When I was 14 and in ninth grade, my form and I had a teacher we loved. In my memory she was communist, but maybe I’m wrong about that and just inferred it. Certainly unlike all the other communist party members, she never tried to make us sign up for Our. Very. Own. Communist. Party. Card! (Be the first kid on your block NOT to own one.) Maybe she was just some shade of pink short of full red, which meant she was average for that time and place, particularly for teachers.
Where she stood out is that she was definitely an Odd. It’s funny that I can’t remember her name at all, but I remember she had one leg slightly shorter than the other, which probably sealed her as not belonging. Which made her fit very well with us, a gang of misfits.
Now I’m not going to make claims about IQ — an imprecise and not fully understood measurement — and I’m not going to event try to guess at what the heck was going on there. I’m just going to say my 8th and 9th grade form were the only place I ever felt normal.
It was created (and it was the same form though they changed letters in between. I think we were 8th H and 9th N, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway) because Portugal used to have, as England used to have “grouping by ability.” What this means is that the “forms” (a group of students who goes through all the classes together. The form colonizes a classroom and the teachers come to them. Sometime when I’m not talking about something completely different, remind me to tell you about our second semester 8th grade classroom.) were grouped by ability, ability usually being inferred by the grades people brought from “preparatory school.” The curricula could be almost bizarrely different. My brother and my cousin (male, older) were at different “ability grouping levels” and while they covered the same material, it was done at completely different levels.
I’m not going to argue for the rightness of grouping or not grouping. I’m not sure there should be twelve strata anyway, and I’m aware people change in their abilities and some very smart kids present as dullards in middle school or younger, which could get them stuck in the dummy class and bored sometimes literally to death. I’m just going to say there ought to be a middle ground between “you’re on stratum one of twelve” and “everyone learns the same thing and let the devil take the topmost and the hindmost.”
Anyway, one of the curious forms of blindness of central planners is that they think that their word is law. They dictate from above, and that’s it. Apparently the concept of Irish democracy eludes them. This is more so when the country is very old and respects tradition and “we’ve always done things that way.”
So the edict came from above, before I entered 7th grade that we weren’t culling people by ability anymore. This was about as effective as “study war no more.”
I don’t know what happened, not having been on the other side of this, but my guess is several teachers who were used to more or less uniform classrooms had quiet breakdowns. Or, being Portuguese and a lot of them female, not so quiet.
Which meant that… someone… I’m going to guess the clerks, telling no one in administration, did what they do. Instead of keeping forms intact for our second year in high school (8th grade) they … shuffled.
I realized something was up when I entered my first 8th grade class, languorously and fashionably late. The class was Portuguese, and this was my preserve. I was the kid who lived for creative writing assignments, the literature nerd who had read everything in advance. I had all the answers and was smug with it.
So I smiled at the scold for being late, sat down. The teacher was reading a poem I’d read before. She put the book down and asked a medium tricksy question. I waited to make it clear that no one else knew the answer and that I was the undisputed queen of the classroom… and then realized every hand was up.
There followed the two best years in my schooling. We gave some teachers’ nervous breakdowns (no, really. Three quit for various reasons, not counting the one we locked in the secret closet and who emerged praying the rosary and convinced we were possessed.) but for the right kind of teacher we were a dream class. The right kind of teacher was one who kept up with us, gave us more work than anyone should be able to handle, and let us teach ourselves and each other. The right teacher ALSO pretended she didn’t see the competition hangman or battleship games taking place between different rows of the class, or the fingers being snapped behind me, so I’d pass back the pink exercise book in which I was writing the current novel (in installments.) Or the pink exercise book making its way around the classroom.
The right teacher ignored the fact we’d once put a rubber snake in the supplies drawer knowing full well that she had a phobia of snakes. The right teacher ignored the fact we were in the habit of playing with the school’s electrical system to get out of late afternoon classes in winter. And she’d go to the beach with us, and spend the time playing mastermind and chess. (Yes, on the beach. And us girls — it was an all girl school — wondered why we didn’t date. On the train we had competition physics problem solving. Again, you know, we wondered why we didn’t date.I remember being very jealous of the girl who had a planned arranged marriage with her cousin, because at least she didn’t have to figure this mystery out.)
This teacher was very much the right teacher. I don’t remember what set this incident off but you have to understand the class were by and large libertarians who didn’t have a name for themselves, or perhaps the true definition of anarchists, not the travesty the left has made of the idea. (Though possibly more libertarians. this is the class that passed things like the Federalist Papers, Animal Farm and Gulag Archipelago back and forth covertly. Mind you, the books weren’t exactly forbidden, but we had feeling that was only because the authorities hadn’t thought we’d read them. They certainly contradicted a lot of things thrown at us by our lords and masters, teachers included.) So I don’t remember what set it off. It might very well have been some attempt to make us conform to new regulations on what to read or to teach us in order to meet a new test. I don’t remember.
What I remember is next time the teacher entered the classroom, we all stood up, as a unit, and treated her to a (probably off key and shouty) rendition of “The Wall.” I remember she sighed, sat down and said “Let’s talk.”
Which brings us to Odds and the way Odds cope with being Odd, and the way only Odds really understand other Odds and, by definition, most people aren’t Odds.
My former form (eh) was exhilarating to be in because until this blog I’ve never before or since found myself in a group of “my people.”
You know who you are, even if you don’t know why. You’re the people who given a choice between vanilla and chocolate say “strawberry” and if you can at all set about making it happen. You’re the people who don’t fit in, and all of you at some point read the story of the pink monkey, torn apart by the brown monkeys. You’re the people who either learned to go away from normal human intercourse, or else learned to fit in — often not perfectly, but well enough. — In a world of sheep and dogs and wolves, you’re the goats.
