Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Childhood Recaptured At Will

Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will.  ~Charles Baudelaire

According to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, 98 percent of kindergarteners qualify as "creative geniuses." By age 25, only three percent can make that claim.

To me, that 98 percent seems a bit low. I have never met a preschool aged child who is not, in her or his own way, a genius. The three percent rate for adults, however, seems about right. Until I read about the Torrance Test, I figured that my observation and interpretation of this phenomenon likely had more to do with my own prejudices than anything else. I mean, certainly there is genius within each adult as well, left over from childhood, but now simply hidden beneath the layers of normalcy and averageness that come to form the shell of what we call being "grown up."

Every parent of every preschooler I have ever met knows that her child is a genius. Sometimes they are proud of early-onset "academic" skills, but more often they are astonished by genius of the creative, social, emotional, or physical variety. "She can climb to the top of anything!" they might enthuse or, "He cries when another child gets hurt!" or, "She makes friends everywhere we go!" You hear genuine astonishment in their voices, the way one always does when one is discussing genius.

Cynics might say that I'm not writing about genius as much as the doting adoration of parental love, but from my perch as a teacher in a cooperative school, I've spent decades listening to parents being equally astonished at the genius they see in other people's kids. Indeed, I've long felt that one of the most powerful aspects of the cooperative model is that it gives parents front row seats to not only their own child's genius, but also that of others.

The sad truth, however, is that the adult world tends to only reward certain types of genius, those we typically file under "academic" in school settings, then "economic" in the years afterwords, but even then only after pounding it into more traditionally useful shapes. That, I expect, is why genius is so rarely seen in adults: it's there but relegated to the ashcan of uselessness because it serves neither academics or commerce.

As havens set aside for the preservation of genuine childhood, places like the Woodland Park Cooperative School (where I teach) are free to celebrate genius in all its forms whether or not it can pass through the infinitely fine sieve that sorts useful from useless. This is perhaps the greatest sin of our tradition of schooling: it is in many ways a decades-long process of pounding down the nails that stick up as we increasingly value conformity, order, and normalcy. The child with a genius for whistling or comedy or climbing onto the roof of the school is typically shut up or shut down as we seek to force their genius into the molds of usefulness, of averageness.

Genius is quirky, unusual; it may seem insane or even dangerous. Most of the time it is "useless" because we can't grade it or pay for it, but it is genius nevertheless. We all have it, then we outgrow it. I don't think Baudelaire was wrong: the genius is the one who has remained passionately connected to her childish self.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would do to the world if we raised an entire generation that could recapture childhood at will. It would be a world in which our institutions, like schools, would exist not to create standardized products as if off an assembly line, but rather to fill the world with one-of-a-kind humans free to pursue their highest potential according to her or his own genius. It would mean that we spend our lives playing because that is obviously the soil in which genius best grows. I suppose a world of genius would present it's own problems, but in a world in which play stands at the fore, I like our odds of being able to solve them.

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