Thursday, April 5, 2007


The brilliant and innovative author Kurt Vonnegut recently passed away. Vonnegut studied for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales.” It was rejected unanimously by the faculty. The university finally awarded him a degree almost a quarter of a century later, allowing him to use his novel “Cat’s Cradle” as his thesis.

Genius is seldom recognized and rarely encouraged by the established institutions of a culture. Their purpose is to churn out more of the 'same old' drones. This was true of the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. Whether 12th century Catholic priests or 21st century University Professors, the teachers in established institutions have an innate tendency to perpetuate themselves.

The danger is that these teachers are seriously educated, probably overeducated, in their 'specialty' and can be quite intimidating to those students not immersed in the particular subject. It takes a strong, creative, imaginative and self confident individual to challenge the thrum thrum thrum of the incessant and mesmerizing harp of the institutional tenured priests.

Thomas Edison's mind often wandered, and his teacher, the Reverend Engle, was overheard calling him "addled." This ended Edison's three months of official schooling. He recalled later, "My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint." His mother then home schooled him. Much of his education came from reading R.G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy.

Albert Einstein's father intended for him to pursue electrical engineering, but Albert clashed with authorities and resented the school regimen. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning. Ten year old Albert Einstein called Euclid's Elements the "holy little geometry book". From Euclid, Albert began to understand deductive reasoning (integral to theoretical physics), and by the age of twelve, he learned Euclidean geometry from a school booklet and began to investigate calculus.

Bill Gates enrolled at Harvard University in the fall of 1973 intending to get a pre-law degree, but did not have a definite study plan. While at Harvard, he met his future business partner, Steve Ballmer. At the same time, he co-authored and published a paper on algorithms with computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou. Gates took a leave of absence from Harvard to work with Allen at MITS, dubbing their partnership "Micro-soft" in November 1975. He never went back.

There are several lessons from these examples:

1. Much Western education stifles individual genius and imaginative creativity. Emerson's classic essay addresses this beautifully, "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." And, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." Lastly, "What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think."

2. A single seminal book or idea heavily influenced many of these people. You will know when the book, idea or instructor shows up. When you find it, master it until it masters you. Don't worry about how 'popular' it is. Too many modern students superficially read hundreds of books, never mastering one. I recall reading a story about a fellow who had been shipwrecked on an island with only a copy of a one volume encyclopedia. He wore it out until rescued years later. He went on to become a sought after specialist in many arenas! Someone has actually started a Slow Reading School where, "Subscribers are invited to explore the possibility that a respectful reading of books that are thoughtfully written, whatever their age, is an exceptionally powerful means for generating new ideas relevant to the issues of the present day."

3. The same institutions that rejected the theses of these geniuses, calling them addled, eventually wanted to be identified with them. I recall reading that the minister Emmet Fox wanted to join a certain well known religious organization, but they turned him away because he didn't have credentials from their institution. Fox went on to grow a church from 50 to 5,000 members in a year. Guess who came asking him to join their organization?

4. Don't leave school thinking that you will be a Bill Gates or Albert Einstein, unless you are really moved to do so. The point is not to quit your educational process, but to confidently follow your inner daemon or imaginative guide. Like the Greek hero, Theseus, you may be good at many tasks, but there is one that calls you from the core of your being. Stay in school, but elevate your destined genius and imaginative call over all learning. Let the educational process serve you rather than indoctrinate you.

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