Will Smith: actor, musician, world-famous celebrity. Will Smith: educator? Education advocate?
Yes. Besides starring in such big budget films as “Men In Black” and “Independence Day” and recording some of the biggest hits of the 1990s, Smith finds time in his day to do interviews encouraging education for children and a general upheaval of the traditional education system.
Here we will explore his statements to the media, examine his credentials for making such claims and delve deeper into the abstract: is Smith right, and if so why is he?
Smith’s Thoughts on Education
On at least two occasions, Will Smith has spoke his mind on education to the media.
Already in 1998, he expressed his belief that he had the potential to be a decent president of the United States. He felt that were he to be elected, “Education has to be the priority. Every other problem we have is based on a lack of education in whatever field. It is not as instant a solution as pouring more money into it, but I feel the greatness of any society is based upon the depth of the scholars… That’s the ultimate rule: The smartest guy wins.” [Carter 1998]
This seemed pretty straightforward and not unlike what you would hear fro ma great many politicians, particularly those of a more liberal nature. But by 2006 his views (or at least the ones he shared) became more refined and somewhat more unusual.
Stressing that standard education isn’t the totality of education, and downplaying some aspects of the traditional teachings, Smith said, “The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school. Traditional education is based on facts and figures and passing tests — not on a comprehension of the material and its application to your life. Jada and I homeschool our children, because the date of the Boston Tea Party does not matter.”
By no means was he discounting the basics, though. Smith summed the basics up as, “Reading, writing and arithmetic, because those are the languages of our country.”
Smith’s children are not taught directly by him, but by tutors who have his support and guidance. Smith says “we have hired teachers who teach what we feel is important. For example, Plato’s Republic — kids need to know that. Why is that not taught in first grade? … You cannot be an American without reading it and Aristotle’s Politics. That is what the forefathers of this country read, and they used them to create what I believe is the finest system of government that has ever existed.” [Grant: 92]
What? Plato and Aristotle in first grade? What would make Will Smith say such a radical thing?
Approaching this, we are left thinking Smith is either a delusional autodidact abstracting his views on to society (what kind of man pushes ancient Greek philosophy on children?) or foolishly misguided. Perhaps both.
But Smith is no dummy. He claims to have achieved very high SAT scores (though precisely what I’m uncertain of), and his mother was on the School Board of Philadelphia, which would imply a strong sense of education during his upbringing. Smith even claims he could have been accepted to MIT if he had not accepted a recording contract.
But intelligent or foolish, none of this really matters.
Why Don’t Credentials (Always) Matter?
What is beautiful about the truth is that it remains the truth regardless of who says it. The sum of two and two is four, and there is no debate about this. Whether a small child informs you of this or a professor emeritus of mathematics, the truth remains unchanged.
This is not to say intelligence and credentials are not important. On such things as opinions, theories, hypotheses or judgments where there needs to be an interpretation of the facts to find truth, a person with certain training has the better mental tools to put the pieces together. Let us return to Smith’s claims.
When stated as a fact or a claim of truth, such a statement as “education is crucial to the betterment of this country” is either true or false, and would be true or false both when Smith says it or when someone else says it. What his background is has nothing to do with the factual basis for this. (After more clearly defining what “betterment” means, I think we could safely claim this statement is true. And once found true, it would remain true regardless of the source.)
But suppose we take a statement that is not an established fact, but rather a claim like “Greek philosophy is important for first-graders” or “Plato and Aristotle’s works were what guided the first Americans to create the form of government we have today.” These are not facts (even if written as such), but rather un-established claims. Someone with credentials specific to either would be better suited to examine them than Smith (though, yet again, if Smith gave the correct answer it would be no less true).
We might consult a specialist in child education to judge the appropriateness of such texts. Or why might consult a historian to ascertain the importance of Plato or Aristotle for George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. While I am not a child psychologist, an educator (in the traditional sense) or a notable historian, I suspect these claims are false and Smith is wrong. As someone who studied Plato and Aristotle as a junior in college, I fail to see how young children could grasp the concepts that young adults had difficulty with. Also, I see no connection between Republic and our current government. John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government would be a much better precursor to the line of thought found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings.
Sometimes credentials matter and sometimes they don’t. As intelligent as Will Smith might be, he is no expert on the education of children or perhaps even education in general. (Has Smith even read the works he is claiming are essential for children?) In fact, he is probably quite wrong in his beliefs.
Because someone is right on one thing (education being important) does not make them right on other things (specific ways to educate children), even if the topic is related. Nor does being successful make you someone who automatically has a more informed opinion that readers of widespread magazines and newspapers should take seriously.
Carter, Gayle Jo. “Where there’s a Will there’s a way,” USA Weekend. November 20-22, 1998.
Grant, Meg. “Will Power: One Driven Guy,” Readers Digest. December 2006