The curious case of Leonard Cooper and the perception of intellect

Hey John,

Thank you for the latest post on why you’ll be wearing red more often. Our dedication to students starts by looking at the way we perceive intelligence and learning. The struggle for how we look at learning often comes from a lens of assessing intelligence, rather than other factors that might contribute to academic retention. In other words, do our perceptions of what it means to learn equate to whether or not we think they’re intelligent?

Take, for instance, the last of Leonard Cooper, the young kid who “shook up the world” (or at least the audience) when he came from behind to win at the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament. The moment went viral on my Twitter and Facebook timelines, prompting me to consider the implications of why this moment mattered so much. Was it because this olive-green-long-sleeve wearing, kid with an unkempt Jackson 5 fro came onto a national stage and destroyed competition with a gusto unseen in such a normally prim and proper show? Or is it because …

Well, here’s this. We’ll assume for a second that everyone understands that people who get selected to this show have already prepared for questions and have a certain amount of trivia knowledge in different fields to make the show competitive. We’ll also assume that, for a second, everyone who read the article (and didn’t watch) already know Leonard was going to win, but just didn’t know how.

Now, based on those assumptions, we can reasonably assume that many of the people who shared this article didn’t do it simply because it was Leonard Cooper. It could have been anyone and it might not have gotten the buzz it did. Thus, we’ll say everyone really wanted to cheer for the underdog. At some point, Leonard was down 14 to 16 thousand dollars to the other competitors on stage. To make up all that ground and surpass them in what amounts to 14 minutes or so is pretty awesome.

But why is he the underdog?

Is it because so many either sympathize or empathize with a story about a kid who, already perceived as unintelligent due to his mannerisms, actually beats the competition? Is it because some of us have a very limited understanding of “knowledge” or what an educated person looks like? Do we still perceive intelligent as natural to some and exceptional in others?

Leonard Cooper represents the potential of all children to transcend the perceptions already laid upon them. How people see his early follies and his manner of speech mattered little at the end when, after working twice as hard for those remaining minutes, felt like he had nothing to lose. He represents the kid in the math class who, despite his best efforts, won’t ever get past a B because he was already estimated for a B and nothing more. He represents the kids who comes after school every day, but she won’t see a certificate for her efforts because she didn’t get a good grade on the one day her teacher was grading effort.

He represents adults, too, at least the ones who understand that what we see isn’t always what we get, and that’s a good thing for Leonard. For too many of our children, the buzzer sounds long far too early, and the judges aren’t as nice.