A long time ago, when I lived in Arbroath in Scotland, my role before opening up the old Fleming Partners office was to do the school run. Our kids went to a small village school just outside the town itself and there was no bus.
On these runs I always tried to entertain the boys by talking about whatever came into my mind (and would not take more than 10 minutes.) So one day I explained why humans can see in colour and many animals can’t. This is because, I said, there are two types of vision receptor cells, rods and cones. Cones see colour and rods see brightness—monochrome, in other words. (I do know it’s a bit more complex than that, but these were primary kids.) Humans have both rods and cones, and many animals, like dogs, only have rods. So we see colour and they don’t.
This went fine and was met with all the usual approval that could be mustered from a 5-year old and an 8-year old.
I liked to test the little buggers to see if anything I said stuck, so a couple of days later I asked, ‘Why do we see colour and dogs don’t?’
To which Silas, 5, shouted out, ‘Because they don’t have any ice-creams in their eyes, only sticks!’
To which there was general hilarity. But he was still right.
I personally think my kids are all geniuses but I am quite certain Silas is. That story, (which is true by the way) to me, serves to illustrate what genius really is; it is the ability to conceptualise an idea in a totally novel and unique way. All through his life, Silas has demonstrated an uncanny ability to understand and conceive of the world in ways which are just slightly—and some not so slightly—different from everyone else, yet which make perfect sense. And to his great credit, perhaps aided a little by his thoroughly anarchistic and non-conformist parents, he has maintained that unique and individual perspective.
Genius is not just being hugely intelligent, although it is partly that. Genius is being able to see the world in a new way, which allows new perspectives of understanding. Robert M Pirsig, in his novel ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ talked of ideas as super-saturated solutions, clear liquid until a tiny speck of dust fell in, and then the whole would crystallise in instants, revealing structure, integrity, balance. Genius is that speck of dust, the application of which causes a whole system of ideas to suddenly appear. And it takes minds unafraid to think differently to apply it.
Da Vinci had it, Mozart had it, Newton had it, Einstein had it. It’s not given to everyone, but it is given to far more of us than we realise. The trouble is that most children go through an education system that is designed to make them conform, rather than to celebrate their riotous, inchoate but absolutely brilliant minds; designed to snuff the sparkling flame of their unique vision and replace it with the dullness of the commonplace. We take the stuff of genius and turn it into the slurry of mere conformity, making fodder for the capitalist grist-mill and the patriarchal hegemony. We take our young minds and carefully, thoroughly, sanitise all the specks of precious dust.
One day we may have education systems which celebrate minds that conceptualise rods and cones as sticks and ice-creams; education systems which actually encourage people to think like that, which reward innovation and iconoclasm and discourage the trotting out of conventional wisdom. Education systems that not only allow young people to dare to be different, but which positively encourage it, that give out prizes for not being like all the others.
Perhaps one day we will have education systems, in other words, which exist for the benefit of both the students and humanity, and not for that of the career educators who make their living from the imposition of mind-numbing conformity, or for the benefit of a corrupt politico-economic system that is determined to destroy the planet in the pursuit of quick money, or for the preservation of privilege, and the maintenance of the status quo.
But that seems a long way off, and I wonder—will it come in time?