Education used to be an individual pursuit. You did your lessons, you wrote your tests, you cut your own photos out of old National Geographics for your project on rhesus monkeys (which you initially misheard and consequently began your project on “racist monkeys”), and you excelled or failed based on your own skills, talents and subterfuge.
The only time interacting with your classmates really played a role was during gym class and the savage schoolyard shunnings.
It was easy, in other words, to avoid the weird or (if you were weird yourself) be avoided.
Modern education, by contrast, encourages group work and collaborative learning. This forces students to interact with the weird, as well as the recalcitrant, the lazy, the sociopathic, the loud and the poorly bathed. In other words, school prepares children for the workplace.
Leaving aside the sociopaths for the moment (most of whom grow up to serve productive lives and mainly light prison sentences), I think it’s good that children are forced to rub shoulders with the weird, even if those shoulders are sporting homemade epaulets fabricated from construction paper and Pokemon stickers. In fact, we should be doing all we can to foster weirdness in the classroom.
There’s never been a better time to be a weird child. In elementary schools in particular, a child can get away with virtually anything and they’ll call it “developmental differences.” It’s not like labeling a child ADD, ADHD, HDTV or just plain BAD because you can’t actually diagnose for weird. If a child chooses to squeeze her eyes shut tight every time she answers a question or tells his classmates how he and his dad spent the weekend earthworm wrangling, that’s just the way it is. No one’s breaking any rules by eating asparagus and soy sauce sandwiches. It’s simply… weird.
Traditionally, weirdness has been allowed to run its course, like a very eccentric flu, with peer pressure and ridicule serving as highly effective antibiotics. Sometimes children simply turn their backs on their weirdness, especially when they start a new school, seizing the opportunity to start fresh and reinvent themselves. They become like immigrants seeking a better life, except without the suspicious glances from the neighbours.
But you can never truly eliminate weirdness, only repress it. Sometimes it takes just the briefest of interactions with an adult to safely conclude that as a child she obsessively doodled space dragons all over her Math binder.
With others, it’s harder to tell. That MBA middle manager might seem like a straight-arrow so-and-so but little do you know that underneath his tailored suit he wears bright green boxers emblazoned with the phrase “Froggy Come A-Courtin’.” Every day.
So what’s the problem? Isn’t this the way to go? Shouldn’t the weird repress their weirdness so that the rest of us can go about our lives feeling comfortable and unperturbed? Why on earth would we want to encourage our children’s inherent weirdness?
Because without weirdness there’s no art, no invention, no gaming store. Without the weird, we’d have no Nicolas Cage, and with no Nicolas Cage, well, we’d have no Nicolas Cage.
How many major innovations have been initially perceived as weird? The first person to ride a wheel, why, I bet he was mercilessly ridiculed by the other kids at cave-school.
And, let’s face it, the non-weird aren’t exactly doing a stellar job at running the world. Who’s in charge? Not the reasonable kids but the over-achievers, the sticklers, the ultra-conformers (see “sociopaths” above). These were the schoolchildren who adhered to all the rules, followed exactly the right trends and tattled on their classmates for saying bad words. Of course, in doing so they had to repeat the bad word themselves, but this was a necessary debasement in order to accurately convey the severity of the crime.
The weird see the world differently than you and me, and the world could certainly use a little different right now. We should be nice to the weird because we may need them some day, especially when we need someone to communicate with the space dragons.