Kevin Olusola – “Smart” is an Identity


Kevin Olusola is a musician and member of the Grammy-winning a cappella quintet Pentatonix. The son of immigrants, education was extremely important to Kevin growing up. Kevin’s hard work and dedication has earned him many academic and musical achievements throughout his academic career and beyond. In this video, Kevin talks about his educational experiences and what they have meant to him. To learn more about Kevin, visit his website.

“Smart” is an identity

In the video, Kevin discusses how he took advantage of educational opportunities by joining academic teams and dedicating himself to his studies. When describing himself during that time, he remarks that ‘smart’ was ‘who he was’.  Kevin even mentions how he was teased for having this identity.

One frequent frustration many teachers (including myself) have is the unwillingness of many students to embrace their intelligence and let it show. In fact, many students strive to project the exact opposite. Despite this aversion to knowledge, I have also found that most of my students feel a great sense of pride and satisfaction when they finally understand a challenging concept, even if they don’t let it show in a big way. So if learning can be so gratifying, why does this ‘aversion to intelligence’ exist?

Kevin’s description of his experience gives us some insight on this phenomenon. He describes being smart as being “who I was”. In other words, Kevin saw being smart and studious as his identity. As adults, we understand that being ‘smart’ is one of many qualities that together form our very complex identities. We also understand that different parts of our identity will become more prominent in different situations and that who we are in one situation does not define us completely. However, these understandings are not typically present in the young mind.

Even if it is not referred to as ‘identity’, how students see themselves is usually singular and all encompassing.  For example, student who plays hockey will likely identify themselves as a hockey player or ‘sporty’. Their behavior will reflect what they feel good hockey players should act like and this persona determines how they interact with the world around them. The student’s clothes, subject of focus in creative assignments, and who they view as being in their ‘club’ is all determined by this liking and participation in the sport of hockey. As young students begin to enter adolescence, they begin to understand how this identity is perceived by others and as a result, struggle with what their identity should be. Complicating the matter further is that these students are also becoming aware that there are many elements of their identity but still feel only one of those voices can and should define them and be projected at all times.

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So how does all of this tie back to unwillingness of students (more specifically adolescent students) to show their intelligence? Well, if we accept the theory that these young individuals feel that the part of themselves they choose to give voice to is what determines their identity, then the answer becomes a little clearer. In the video, Kevin himself admits that he was often teased for projecting the ‘smart’ persona. What’s more, when he describes what he was like when he was younger, this information came as no surprise. Negativity towards the ‘smart’ persona has long persisted and this negativity is so well known that it seems if one chooses this identity, they are ‘asking for it’. It is no wonder that a student who feels they can only be defined as one thing would avoid being ‘smart’.

But why does being identified as ‘smart’ carry such negativity? I have two theories. In my earlier example, I talked about a student whose love of hockey determined their persona. The reason I chose this particular example is that it seems most students look to the things they like to do for fun and/or that they take great pride in to determine what persona they should adopt. Though most students seem to enjoy learning, school has placed learning into the ‘work’ category instead of something that can be enjoyed when one has the opportunity to decide how to spend their time. As a result, those who allow academics to determine their persona can appear to be ‘disconnected from reality’ or to ‘not have a life’.  Because it is hard for other students to relate to this persona, they reject it.

Another theory has to do with who we visualize the smart individual is. Kevin describes himself in that persona perfectly. Images of a skinny, wimpy kid immediately comes to mind. Perhaps this kid has glasses and/or speaks in a nasally tone. They seem almost pretentious with how they share their knowledge and through their use of big words, yet they are almost always alone. In fact, they are ALWAYS the target of bullying and snide commentary. The media has run away with this persona and has perpetuated this image to an extreme. The reality is, most smart students don’t fit this persona. They are kind, dress fashionably, have friends, and may even enjoy sports. Most importantly, none of them see themselves as being weak, socially inept, or alone. If that is the persona assigned to those who embrace their intellectual curiosity, why would these students want to choose it?

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So perhaps part of our job as teachers is not to convince our students to embrace the desire to learn. Perhaps it is our job to help them realize that all of their ‘voices’ can and should coexist; that they can be both smart AND strong at the same time.

Closing Thoughts

I chose to focus on the “smart” identity from this video because I believe that Kevin personifies the many elements that can form an identity and speaks to his personal evolution. Kevin has many other wonderful and encouraging things to say in this video and I think it would be cool to show students. Despite being well-known and looking like any guy you would want to hang out with, Kevin is extremely accomplished. He describes perfectly how it was not so much the academic content but the life skills he learned in school that have allowed him to succeed in very practical ways. What makes this video even more powerful is that despite his accolades, Kevin has chosen a career path many would deem to be ‘artistic’ or ‘non-traditional’ and has found great success. This video offers many avenues of discussion and is worth sharing with peers and students alike.

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