Genius: cultivated, or unleashed?

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I just stumbled upon this quote of John Taylor Gatto's:

Genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.

I love this quote, of course. Also, I hate it.

Let me give a little background.


What do the following people have in common?

Michael Faraday, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison, Srinivasan Ramanuja, Samuel Clemens, Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm X, Ben Franklin, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Herschel.

Answer: all were largely, or entirely, self-educated.

This is a trope, right? You're listening to a documentary about this-or-that brilliant thinker, and at some point the narratorial voice jumps up half a register and pronounces in this tone of mock-incredulity: "And they had little in the way of formal schooling!"

The implication being, I suppose, if only he had hung in there and completed eighth grade, the person would have discovered another planet, or won another Noble Prize, or whatever.

And we all think: yeah, sure. It's obvious that this level of world-changing brilliance didn't come from school.

But you start to read enough of these biographies, and you start to wonder whether genius comes in spite of school.

Orson Scott Card put it succinctly:

Self-education is, ultimately, the only kind that exists.

As someone starting a school, this bugs me, because I think it's to some degree right.

I've been pursuing this school idea largely with the notion that genius is something to be carefully cultivated, that schools can (as our frenemies in economics say) add value.

Again, I don't think this is wrong — but I do think there's another aspect to this.

To what extent is genius cultivated through school, and to what extent is genius unleashed on one's own?

Or, to strip the problem down: When should our school get out of the way?

Is it possible for a school — a new kind of school — to give maximum guidance and maximum freedom?

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA