Be the hawk

Northern Red-Tail Hawk

On Quora the question went, If you went from an IQ of 135+ to 100, how would it feel?

Here’s how I answered::::

I went through that as a kid, and it was no fun.

In Kindergarten, my IQ score was at the top of the bell curve, and they put me in the smart kid class. By 8th grade my IQ score was down at the middle of the bell curve, my grades sucked, and my other standardized test scores (e.g. the Iowa) were terrible. So the school system shunted me from the “academic” track (aimed at college) to the “general” one (aimed at “trades”).

To the school I was a failure. Not a complete one, but enough of one for the school to give up on aiming me toward college. So, instead of sending me on to a normal high school, they wanted to send me to a “vocational-technical” school where boys learned to operate machinery and girls learned “secretarial” skills.

But in fact the school failed me, as it did countless other kids who adapted poorly to industrialized education: the same industrial system that still has people believing IQ tests are a measure of anything other than how well somebody answers a bunch puzzle questions on a given day.

Fortunately, my parents believed in me, even though the school had given up. I also believed in myself, no matter what the school thought. Like Walt Whitman, I believed “I was never measured, and never will be measured.” Walt also gifted everyone with these perfect lines (from Song of Myself):

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.

All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means…
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter’s compass,

I know that I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself
or be understood.
I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

Whitman argued for the genius in each of us that moves in its own orbit and cannot be encompassed by industrial measures, such as standardized tests that serve an institution that would rather treat students like rats in their mazes than support the boundless appetite for knowledge with which each of us is born—and that we keep if it doesn’t get hammered out of us by normalizing systems.

It amazes me that half a century since I escaped from compulsory schooling’s dehumanizing wringer, the system is largely unchanged. It might even be worse. (“Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools,” writes The Washington Post.)

To detox ourselves from belief in industrialized education, the great teacher John Taylor Gatto gives us The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher, which summarizes what he was actually paid to teach:

  1. Confusion — “Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parents’ nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers my students may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world….What do any of these things have to do with each other?”
  2. Class position — “I teach that students must stay in the class where they belong. I don’t know who decides my kids belong there but that’s not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered by schools has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human beings plainly under the weight of numbers they carry. Numbering children is a big and very profitable undertaking, though what the strategy is designed to accomplish is elusive. I don’t even know why parents would, without a fight, allow it to be done to their kids. In any case, again, that’s not my business. My job is to make them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own.”
  3. Indifference — “I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It’s heartwarming when they do that; it impresses everyone, even me. When I’m at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we’ve been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan. Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?
  4. Emotional dependency — “By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority without appeal, because rights do not exist inside a school — not even the right of free speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled — unless school authorities say they do. As a schoolteacher, I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers, so my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.”
  5. Intellectual dependency — “Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I, the teacher, can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I then enforce… This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily.
  6. Provisional self-esteem — “Our world wouldn’t survive a flood of confident people very long, so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of “good” schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as the commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer.
  7. No place to hide — “I teach children they are always watched, that each is under constant surveillance by myself and my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts three hundred seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents. Of course, I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness too. A family trained to snitch on itself isn’t likely to conceal any dangerous secrets. I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands. The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate.”

Gatto won multiple teaching awards because he refused to teach any of those lessons. I succeeded in life by refusing to learn them as well.

All of us can succeed by forgetting those seven lessons—especially the one teaching that your own intelligence can be measured by anything other than what you do with it.

You are not a number. You are a person like no other. Be that, and refuse to contain your soul inside any institutional framework.

More Whitman:

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. I contradict myself.
I am large. I contain multitudes.

I concentrate toward them that are nigh.
I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work
and will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.
He complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Be that hawk.