Friday, October 21, 2011
These are the absolute truths I grew up with. The trouble is I could never figure out quite where I stood.
On the other hand, I was endowed with certain gifts: I could act in plays; I was pretty good at learning a foreign language, and I excelled in creative writing.
Was I stupid or was I smart? I still don't know.
What is intelligence really? Is it something you're born with? Something shaped primarily by your environment? Or something complicated and mysterious that can't be quantified?
My friends, over the years, have come from many different backgrounds and have demonstrated a wide variety of abilities and talents. One of my co-workers who grew up in "the projects" possessed extraordinary common sense. From me, she learned to increase her vocabulary; from her, I learned to think in a less fanciful and more practical vein.
My very best friend for a number of years was a daycare provider who had pretty much shrugged off the benefits of formal education. Yet, her interactions with children (especially emotionally, mentally or physically-challenged children) were a product of her innate genius. For example, an autistic boy who was virtually mute at school spoke to her (albeit in a high-pitched, mechanical tone), coming out with words and phrases his teachers never thought he knew.
In fact, and on reflection, I'm forced to conclude that good teaching has little to do with being exceptionally smart. A stupid teacher, to my way of thinking, is one who can't imagine what might be going on inside a student's brain, someone who doesn't take the trouble to find out what a child actually knows so as to be able to attach new knowledge to old. A stupid teacher usually lacks passion, empathy and -- above all -- a sense of humor.
Some people trip over their own sentences yet can design and build the perfect home. Or compose and perform the perfect song. Or soothe and tame a wild animal. Or play soccer with cunning and agility.
To some extent, it's possible to increase one's intelligence. One does this by studying hard, listening closely to what others have to say, and carrying in one's head a model for excellence. I did these things in college and everyone thought I was incredibly smart.
Probably there is a difference between being smart and being able to think. Some people in America appear to have given up thinking altogether. These are the people who equate Obama's health care program with the Third Reich agenda. They carry signs that say, "Government out of my Medicare." They believe it is possible to live the good life without paying any taxes. They think the Bible (despite its many contradictions) overrides scientific data when it comes to issues like the theory of evolution or global warming.
These people believe whatever provides them with emotional satisfaction. In a morally complex world, they have a passion for absolute certainty.
If smart people want to change the world, maybe they ought to bear that in mind.
Can the unthinking population actually be converted? Can the willfully ignorant be made smart?
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Back in the fifties there was no such thing as a play date.
Often a group of us would ride our bikes up and down the maple-lined streets in search of adventure. One day we found a lost dog and returned him to his owner. Another time we discovered a fire in someone's yard and proceeded to stomp out the flames until the fire department came and chased us away. (We left knowing in our hearts that we were the real heroes of the day.)
We climbed the stone wall by the Methodist Church and dared each other to jump down. We rode our bikes like fury downhill taking our hands off the handlebars and waving them triumphantly over our heads. We rode with the wind in our hair since no one, in those days, wore a helmet.
We ran from bullies and laughed at the crazy old lady on the corner who claimed she talked to ghosts.
We made up plays and performed them, with or without an audience.
We built snow forts and tree forts. We jumped into huge pile of carefully-raked autumn leaves.
We played Jump Rope, Red Rover and Mother, May I.
When I look back on these exploits, I don't remember a single adult intervening except showing up briefly to scold us, warn us, or chase us away. If one of us acquired a lump on the head or a skinned knee, we usually took care of it ourselves, at least over the age of eight or nine. After all, we knew where the band-aids were kept and how to make an ice pack.
Many aspects go into what constitutes a happy childhood. Unscheduled, adult-free time is perhaps one of them. On the other hand, acquiring skills is important, too, and I often wished I had learned to do more things like ice skate or play the piano.