Make ‘Em All Geniuses: Redefining Schools, Possibilities, Equity

Not to brag or anything, but I figured out how to solve the academic achievement “problem” plaguing the U.S. today: just treat all of our children like geniuses.

Maybe I should elaborate: As part of my summer reading, I enjoyed Denise Shekerjian’s “Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas are Born.” Twenty-five years old at this point, Shekerjian’s work profiled more than forty winners of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as the “genius award.”

In case the fellowship is new to you, a few pieces of key information: fellows are chosen through a nomination process kept confidential from them — they will likely never know who nominated them or why. Once they have been selected, they are given a significant sum of money with no strings attached (aside from the legal, tax-related strings). Though the amount has changed over the years Fellows today receive $625,000 over a five-year period. And that’s pretty much it.

The freedom to continue exploring, creating and questioning seems to be at the heart of what the “genius” fellowship offers. As such, Shekerjian’s book profiles prominent winners through the 1980s, their work processes, and how the fellowship funding affected their work. 

The open-ended nature of what the fellowship offers — the encouragement to do what one is interested in and the material resources to do so — are huge parts of what could turn around education today. In a note to the then director of the program, one anonymous fellow wrote, “Thank you for giving me the freedom to fail.”

Last year, I spent several hours each month in conversation with teachers across the country who are implementing a “20%” or “genius hour” within their classrooms (partially inspired by models of this implemented in Silicon Valley). Likewise, such open-ended learning is at the heart of expeditionary models of education featured in biography after biography after biography after biography of today’s leading tech leaders.

Clearly, the freedom to experiment and fail is a recurring theme in schooling today. But for whom? All of those biographies? They profile white men’s experiences. In a previous post, for instance, I suggested that had Steve Jobs been a man of color, he would likely have been jailed for his successful antics, drastically changing his life trajectory.

To this end, I’ve been wondering, who gets to be treated like a genius today? Classrooms today can be largely restrictive spaces for those without the means and familial support to explore beyond them. A true privilege to digest, I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new memoir, “Between The World and Me.” In describing his own educational process, Coates writes: 

“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.”

Coates offers a description of libraries that suggests they are a potential space for transformative, failure-safe environments. Regardless of your own stance, you should begin this upcoming academic year considering:  how does your work in learning environments cultivate excellence? How are you letting youth exude genius daily?

I should add here that the very concept of what we consider “genius” is in flux. A few months ago, I shared a blog post about the online aggregation site, Genius. Likewise, my iTunes offers me the opportunity to make technically aggregated playlists based on songs and preferences, a feature it calls “Genius.” Genius, in these contexts is not about individuals and their bright ideas but about crowdsourcing, about algorithms, about being distanced from anything remotely resembling an individual.

 I’ll end here sharing one final book I read this summer: a trade paperback of a comic book called “Genius.” I’m not sure how I missed the book when it was released monthly throughout the year (I suspect the tawdry pin-up-like cover sent the wrong message). The basic gist of the book is this: a young black woman in South Central Los Angeles is tired of the police brutality that has plagued her life. She takes matters into her own hands, organizes local gangs, and goes to war with the police. It is a violent book that offers a troubling look at what we could mean by “genius” as well. It has, however, challenged my thinking. I wonder: if we are cultivating genius, what are we cultivating it for?

Banner image credit: Charly W. Karl