In one episode of “Cosmos” entitled “Hidden in the Light,” host Neil deGrasse Tyson observed that we can never know from where the next genius will arise.
He had just recounted the tale of a young orphan, Joseph von Fraunhofer, who at the age of 12 was toiling as a laborer in a glass foundry. Rescued from his fate by a local prince after being pulled from the rubble following the collapse of his guardian’s home, Fraunhofer gains an education and goes on to discover the spectral lines from which we can determine the chemical composition of all stars from the specific absorption patterns that each element filters from visible light. Even the most driven intellect of the era, Isaac Newton, had failed to take note of this universal encryption of stellar composition.
Tyson poignantly asks, “How many [geniuses] do we leave in the rubble?”
The answer, unfortunately, is far too many. We shall never know how much poorer the world has become as a result of the serendipitous misfortune of potential genius being denied access to an optimal education in a timely fashion. We tend as a society to fixate more on “nature” than “nurture” when debating the topic of education, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may never have discovered his unprecedented talent in the domain of music had he been born to a less doting father.
Children lack the political power to sway the opinions of those who control the pursestrings to the public coffers that fund our schools. Young people do not vote, lobby or contribute to candidates. Responsible adults must advocate and allocate on behalf of children.
Children do not choose the circumstances to which they are born, the intellectual gifts with which they are blessed or the speed of their maturation. Reasonable adults must shoulder the burden of catering to the needs of the next generation.
In instances where domiciles furnish insufficient nurturing, for whatever reason, it falls to teachers to note these qualities and deliver individualized supports for the appropriate stage of development. Please note that such feats are far easier said than accomplished.
Teachers require a reasonable caseload to carry out such responsibilities. Inadequacy of facilities and excessive workload lead to three harmful outcomes for too many in the teaching force: early flight from the profession, the quest for more favorable venues to practice our craft or, worse, the gradual descent into cynicism. We owe it to children to reverse these trends.
Maximizing the potential that resides in every child is a moral imperative for every community in the postindustrial age of information. Unless, of course, we are content with the triage model of education where only the most advantaged children are furnished the opportunity to escape the rubble.
[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on May 22, 2014. ]