In looking at the span of human accomplishments, the question arises: Why are the achievements of some time periods astonishingly more productive than others?
As historians ponder this question, the answer invariably leads to an examination of unique contributions of individual geniuses; achievements so significant that they open new possibilities, causing others to think and work differently, and ultimately result in the whole society taking a giant leap forward.
In his latest book The Renaissance, historian Paul Johnson writes, "Genius suddenly comes to life and speaks out of a vacuum, and then it is silent, equally mysteriously."
The contributions of one mind can persist for centuries. Consider, for example, Galileo's achievements in astronomy and physics, Newton's work on gravity and motion, Einstein's theory of relativity, Marie Curie's discoveries in radioactivity, Mozart's symphonies, Da Vinci's paintings, Shakespeare's plays, and John Locke's philosophy of freedom. Modern western civilization is still shaped and influenced by these achievements.
When considering the question of what causes a cluster of geniuses to arise in some time periods and not others, statistician David Banks examines three periods of history in which geniuses in the humanities appeared in disproportionately large numbers:
How did these cultures nurture genius? Factors that have been considered as possibly responsible for nurturing genius include prosperity, peace, social mobility, artistic freedom and education.
As an educator, I am naturally drawn to looking at the role education played in these periods of great human achievement. It is not surprising that in all three periods, education was individualized and focused on the student's abilities and progressive accomplishments.
All three societies emphasized individual instruction with master teachers who specifically focused on teaching to the student's ability and advancing mastery. None of them took a one-size-fits-all mass production approach to education. None taught the same curriculum to all students, nor applied the same standards of achievement to all students. None determined instruction level by age. In all three periods instruction focused on student ability and achievement.
Granted this approach had its flaws, particularly that the intellectual abilities of women and other minority groups were largely ignored, but the basic concept of providing opportunities for talented young people to work with master teachers to develop their gifts is an effective strategy that is sorely missing from today's educational system.
Today's system was not designed to nurture genius. Rather, it was designed to educate the masses. Public schools came into being for the purpose of providing a free education to citizens. Our forefathers believed that an educated citizenry was necessary for the survival of a democratic form of government. Our public schools have served this purpose reasonably well. Most of our citizens can read and write, and are able to comprehend issues and form opinions.
However, the public schools' mass production approach to learning is not well suited to the education of extremely intelligent students. Ironically, many public schools are able to nurture and support the most talented athletes. Some have been successful in nurturing talented musicians, but only a few have been successful in nurturing highly intelligent students. As a result, today's most intellectually capable students are not being provided an education appropriate to their abilities.
This is the quiet crisis in American education. The crisis is "quiet" because it denies a developmentally appropriate education to a relatively small group of students - the most gifted problem-solvers. This issue does not get much attention and little or no press, but it is a crisis nonetheless. It is a crisis because our failure to nurture highly intelligent students will deny future generations the opportunity to benefit from their achievements and deny civilization the opportunity to advance.
It seems odd that our society, in general, is eager to nurture development in so many other talent areas, but not in the area of intellect.
At age 4, Van Cliburn was performing "Prelude in C Major from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1". At age 14, John Nash was replicating mathematical theories of Fermat and Bell. Would it have made sense to force Cliburn at age 8 to play tunes from a beginner's piano book, or to ask Nash to complete standard eighth grade mathematics? Of course not, the thought is absurd. However, at least in Nash's case, it was reality. It is completely acceptable in our current school system to force an academically talented 6-year-old to do first grade schoolwork that she mastered at age 3. In today's system, it is perfectly acceptable to require a 14-year-old who scored at, or above, college level on an achievement test to remain a freshman in high school and to take freshman level courses.
When we look back at the three historical periods of high achievement, would this have happened? In early Athens, would a student be forced to slow down his rate of learning because of his age? During the Renaissance, would a student's unique ability in a particular area be denied so that a set curriculum could be followed? In Elizabethan England, would an aspiring young writer be limited to a five paragraph essay because that was the appropriate writing level of other students that age? Of course not. Educational practices in these and other periods of great achievement were based upon students' abilities. The administrative convenience of grouping students by age to deliver a standardized curriculum was not practiced.
Too often the view of today's educational system is that "smart children can fend for themselves." But can they? My experience as an educator tells me otherwise. All children need to be offered opportunities that allow them to be intellectually stimulated and challenged, just as all plants need rich soil in which to grow. It is ludicrous to take our strongest plants, the ones with the greatest potential, and place them in the weakest soil, and then provide them with the weakest sunlight and the least amount of water.
Yes, there is a quiet crisis in American education. By neglecting to nurture our nation's most able young minds, we are denying future generations the benefit of their achievements. By denying our most intelligent students an education appropriate to their abilities, we may also be denying civilization a giant leap forward.
Copyright Davidson Institute for Talent Development, 2002.
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