I don’t remember when or where, but the other day – no more than six months ago, and no less than two weeks – I came across an article saying that the US was very bad in comparison to other countries in educating and promoting people of exceptional IQ.
There is a lot to be said for that, in comparison to the sort of daft worship of high IQ that other countries do. Being a genius doesn’t make you good at anything in particularly (in fact, most geniuses will tend to drift aimlessly through life because they never learn study habits.) It doesn’t give you empathy for other people or make you socially adept. In fact, what it does is make you automatically an “odd.”
I know this because I’m raising one (and by some measures two) of them. The smarter one sometimes needs a cue card to remember how to tie his shoes and becomes obsessed with things till he learns them, which means giving him an interesting puzzle is a bad idea, no matter how much he loves puzzles, because he’ll spend the next two weeks in his room, in his underwear, unable to think of or do anything else. (It’s particularly inadvisable during the school year, but we sometimes like to see him during Spring break or summer too.)
We could go into what causes the obsessive periods, which are apparently normal in highly gifted people.
There is also saltational learning – which makes gifted children such a pain in class – it basically means that most gifted kids aren’t good at most tasks they’ve never encountered. Instead, because they develop their skills in highly targeted bursts, they might be lacking some skills normal kids have.
Say that the task in kindergarten is to color inside the lines. Most kids at three or four can do this (I couldn’t, but that’s a different reason. Having been born severely premature, I had issues with fine motor until much later.) They can do this because they’ve spent hours – days perhaps – playing, let’s face it, very weird games like pick up sticks, or whatever which refined motor control.
But let’s take your supergenius (super genius to the rescue!) He found this “play” boring beyond belief. So he taught himself to read at three, and has been reading his way through Roman history and (in younger son’s case) “How things work” series of engineering books.
Put him in a kindergarten class and tell him to color inside the lines,
He’s never practiced that fine motor skill, and he won’t know how to.
Let alone the fact that these kids tend to be blunt to the point of rudeness and are likely to tell you “this is boring, may I translate the Iliad from the Greek, instead?” My kids wouldn’t (well, younger one is STILL teaching himself Greek, but that’s something else) because by the time they went to class they had a modicum of social grace. But even when they applied themselves wholeheartedly to coloring, they were very bad at it.
So, what does your average genius do? He or she hates coming in last (younger son didn’t care, and until the competitive gene kicked in at puberty was the hardest person in the world to motivate) so then they spend the next two weeks learning coloring, until they can do it with shading, directional light and depth.
Of course, in the meantime, in your average kindergarten, they failed the rubrics on learning your own address and sorting by colors, but by gum, they’re better at coloring than all their peers and many artists.
That is how geniuses learn and their interaction with the school system if a problem and one that points to the larger point of this article.
In the meanwhile I just want to point out that the lack of sense of proportion, obsessive behavior and cluelessness about things other people don’t even remember learning is why what many countries do, promoting their geniuses immediately to positions of power over others is wrong.
The entire science fiction myth of “you’re a genius, you’ll be the best governor/king/president ever” give me hives (as some people who read my books can probably guess.) because you’re more likely to make a very bad ruler. The closer you are to your people, the better you understand them and how they see you, and how what you do affects them.
So when the article said something about the US wasting its geniuses, it didn’t worry me a lot. I mean it worries me in the personal sense. I think we’re eating our seed corn. I think that we should have the ability to educate our geniuses in ways that make them better balanced, happier, and more useful members of society. (At least I hope there’s a way. I’m trying to make sure younger son doesn’t end up locked in a trash-filled room, muttering to himself.)
But in the macro sense, wasting our geniuses is perhaps smarter than putting our geniuses in charge.
Yes, extraordinarily gifted people can become very good at something, but it takes them a lot of work to “tune” to the level where they interact successfully with other people.
However, the US is wasting ALL its odds. Our school system is designed, metaphorically, to turn out square pegs. It’s bad enough to pound cylinders into square pegs, but our system is worse than that: it also pounds star shapes into square pegs. It flattens circles into square pegs. And if it can’t do either, then it shatters them.
