As we explore the tremendous art and culture offerings available in Washtenaw County, it’s worth remarking that in July 2017, Ann Arbor was also ranked by a WalletHub report as “most intellectual city in America.” According to the report, there are more people (aged 25 and older) with bachelor degrees, graduate/professional degrees, and associate degrees in Ann Arbor than in the other cities studied.
But, how does this ranking affect the younger, non-yet-degree-holding generation?
When I first learned of the findings of the WalletHub study, confetti popped in my brain. I celebrated. I was proud, hailing from “the most intellectual city” in the country. Yet, upon further reflection, my pride congealed into questions. It’s easy to feel good about a ranking. It’s harder to think about concrete ways these numbers play out in a community, and even blurrier when you consider how “intellect” can also breed a hypercompetitive academic culture—one that may further alienate students who already lack resources to help them succeed. I know from my own experience that many Ann Arbor high school students are under a lot of pressure. I felt this pressure in high school and nearly cracked from it senior year. I had friends who pulled all-nighters twice a week to study. Mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, are on the rise among area teenagers. So are suicide rates. I wouldn’t attribute these negative outcomes solely to academic pressures to uphold a “most intellectual city” ranking, but I’m also not sure growing up under that burden is entirely healthy.
Next, factor in the area’s racial education gap. Ann Arbor, according to a 2016 study performed by Stanford researchers, is among 10 percent of school districts with the widest racial achievement gaps. What that means is that certain ethnic and socio-economic groups do really well in school—mostly white and Asian middle class and upper middle class students—and others don’t. The result is a kind of two-tiered experience and which tier one winds up in shouldn’t be predictable by race or socioeconomic status. Can we truly call ourselves the “most intellectual city” if we can’t solve the puzzle of affording all our students equal access and opportunity?
When I break down the meaning of the term “intellect” and lay it on the ground, contextualize it in the 21st century, I see emotional, linguistic and technological literacy. A student needs to have access to all these literacies— access to a laptop, an online dictionary, a library card and time to spend with friends. We can’t tut our feathers as “most intellectual” if we haven’t seriously considered the nuances and complications that come with the label.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the wealth of fantastic organizations both within and beyond the Ann Arbor Public Schools that foster inclusivity, creativity, and intense intellectual engagement for youth. Numerous groups, like 826 Michigan, The Neutral Zone and Ozone House, put in the work to empower and stimulate young brains. And WalletHub did also find that Ann Arbor has the second-highest number of high school diploma holders (out of all areas studied). All this achievement is worthy of high praise. But how are we ensuring education extends beyond a degree? How are we feeding our emotional as well as academic intelligence? And as a community, do we have a plan to sustain our “most intellectual” educational future, given present and future cuts to the funding of the state and nation’s public education systems?
I am glad we’ve placed first in a ranking. But it’s not enough. As “most intellectual,” we can—and should—always do more.
Carlina Duan is a writer from Ann Arbor. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and has taught writing in Malaysia, Michigan, and California. Her journalistic and creative work can be found in The Michigan Daily, Mochi Magazine, HEArt Online, The Margins, and more. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.