I left off with the story about The Smartest Man in the World. My point in telling that story is to ask, what makes someone the “smartest” anything?
In the late 15th century, an Italian, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, had a brief but meteoric career in the great centers of learning of Renaissance Europe. Although he died at age 31 (probably poisoned as a result of intrigue with the Medici family), I have heard it said that he was considered by some to be the smartest man in the world during his brief career. What does this mean? I think it means that Pico was the most learned man alive. He had read all of the books, literally all of the books available. This included all the available Greek and Roman authors from antiquity and all the learned treatises of his day. He knew everything there was to know, a prototypical Renaissance man. (See article)
So, my guess is that when we talk about someone being the Smartest Man (or Woman) in the Room, we mean that person has the most facts in his or her head, and can quickly recall them for use in an argument. In the recent political debates, this was probably highlighted by certain candidates who were clearly not the Smartest Man in the Room.
What does this have to do with the Postmodern Generation, the Millennials? Just this: I don’t think they care. They are not impressed. Why jam my head full of facts when they are a few keystrokes away on my computer? If I need them, I know where to look.
I am not saying this judgmentally and it would not matter if I did. My brain is crammed full of both helpful and useless information, which allows me to win at Trivial Pursuit most of the time. But in a Wikipedia world, I am becoming a dinosaur. This has huge implications for the future of higher education. We risk having libraries full of books that no one will use in the future. We cannot teach college classes without taking the technological prowess and needs of our students into account. And the Smartest Man in the Room may not even win the debate, much less get elected.
BTW: I leave for Myanmar tomorrow. I will try to do some posts from there, but I’m not sure if it will be possible. I return on February 7.