When my kids were going to school my best friend was the mother of a profoundly mentally disabled child. Why? Because the school was failing us both in the same way.
We won’t go into the insanity that’s “mainstreaming” which is pretending that your not-normal child is normal and making everyone feel better, but not teaching the child the things he needs to know and which are within his reach. So you have a child with an IQ of 48 in a normal 5th grade class. His “aide” is doing, oh, sorry, helping him with his homework in fractions, and he “passes”. BUT HE WON’T be taught to button his shirt, or tie his shoes, or sit quietly or… any of the things that WILL help his caretakers in the future. This is even worse with kids who are healthy enough they might be able to live independently and who aren’t taught the basics of life and maybe a basic job (counting things, or sweeping, or sorting stuff, or things that people who are impaired still can do and get paid for and feel they’re supporting themselves) because instead the system is so busy pretending they’re “normal.”
They don’t even try with gifted kids. They tell you that the gifted child will be “all right, anyway” because “he’s so smart.” And so there’s no money to even try to help them. Which is fine. They’d probably assign them aides to pretend they’re normal. Sometimes – and this will tell you the crazy conflation in their heads – they’ll tell you of some special school for gifted children. (In Marshall’s case, at his level, middle school and higher, the school they found was in CT, boarding, and cost more than we made per year. They threw that at us as though “Well, if your kid is so smart you must be rich, why do you insist on inflicting him on us.” Crazy. As though IQ were bought with money.)
It’s not true that gifted children are okay “anyway.” I know several Mensans and they’re more likely to work awful, mindless, low pay, and often dangerous jobs than they are to be “captains of industry” or even – and this is the true waste – quietly competent technicians or mathematicians. The Dilbert comics pegged it exactly when the janitor is the Mensan. More importantly, most Mensans I know are walking wounded, who have trouble forming relationships and always feel marginalized. (It might be the inevitable result of being odd, but…)
Given this it probably shocks no one that the system is even worse with children who are mentally ill, or handicapped.
I’m fortunate in that neither of the kids are mentally ill. But for at least a year we feared the younger one was. We feared it because he has sensory oddities. (I’ve heard this disparaged as not existing. Bad news, I probably had the same issues Marshall had. It’s hard to remember clearly, of course, but I remember complaining that clothes that bothered no one else were ‘prickly” and hearing REALLY low sounds perfectly. And like him, I had trouble with my eyes working together enough to write on the line, so my handwriting was atrocious AND I wrote really slowly till I was about 10.) It’s not even unusual. Something in your brain doesn’t allow the eyes/ears/etc to work together. In conjunction with this, you might have odd sensory effects.
We knew nothing about this, though as I’ve said above, once they described it I went “oh” – and I know that everyone in the family writes really slowly till the end of high school. But the system we went through had more “give.” My teacher in the village might think I was dawdling, but she also knew I knew the subjects and she might complain to my mother about my odd ways, but she wouldn’t send me to detention.
Marshall had always acted “odd” – I had him tested for mid range hearing loss (which I have.) because I noticed that if there was the slightest background noise, he had no idea what you’d said. He didn’t write or draw until he was much older than his brother who was winning contests at 4. And there was the thing in which he swore to me cotton sweaters were scratchy. Other minor things, like if you rubbed your fingernails against the car upholstery, he used to get really upset and scream to stop it, because it hurt his ears. We though he was “eccentric.”
Elementary school his teacher though he was odd but she liked him. Then he hit the regimentation of Middle School. Beyond the fact he got heinously bullied by a group of girls in sixth grade, Middle School is when they try to standardize you and give you “standard behaviors.” The unwritten curriculum is to make the kid behave like every other kid.
We started getting odd reports like that he’d thrown a fit because the girls in front of him were breathing so loudly he couldn’t hear the teacher. Sounds loony, right? The teachers thought so. They wanted to medicate him.
