Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Born to run?

December 1, 2008 - 12:13pm -- Carol Diehl
Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene on the front page of yesterday’s Times is an article about how Atlas Sports Genetics, in Boulder, CO “is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths…The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two.” One mother said, “I think it would relieve a lot of parental frustration.”

In our rush to control our children’s experience, we forget that people sometimes learn most from attempting to do those things for which they’re not naturally gifted.

As a child, my most obvious talents were musical, and although I studied classical piano for 20 years, I turned out to be an artist—no doubt because, not in spite of, of the challenges art continues to present.

I don’t practice yoga because I’m naturally flexible, but because I’m not.

In Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin says:

In my years…as a teacher, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s the kids with the greatest facility who can run up against the biggest problems. You are the best in your class without even trying, which is the best way to learn nothing…The not-so-facile kid just plugs along, every step is a working step, and he comes to the twentieth step and it’s just another step. But facility is a funny thing—it takes you way up, you soar, and you look like you’re really doing something—but at a certain point you go as far as you can with facility, and then you hit the big questions. And for you, who’ve never been pressed, that can present a huge roadblock. I’ve seen a lot of kids get waylaid at this point…

I’m convinced children are best served when the quality of their effort is applauded, rather than their success. ("The process is the reality," as Samuel Johnson said.) And because there’s a Times article to back up every opinion, here’s Praise Children for Effort, Not Intelligence, Study Says, from 1998.


I wouldn't be so hard on those smart kids; I was one and even though it looks as if you are really doing something, you really are! The problem is not the facility, it is the expectation of perfection and excellence which becomes an onerous burden to a child and, in my case, resulted in arrogant defensiveness which isolated me from my peers. I adored the process—if only I could have been left alone to pursue it where it naturally lead, instead of always looking over my shoulder for the approval of those who mattered.

It's a great pity that parents are so aggressive and controlling in their children's affairs. I am one who firmly believes in the importance of a pre-literary childhood. A time when imagination rules. My first "adult" moment came when I was actually able to read the hieroglyphics on the page. After fantasizing for so long what the strange marks were and copying them assiduously with my own hand, I felt betrayed by the ordinariness of the whole thing. How depressing it was; hardly worth the effort. I wanted to crawl back through the wormhole and reclaim my own splendid ideas. I must have been about 4 or so. There is no need for children to be reading earlier than this. And Sesame Street is an abomination! [Sorry to have got onto such a rant—you don't have to post this.]

This 'streaming' of infants has a way of turning into an insidious racism - once 'we' start cataloguing 'natural' dispositions, musculature, frames, reflexes, we pretty soon get around to other aptitudes or inclinations. In the 19th century they called it eugenics and thought it was the basis for breeding better humans (and also for tacit policies of euthenasia and compulsory sterilisation).

It's something I would be extremely wary about. Unless the argument for some arbitrary ability such as sprinting a given distance, can be shown to be of overwhelming importance to society as a whole.

Obviously, these tests are not for the benefit of the child.

Supporting your related point, I came across this just a couple days ago in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." Suzuki talks about four kinds of horses, best to worst, and concludes that in Zen the worst is "the most valuable one." He goes on:

"If you study calligraphy you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art and in Zen. It is true in life...Actually it is easier for those who have difficulty in sitting [Zen] to arouse the true way-seeking mind than for those who can sit easily."

On the other hand, there's always Mozart, who apparently almost never made a correction in his compositions, just copied them down as they came into his head. That would be fine, too.

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