Wherefore Genius? Wherefore not?

Could John Taylor Gatto be right when he observed:

After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

Perhaps Gatto was nearer the truth than most would like to admit. In 2013, Wired Magazine reported about a classroom with not just one genius (Paloma Noyola Bueno), but also nine near-geniuses in mathematics; all ten scored in the top 99th percentile on a national math exam – after their teacher (Sergio Juárez Correa) did the very opposite of “teaching to the test.”

Other instructors have had outstanding results. A study by Bloom found that classroom populations are capable of much higher performance, given different and more individualized methods of instruction.

Walter Isaacson has written biographies on Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and, most recently, Steve Jobs. He describes five traits shared by geniuses: Passion for perfection, love of simplicity, making others do what they never thought was possible, challenging other geniuses, and appreciation of diversity.

I would add one more, I think: geniuses are self-driven and self-motivated to a very high degree. Their “locus of control” is very much internal.

A researcher in North Carolina, looking for common characteristics among the world’s most outstanding geniuses, discovered an important factor: Newton and Descartes and others of their sort managed substantially more of their own time than most of their peers.

Schools as we know them militate against many of these factors. They organize and dictate the most minute scraps of a child’s time. They devour six hours for formal education; consume an hour or two for transit; swallow an hour more for required homework. When has a child time to think, time to play? Even play is now organized – Little League teams, “play dates,” and so forth. This is faux play; driven not by the child’s interests and needs; organized not by the child, but by others. When a child wants to seek a better way of doing things, she is instead hustled along to the next item on the schedule.

I concur with John Taylor Gatto: We must allow children to manage themselves, to discover their own passions and interests and their own innate genius – be it great or small. Even a small genius must be respected, for creating smaller gifts to our understanding.

I spoke once with a great entrepreneur, who had taken a failing factory and converted it to a success, and then moved on to build a large enterprise with locations in many countries. Asked how he managed the turnaround, he replied “There is no magic. I was on the floor many many times, all three shifts. I knew everybody, I talked to everybody, everybody talked to me. They knew what needed to be done, they had ideas to make things better. They shared those ideas, I thought them over, and whenever I heard a good idea, I made it happen.”

His genius was to listen, to think, to evaluate, to combine, and to “make things happen.” But he relied on the genius of the many people who worked for him – to observe, to consider, and to think about the many small improvements which can turn a failure into a success.

Were we to pay more attention to our children, we might discover many wonderful ideas and talents.

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