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01/12/2006 Archived Entry: "Genius and schooling"
AS A STUDENT, I WAS BOWLED OVER by the novels of Hermann Hesse, especially Demian. To me, these seemed the most profound books ever written -- mystical and wise and an inspiration for any young rebel heart. Lately, I've tried to re-read a couple of them and found them to be full of dense prose and self-indulgent navel-gazing. Oh well.
But one passage from Beneath the Wheel still seemed to speak a universal truth about the ironies of genius vs schooling. In fact, it seems all the more poignant in these days of drugging restless boys into dull submission. So I thought I'd share it with you. Hesse wrote it as one long paragraph. I'm more merciful; I'll break it up for easier reading.
Teachers dread nothing so much as unusual characteristics in precocious boys during the initial stages of their adolescence. A certain streak of genius makes an ominous impression on them, for there exists a deep gulf between genius and the teaching profession. Anyone with a touch of genius seems to his teachers a freak from the very first.
As far as teachers are concerned, they define young geniuses as those who are bad, disrespectful, smoke at fourteen, fall in love at fifteen, can be found at sixteen hanging out in bars, read forbidden books, write scandalous essays, occasionally stare down a teacher in class, are marked in the attendance book as rebels, and are budding candidates for room-arrest. A schoolmaster will prefer to have a couple of dumbheads in his class than a single genius, and if you regard it objectively, he is of course right. His task is not to produce extravangant intellects but good Latinists, arithmeticians and other sober decent folk.
The question of who suffers more acutely at the other's hands -- the teacher at the boy's, or vice versa -- who is more of a tyrant, more of a tormentor, and who profanes parts of the other's soul, student or teacher, is something you cannot examine without remembering your own youth in anger and shame. Yet that is not what concerns us here. We have the consolation that among true geniuses the wounds almost always heal. As their personalities develop, they create their art in spite of school. Once dead, and enveloped by the comfortable nimbus of remoteness, they are paraded by the schoolmasters before other generations of students as showpieces and noble examples.
Thus the struggle between rule and spirit repeats itself year after year from school. to school. The authorities go to infinite pains to nip the few profound or more valuable intellects in the bud. And time and again the ones who are detested by their teachers and frequently punished, the runaways and those expelled, are the ones who afterwards add to society's treasure. But some -- and who knows how many? -- waste away with quiet obstinacy and finally go under.
Posted by Claire @ 01:54 PM CST