Dave Freer, a gentleman and a scholar tells me such a population is normal in every primate band. Maybe one or two of them. Maybe more. Obviously there is a sweet spot. Back when Robert and I used to take long walks through downtown Colorado Springs, (when he was about 14) we used to discuss stuff like this, and one of the things we found hilarious was the concept of an entire nation — or even band — of Odds. Any such band that existed in the dim and distant past, for sure selected itself out of existence. We’re not good at following orders (by and large) we’re not good at giving orders, and we get wild hairs on a routine basis. In a subsistence economy our numbers would be kept down without any effort on anyone’s part.
Look, when someone says “Come on Ogg, we need go hunt” and the answer is “F*ck you, you’re not the boss of me. Today I’m exploring basket weaving” the tribe will survive (and if they tolerate the goat, they might yet end up with advanced basketry far in advance of other tribes.) BUT if every member in the band answers that, at best the tribe will starve to death. At worst, the predators in the neighborhood will eat well, as each person disperses his or her own way and gets eaten.
A band with no Odds, one that doesn’t tolerate goats, one that enforces conformity, probably turns into those tribes that we meet sometimes, where they have no concept of time. Or numbers.
We know the civilization-wide forms of that from various societies that have stagnated. When conformity is strictly enforced and your weirdos are not allowed to contribute, we become … oh, sure stable. And dead.
So there is a need for a balance. The reason that form worked is that even if many of the teachers were also Odds they were Odds who had made compromises to work within the system.
America seems to me — at a glance — to have and tolerate a higher range of Odds than anywhere else in the world. Partly because we are so large and so diverse. (Really diverse, not the stupid leftist classifications.) Even if you stick out like a sore thumb in some place, there’s always a chance of going elsewhere and fitting in better. Part of it is because the people who came here broke the cultural bonds holding them in place. Even if you acquire new ones, if “assimilation” is enforced (and I think it should be, at least with societal approval, not with laws) you have broken one set of rules, and you know how arbitrary they are. And what needs to be adhered to. And what can be ignored.
Which makes Americans the “Odd” among nations and despite the fact that since colonial times EVERYONE, us included, have decried our education system and results, results in America being the engine of the amazing expansion in technology that has fueled the unheard of prosperity of the last 100 years or so.
But if you look at histories and nations, Odds are more tolerated in prosperous times. There is enough to go around, and people are more willing to tolerate that guy down the street who decided to shack up with another guy, or that woman who talks to herself during her walks, or even the guy who lives and dies for mathematics.
When a society feels threatened, when each individual is struggling to survive, people revert to where we cam from: the band. The familiar. The people who eat like us; talk like us; look like us and by gum dress like us.
I’ve heard idiots applauding tribalism as the way of the future. They might be right. What they’re missing is that they’re using “Way of the future” in the Marxist sense of of the term. They’re using “tribalism is the way of the future” int he conviction that the future leads to some sort of utopia. Or that it’s desirable. Like the idiot leftists with whom they share a lot they keep opening their yaps and letting completely unreasoned, stupid crap fall out. The stupidest being “The future belongs to us.”
It did, of course, for the Nazi youth of the 30s. What they didn’t know is that that future would be short and horrific and that many of them would die in unspeakably bad ways. In the same way the communists were right in the early twentieth century when they said the future belonged to them. That future was about 70 years long and filled with mass graves.
The future is the future. History doesn’t come with an arrow in the direction of “this is better.” That is a stupid thing we internalize from our schooling. The future not only isn’t set in stone, but it can be bad as well as good. And no matter what it is, it will pass. It will become the past. Another future will pass.
It is entirely possible that tribalism really is the future of the next fifty years or so. I hope not, because tribalism is a shock-condition of the human race, a reaction to very bad times, and when it takes hold it can, by itself, retard any form of betterment, any innovation, any freedom. Because as my dad is fond of saying, people aren’t measured in handspans (being unable to help himself, he’d then add they’re measured in centimeters. But that was fooling.) What he meant is that people aren’t measured by externals and what looks like your tribe might be, in internals, very different. And eventually tribalism turns on that. “You have to behave like the rest of us, or you’re wrong, wrong, wrong.” Eventually it ends in walls and crab buckets, and the one who are odd because they’re brighter, or more creative, or able to approach situations from a different angle are forced to pretend they’re like the rest of the herd. Or die.
This doesn’t last, of course. Which is why tribalism might be the short future, but eventually a place that makes use of the best and the brightest surfaces. It’s been Rome, and Alexandria, and France and Italy, and England, and us. There will be another place that accepts just enough odds to be the engine on the train of human progress. (And maybe next time we can get to the stars, to give human freedom a little more leeway, too.)
I’d prefer to avoid it, of course, because in the end tribalism — while the most fundamental of human instincts also — is a dead end. A cull de sac. And I don’t say this because my people tend to be the Odds and wouldn’t fare well.
I say this because if we’d stuck to that tribalism thing, we’d still be small bands roaming the savanna and sleeping on branches at night to avoid the predators.
I say this because the end run of this tribalism thing is giving Brave New World and 1984 a try, and making everyone live in conformity where all the square pegs will be pounded into round holes till they either splinter or become another brick in the wall.
Not the future I want for my descendants or even yours.
So build under, build over, build around. Build the structures that will preserve the prosperity our betters are determined to erase; the tolerance people are all too willing to throw away because they never understood it applies to them too.
Go forth and have no fear. In the end we win, they lose. We’re in it for the long game. Teach your children well.