but the bare descriptive details. When you think of it in a very literal way, I am asking you to describe space. The spacial interaction between these four shapes and the page. Be sure that the paper conveys that spacial object in as analogical, not allegorical, way as possible. 
One reason I am asking you to do this is to show and practice how important and simple and difficult it is to make sense. I think sense-making has been falsely elevated into an ideology of intelligence that contradicts thousands of experiences I’ve had and thousands others I’ve heard or read about. I love my cousin Buddy. He’s my second cousin. He’s about 52 right now in years, but he’s always looked exactly the same to me, since I was a young boy. Buddy is around 14 in terms of physical development and younger in mental development. He’s mentally retarded. I see him at funerals and weddings and that kind of stuff. He always greets me the same way, as though he saw me yesterday. He calls me Sammy, with love. Very few people still call me that, that way. He always reminds me that he is Buddy and we are cousins and he repeats himself about stuff he’s into. But he makes sense. I never wonder what the hell he is talking about. He is clear and obvious all the time. He makes much more sense to me than my uncle, his father, who bores the shit out of me. I always try and get out of talking to my Tio Sonny and go over and hang out with Buddy instead. I also love my friend Esteban, who is also retarded. He’s brighter than Buddy, intellectually, but equally as clear. He’s bilingual, too. He knows everything about key limes. But he talks about them with passion and cold precision. 
I love talking with children and people with childlike minds because they make so much sense. No, they’re not smart. But that’s just the thing! Who cares? They have something I struggle with: clarity. A total ability to express themselves clearly. Children don’t say as much as theorists and academicians but they know how to cut to the issue and lay it bare. I don’t know why we are so obsessed with making people smart. Unlike IBM, I am not interested in creating a smarter planet. Why do mountains and oceans and forests and fungi need to be smart? If that was all it took to live, then why wouldn’t we just create a political arrangement where everyone takes an IQ test and the highest scorers become the rulers. We never elect geniuses, obviously, and for good reason. There is more to life than being smart. And, often, people who may be smart are almost impossible to understand and do not make sense. I don’t know much about being smart myself, and I once thought that that was what I was trying to do and prove, but now I’ve abandoned that and try to work at being clear and trying to make sense. I fail. But I try again. I write and ramble and torture you with these e-mails.
What Buddy and Esteban and Socrates and Cordelia all share is a radical honesty that isn’t afraid to abandon pretenses and give the simple answer. None of them are smart. Socrates denies knowing anything. Cordelia gives a tiny reply that comes off the wrong way. Buddy and Esteban don’t know shame, they don’t know how to feel the way so many people see and treat them. They are gifts to me. Rare gifts. Why? Because their handicap is also a tremendous gift. They are gifted in their disability. They are happy. How simple! Happy. Imagine that! HAPPY. Both of them, even when being yelled at and told to stop eating peanuts and to not interrupt, are tremendously happy. It only makes SENSE to be happy. I suppose that’s why, but I don’t really know. 
Getting a graduate degree is supposedly a process of getting smart. That’s what some people think. I don’t see it that way. The only serious thing I’ve figured out has been how limited the intellect is and how hard it is to use it properly. I feel bad about so many perfectly sensible kids in schools who think they need to be smart. I once thought that you had to be smart to be good at math. Later I realized that it only takes hard work and a very concrete way of seeing things and their relationships. Drawing helps, too. 
This assignment is really a mental drawing exercise. Just draw the word ‘word’ using words: language instead of a pencil. No need to be smart about it. Just make sense and use your tools as best you can. 
I hope this helps.
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