Honestly, if it hadn’t come with the bullying and if he hadn’t got clinically depressed, we might have gone along with it. We thought he was nuts, too. And his grades were trawling the depts., and it seemed to us like he wasn’t even trying.
But he was depressed, and well… we took him to a psychologist, who said “uh” and gave us a recommendation to a hearing center that deals with kids like him, and then to a vision center, and then…
He was so horribly disabled (for instance he heard all sounds at the same level) that they couldn’t believe he’d made it through sixth grade with good grades, could read and write and could generally “pass”. Then they tested his IQ and went “oh” – because he’d been using his IQ to cover his issues. (And it explained something in kindergarten where his teacher thought he didn’t understand spoken language at all – or at least she didn’t understand why she gave instructions and then he looked at what his classmates were doing to know what to do.)
We started working with him on physical therapy for the senses and now, if he’s not normal he’s so close as makes no difference. (We need to take him for what we hope will be his final appointment at the hearing center.)
But if we hadn’t had reason to be suspicious of the school, we might have gone along with medication. I wonder how many parents do.
And then comes “what if your child is really mentally ill?” My friend Pat Richardson wrote about his family’s issues with this over at PJM.
In the comments people started blaming him and his wife for their child’s problem.
Let me say right away MAYBE some parents are responsible for their kids’ neurosis. BUT it’s physically impossible for parents to make a child seriously mentally ill. You might manage an approach to it if you lock him in the closet and feed him through the lock, but the facile Freudian nonsense which is ruining your education, which (mostly through movies and popular entertainment) projects the idea that if you thwart your child’s interest in eating his socks at two he’ll become Jack the Ripper at 30 is nonsense. I hope all of you knew that, because it’s pernicious nonsense.
As I said, my child was never mentally ill – but he did have problems we didn’t understand, and which made him act very oddly. The school’s response to it was to treat it as though it were a moral failing on his part and ours.
Society does it one better. It couples that with treating them as though they’re “perfectly normal.” It’s mainstreaming all over again. Pat’s child might do fine in an institution which medicates him regularly. He’s not going to get that, because while mentally ill he refuses it, and they pretend he’s a fully responsible adult.
Could the school have trained him to take his meds. Maybe. My guess is the attempt was never made to explain why or train him. And now he’s an adult and our laws don’t allow us to do anything.
Peter Grant talked about what we DO do with the mentally ill – we jail them, by and large. Which is another pounding of pegs into shapes they aren’t.
Do I want a place where society can say “you are crazy” and lock you up? Not particularly. The problem is that medical illness is not QUANTIFIABLE and things like sensory issues can masquerade as mental illness. Then, you get the same effect you get in the school where if you’re a little odd, they proclaim you learning disabled or a “problem”. Or you get the Soviet medicalization of dissent. (We might get that anyway.)
BUT at the same time there should be an objective “caused arm to self and others” standard that just gets you sent to a quiet place and medicated for the rest of your life.
Perhaps the answer is a delivery system like depo-provera. Under the skin capsules that dispense your dosage over six months, and if you don’t come in for your shot, they check to see how you’re doing and whether you still do need it. (Do these even exist? Or is contraception a higher priority than sanity?)
Or perhaps there is no easy answer. There probably is no easy answer.
No one ever asks you to choose between 100 lashes and a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Usually the best choice you have is the “best of a broken world”
But what we’re doing, starting with school, is pretending the odd don’t exist, and not only letting them drop, but actively shoving them down through the cracks, so we can have our tidy and “rational” world.
The standardization of human beings is a bad policy. One designed for an industrialized, one size fits all world, which by and large never came to pass.
And we should be able to do better.
I won’t say the measure of a civilized society is how it deals with its odd members — who knows how to measure civilization, when we only have our race to go off of?
But I’ll say we’re wasting good people and causing suffering that could be avoided, by pretending that all the pegs should be square.
UPDATE: New chapter up at Mad Genius Club