An hour into our conversation with Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri
, a Greek-born composer and professor at Cornell University's Department of Music, we try to define the term 'smart'. Trying my best to come up with an explanation detailed enough to cover all the aspects of human existence, I scramble my thoughts to look something like this (in order of how these ideas entered my head):
1. Someone who is aware of what is going on around them and the world — Marianthi finds a better word — well-informed
2. A person who has a passion and is a professional in one's field — Marianthi nods her head and mentions expertise
3. A socially-aware individual who is kind and accepting of other people, cultures and different viewpoints — Marianthi adds open-mindedness and respect to complete the list
While I listed my thoughts in order of how they came to me, it wasn't a coincidence: we often prioritize knowledge when describing someone smart, leaving kindness and respect in the bleachers. "We always go from knowledge and then to the person," the Cornell professor says. "Let's turn this upside down." As a first step, she suggests talking about people's dedication and how much they offer to their discipline instead of judging whether they are good at something.
It would be great to flip this mindset and start looking more at people's kindness, but the education system, and even the application process, is built in a way that focuses a lot on the academic achievements of a student.
Looking at the application procedure, of course there are the personal statements and interviews which allow you to look farther than academics, yet test scores and other number statistics make up a bigger portion of it. "If I had the choice, I would love to skip many of those steps. I'm not interested in numbers," Marianthi admits. "What does an A+ mean? Those things or information may not be relevant."
During her first semester as a new professor at Cornell, the faculty had a meeting that was discussing a particular case. In the United States, you can be admitted to a university with an undeclared major, which allows you to choose your career later on. This student came in undeclared and expressed interest in joining the music department, and although some of Marianthi's colleagues were impressed by his creativity and imagination, they were very unsure because he had a few C- and B+.