Denny Smith
Leadership and Development Trainer

As a geometry teacher I thought I knew a lot about angles. My neighbor, Dave, is a finish carpenter. Although I can prove a theorem with the best of them, my “angular intelligence” wouldn’t hold a candle to his.

My wife and I were helping a neighbor with a plumbing project and quickly discovered that our limited knowledge put the project far beyond our pay grade. We solicited Dave’s expertise and found that our methodology was a disaster waiting to happen. We marveled at his knowledge and innate intelligence.

Zig Ziglar once said that a society that considers a philosopher intelligent because he or she is a philosopher and a plumber less intelligent because he or she is a plumber, has neither philosophy nor plumbing that will hold water. Intelligence has nothing to do with how many letters you have behind your name or whether your degree is from an ivory tower or a trade school or whether your training is formal or informal. Intelligence comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The auto mechanic who diagnoses your engine with thousands of moving parts and then proceeds to fix the problem is an absolute genius. The electrician that planned and wired your home has knowledge and insight beyond belief. The custodians in your building are some of the brightest people on your staff. We would be well served to recognize and honor all forms of intelligence and all levels of education.

A quote from one of our previous discussions brings us to the point of this article. “For most students, brick and mortar schools with rows of desks and traditional teaching methods are wonderful….But we really need to  look for alternative educational venues and curriculums for those who perhaps will never succeed in a traditional setting.” With an alternative curriculum and a different approach they could flourish. The social and economic benefits would astound us.

Our first step is to recognize that the student in your auto mechanics class who can tune an engine but may not be too excited about diagramming a sentence is an intellectual dynamo. The person enrolling in the plumbing course at the Technical/Community College will accumulate knowledge and a phenomenal skill set that will be very much appreciated when your drain is clogged.

Consider accelerating a paradigm shift that has already gathered momentum. Not everyone needs (nor desires) a liberal arts education. Those who pursue a career in the trades are no less intelligent nor  less motivated than their counterparts who seek bachelor’s degrees. As the title suggests, let’s honor all intelligence and encourage our students to pursue educational goals that will bring them career satisfaction, financial well-being and personal happiness.

Business leaders tell us that one of their major challenges is the lack of a qualified workforce. Imagine the impact on America’s quality of life if we evolve into an educational system that prepares all of our students for career and economic success. We often hear that students entering the trades are finding meaningful and well paying jobs at a sometimes faster rate than those with four year degrees. That in no way diminishes a traditional liberal arts education, but rather shows respect for the educational goals of all of our students. We can honor the intelligence and ambition of students seeking a Technical/Community College education with the same fervor as those pursuing four-year degrees.

Time for the soapbox. The effect of changes in curriculum and delivery systems in education will be minimal without systemic changes that view educational funding differently. In the mid 1800s, Horace Mann had the hare-brained idea that all kids should be given free public education. “Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of social machinery,” he said. “Education is best provided by schools embracing children of all religious, social and ethnic backgrounds.” Through investment of resources and implementation of his hare-brained program of free public education for all, America prospered.

What would happen to our economy if we expanded this radical idea to include free college? We have thousands of talented and motivated students who could thrive educationally but can’t afford college. Imagine the fiscal benefits of tapping into this vast talent pool by investing in their education. Instead of low paying jobs they would command earnings of $30,000 to $50,000 or more per year, moving them into a higher tax bracket. The tax dollars we invest in their education will come back to us in a heartbeat. They could then buy cars and homes and afford to go on vacations, stimulating our local and national economies beyond our wildest imagination. Is free college really such a “hare-brained” idea?

It is imperative that we in education take the lead in promoting the economic advantages of affordable (even free) college for our academically qualified students. If other countries do it, perhaps we too can discover the academic, financial and social advantages of doing so.

As food for thought, let’s conclude with two more ideas from Horace Mann — ideas that are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s. “Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more you must have of the former.”

And finally, “Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.”

Denny Smith is a former teacher and coach, a motivational speaker, and author committed to making our schools and communities safe and welcoming for all people. More information is available at or by email at

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