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Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

April 27, 2007

Many of the major issues of the day – speciation, the birth and death of quasars, the flight reflex in drosophila – have now been answered to general satisfaction. But despite its importance and the attention it has received, there is still no universal agreement about how best to educate our children.

Consequently, every 20 years or so, a new theory becomes popular and a new generation of children is condemned to permanent obscurity by some crackpot idea that has become dominant.

I myself am particularly sensitive to this issue because I was the runt of a large family and my math-minded parents were embarrassed that, at the age of 9, I still couldn’t differentiate between a tensor and a Fourier transform. So they decided to put me in a “special school” that had a “house” for each of five grades of intelligence.

As a backward child I was placed in Wyckham House for retarded boys and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Since most of the others could neither read nor write, the staff concentrated on saving them from the street while I was left to my own devices. But self-teaching is not my strongest suit, so at term end, when we were sent home for parental inspection, mine determined that I was still unable to extract a cube root without assistance, and insisted that I be placed in Huxley House for gifted children. Their thinking, I gather, was that at least something must rub off over the next seven years.

Naturally, the staff was totally opposed to such a bizarre move, since even though Huxley House came only second in the hierarchy of intelligence, it still admitted only children with eidetic recall. Nevertheless, my parents insisted, and, as they had contributed handsomely toward founding the school, I was duly thrown into the company of the gifted, much as Christians were once fed to the lions.

Initially I was terrified, as every one of my housemates was able to permanently memorize a text simply by reading it once. And each one was particularly gifted in one area, such as mathematics, linguistics or athletics, while at the same time excelling in all of the other nine subjects we were required to master. But if I didn’t have total recall, I was good at the empathy game, and soon found out that they all had their own crosses to bear: their parents blamed them for not being smart enough for Norman House, the abode of genius.

Once I detected the weak point of the strong, I had no reservations about accepting their help. In oral tests I always scored zero, but in written exams they supplied all my answers for me, and so I kept my head above water. In the end, my parents were partly right; some of the self-confidence of giftedness did rub off on me. Now, even though I shall never be able to memorize a line or sit for a college degree, I can look you right in the eye and lie like a trooper.

But, if little else, I learned one thing: we all of us, without exception, have our own crosses to bear.

 

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