Nurturing Everyday Genius
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About two centuries ago, the north German state of Prussia figured out that if the young could be prevented from growing up fully, by filling their days with organized tutelage, abstract tests and remote commands, they could be kept childlike lifelong.
The massive irrelevance of school content was prescribed with full awareness of its effects, about a century ago, by the best people in society, not evil villains. These men were tantalized by the prospects of wealth from fossil-fuel driven mass production, realizing that the way to maximize this wealth was through specializing the labor functions and standardizing behavior. The new science of statistically-grounded marketing, the science of overcoming sales resistance, would virtually guarantee unprecedented profits.
But a significant stumbling block existed – the disease of overproduction, or in the jargon of today, oversupply. Some way had to be found to curtail the ability to produce so that, for instance, the productive power of the population could be limited to those authorized to produce. Mr. Carnegie and Mr. Rockefeller, along with a handful of other satellite tycoons in America, and the Astors, Rothschilds and a few other names in Europe, took steps to meet this problem head-on. They assembled a bizarre alliance of men of affairs, utopian socialists, politicians and other dreamers to bring to life Plato’s ancient vision of a society organized through selective training.
But in a great reversal of what most Americans would have called common sense, this was a society in which many of the parts were to be habituated not to produce, to look at productive work in terms of jobs, not independent livelihoods.
The dumbed-down curriculum and simplified routines of class-based schooling worked as anticipated; we learned to define personal satisfaction as a function of consumption, not self-sufficient competency. We learned to revel in consuming what only a few produced; where once every single bar in American made its own beer fresh, now mass market brewers did it for everyone – and in that one representative instant, thousands were deprived of a chance at independent livelihoods.
Still, an older way of coming to maturity, of taking an education for oneself, managed to survive and perpetuate itself without fanfare. In 1989 a school dropout from Brooklyn, a teenage girl named Tania Aebi, with no more nautical experience than I have, sailed around the world alone – first woman known to history to do so. A few years ago an elementary school dropout, a penniless British merchant seaman named George Meeghan, took the longest walk in human history, entirely on his own hook, unsponsored, to prove to himself he could do it. From Tierra Del Fuego to Point Barrow, Alaska, over the Andes without special equipment, through the trackless jungles of the Darien Gap, with a 7,000-mile detour to see Washington, D.C. You’ll find both names in the Guinness Book.
A dropout is currently president of the Philippines; a dropout reared in unimaginable poverty is currently president of Brazil; the man who gave us popcorn in movie theaters, an idea which made him a billionaire, was selling flags on the street at the age of nine, not going to school, and filling vending machines at age twelve. Lew Wasserman, recently deceased head of the largest entertainment conglomerate on earth, cut school to be a movie usher at age twelve; by age eighteen he had figured out how to sign a string of movie stars like Fred Astaire to his contracts. Michelle Wie, Hawaiian golfing sensation, a multi-millionaire by fourteen, reached that enviable pinnacle because her father and mother understood what really mattered; the tennis playing Williams sisters, daughters of a black mailman who couldn’t afford tennis lessons, were worth 100 million each at age twenty-one because their non-tennis-p1aying parents taught them the game from books and videos – with wealth specifically in mind – when they were five. The head of the most prestigious scientific project on earth, the human genome project, was homeschooled on a remote sheep ranch in Virginia by his mother studying whatever interested him for exactly as long as it held his interest. Mother made no attempt at balance, imposed no other curriculum, no standardized exams. Although reared as an atheist, in college the young man, Francis S. Collins, became a born-again Christian, calling the decision “intellectually inescapable.”
Shouldn’t everybody passed through a forced schooling meat grinder be made intensely aware of these models of the possible, and many more besides? Shouldn’t every kid be freed from the counterfeit crisis of standardized exams, a bogeyman if there ever was one? And if a college degree is wanted, shouldn’t kids understand that hundreds of first class universities will allow candidates to earn one inexpensive1y through correspondence – same degree as sit-down students get, except much, much cheaper and much more convenient?
I taught public school eighth graders in New York City for thirty years, rich kids and poor. Against all my own formal training at two elite universities, I came to see that ordinary people are endowed with genius so abundant that our familiar economy is inadequate to contain it, just as our familiar social order is inadequate to accommodate it either.
Even seen in its best light, forced schooling on the Prussian model was conceived as a stopgap to contain too-abundant genius until a bigger vision of the possible came along. But a hundred years have passed and we’re still stuck with the same thing – apparently it’s too useful to the haves and the have mores to abandon.
Real school reform has nothing to do with the dreary catalog of items paraded before us in the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, or with any of the similar acts which preceded it or happen in other countries. Real reform will jettison the deadly belief that ordinary children are too stupid to be partners in their own educations. We need to scuttle expert dogmas which prevent the everyday genius of ordinary people from developing.
We need to spread the message far and wide that school isn’t good for kids and will become worse in the world of ten years from now. Children need to be mobilized to defend their rights, to boycott standardized assessments, demanding a sensible form of judgment. Children need to understand what alternatives already exist and are working well, and they need to understand that nobody on earth can give you an education except yourself.
This article was adapted and edited from a keynote address delivered to the Australian Conference of Educational Leadership in Perth, Australia in October, 2004. It was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2005.