Want to Get Smarter? Try a Small Town

If you’re interested in getting smarter, there are plenty of rural and small town communities happy to leave the light on for you

By Diane Smith

My best friend Barbara (the most brilliant person I know) and I don’t talk nearly often enough, but we do try to spend some serious quality time together as often as possible. Barbara and I met at the beginning of our careers in Washington, D.C. when we were both working in the telecom industry. Often the only women in the room, we blazed a trail or two together and have always fiercely admired and relied on each other’s intellect and insight. Recently, we have both concluded that we are, actually, getting smarter. Barbara, more humble than I, chalks it up mostly to better wine, age and experience. Being a beer drinker, I’m not buying the wine explanation, but we are obviously older and way more experienced than either of us thought we’d live to be by this time in our lives. However, we have speculated that there may be something else going on as well.

The Financial Times recently ran a story that began, “Our great, global cities are turning into vast gated citadels where the elite reproduces itself.” The article sounds the alarm about what happens in cities after gentrification. They call it “plutocratisation,” where only the truly wealthy can afford the lifestyle and even upper-middle-class residents exit due to unaffordability. These cities ultimately become, according to the article, “patrician ghettos.”

So, what does this have to do with getting smarter? The smartest people I’ve known seek diversity of experience and input in their own lives and in their closest advisors. They gather around them a range of experiences and connections that allow them to explore ever vaster reservoirs of information. They don’t fear those with knowledge or expertise that looks different from theirs; they welcome it, knowing that their capacity will only be enriched by such “otherness.”

When we moved to Montana so many years ago, it never occurred to me that I would become smarter simply by virtue of being surrounded by folks who knew how to grow wheat, bend metal, ski like an Olympian, or hunt like Daniel Boone. Now, I appreciate each day how much richer and, yes, smarter, my life is for having been touched by those whose skills are so very different from mine. In Denver, Barbara feels it as well. The ability to know and have neighbors of broad diversity used to be a marker of great cities. Today, perhaps that diversity is becoming more evident in rural, small town and small city America than in our grand metropolises.

Barbara and I no longer talk as much about our careers, now our conversations are more about politics, food, and the nuances of recent David Brooks columns. But in almost every conversation, one of us will say, “You’ve gotta hear about this person I just met.” If our biggest cities become patrician ghettos, it will indeed be a huge loss. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting smarter, there are plenty of rural and small town communities happy to leave the light on for you.

Learn more about Diane by following her column here or visit American Rural at AmericanRural.org.

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