• Matthew Murray, “the great engine designer, began as a kitchen boy and butler. Richard Roberts, brilliant inventor of power looms, was a shoemaker’s son, had virtually no education and began as a quarry laborer. John Kennedy, the first great builder of iron ships, was another poor Scot who received no schooling except in summer and started as a carpenter’s boy.”
• In “Longitude,” Dava Sobel tells the story of John Harrison, who solved “the greatest scientific problem of his time,” enabling ships to know their east/west location by inventing a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to anywhere in the world. Harrison had no formal education and no apprenticeship to any watchmaker.
• In “The Maritime History of Massachusetts” Samuel Eliot Morison writes about Mary Patten, wife of the captain of a clipper ship. “In 1858 on a voyage around Cape Horn, her husband fell ill. The first mate was in irons for insubordination; the second mate was ignorant of navigation. Mrs. Patten had made herself mistress of the art of navigation during a previous voyage. She took command and for 52 days navigated the ship of 1800 tons, tending her husband the while, and took both safely into San Francisco.” She was 19.
• Nadia Popova died last July. She started flying at 15, and when the Germans invaded Russia, she joined a squadron of young women who flew flimsy plywood planes that bombed German encampments at night. She flew 852 missions; on one night alone, 18.
In his history of the Battle of Britain, Michael Korda writes that by late summer 1940, more and more of those flying the British Spitfires and Hurricanes were, in our terms, high school seniors.
• Laura Dekker was sailing single-handed in Holland at 6. At 13, she decided to sail alone around the world. The authorities had a fit. But her parents agreed. She set off at 14 in a 38-foot ketch, stopped along the way and returned safely at 16.
Today we see this kind of accomplishment mostly in fields adults can’t master or don’t themselves want to enter: sports, entertainment, digital electronics. (Google for “youth accomplishment” and “student competitions” to see for yourself.)
People often think children we see “going faster” are “gifted.” Kim Gibbons, the reading expert for the St. Croix River Education District, says people sometimes comment about her “gifted” children. “They’re not gifted,” she says. “They just learned to read early.”
The advent of adolescence brought prohibitions. If you’re not an adult, you can’t do adult things: be employed full time, inherit property, vote, seek or refuse medical treatment, sign contracts, file lawsuits, marry without parental consent.
In the 1960s, the restrictions tightened. With prosperity, the old ethic of self-denial gave way to a spirit of self-fulfillment. A new youth culture appeared — the music, the clothes, the drugs, the sex. Adults, disliking this teenage behavior, tried to control it. That bred resentment, generating still more restrictions. Curfews. Can’t drive. Can’t drink. “No entry except with adult.” Blocked access to the Internet. Criminalized sex under 18. No cigarettes. Dress codes. “Parental Consent Required.” And in school came metal detectors, video surveillance, armed guards, no hoods and “No Cellphones!” One insurance company still campaigns to raise the driving age to 18.
This has made young people arguably the most discriminated-against class of people in our society. And nobody sees it. Good folk who would die rather than utter a racial or ethnic slur think nothing of referring to young adults as “kids.”
What if exceptional talents are still there in young people, suppressed by the institution of adolescence? We’d want to release that reservoir of talent. How?
We’d begin by changing school to let young people advance as fast and as far as their efforts and abilities will take them, in every field.
In traditional school, students are sorted by age and “instructed” as a group. Most students move a grade a year, however much (or little) they’ve learned.
If learning were personalized, those who needed more time would get more time and would learn more. Those who could go faster would go faster and would learn more. That’s competency-based progression. Seventh-graders play varsity tennis if they’re good enough. Why can’t some seventh-graders be doing “varsity math”?
Finland, much praised for its students’ success, ends compulsory education at 16. Students move to “upper secondary,” almost half of these into vocational school that leads on to postsecondary “polytechnics.”
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