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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2004

Why do we keep the lid on young people's potential?

BY EILEEN FOLEY

ARISTOTLE Onassis left his native Smyrna for Buenos Aires sometime after his 16th birthday. Within two years he was a citizen of both Greece and Argentina. He made himself a million bucks before he left South America. High school? Huh?

John Quincy Adams at 14 was secretary to Ambassador Francis Dana at the Russian court in St. Petersburg. Only later did he go to Harvard. In the interim he lived a real adult life at an age at which young people today have curfews. How could that be?

Few may recall the phenomenon that was Billy Rose, impresario, art collector, real estate investor, philanthropist, song-writer ("It's Only a Paper Moon," "Barney Google"), and shorthand ace. Born in 1899, he was during World War I (1917-1918 here) chief stenographer for financier Bernard Baruch, head of the War Industries Board. Not a sissy job!

Cokie Roberts, in her book Founding Mothers, tells of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. At 16 her dad dropped her off in the Carolinas along with elderly family members and children. Her job was to care for them and a plantation on which she turned a profit. She also risked planting indigo, source of a blue dye the military used in uniforms, and by her persistence turned it into a cash crop.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison tells of Mary Patten, 19, the wife of a sea captain, who had taught herself navigation. She took over her ill husband's ship for nearly two months and delivered it and him to port safely.

The Farad, a unit measuring electrical capacitance, was named after Michael Faraday (1791-1867), a jewel in the crown of British science both as a chemist and as a physicist.

He discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction in 1831. As a poor kid and son of a blacksmith, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. By 22 he had associated himself with a scientist at the Royal Institution in London. The rest is history.

In his Centuries of Childhood, Philip Aries mentions a 14-year-old in 1667 in the diocese of Autun hired by inhabitants to teach boys and girls to read and write.

These young people did not have to deal with the prolonged dependence called adolescence we impose on today's kids. It's a 20th century phenomenon, one resulting largely from the intersection of overly corrective child labor laws and a corporate society's wish to delay work force entry to limit production and unemployment.

My point of reference is the fatherless 14-year-old son of a friend, a generally good kid kicked out of two schools this year for smart-mouthing, disinterest, and menacing back. These days he's under house arrest. When he's not at school or in organized community service, court personnel check up on him at home.

Why is it that this youngster, who reads well, won't pick up a book, while in the 18th century a working class boy like Benjamin Franklin couldn't recall a time when he didn't read?

And how does it happen that a similarly fatherless lad, George Washington, who began school at 11, learned enough geometry, trigonometry, and surveying to be within 10 years a prosperous Virginia landowner, and the kid I know is too young to work?

In his seminal book, The Underground History of American Education, John Taylor Gatto, a onetime teacher of the year in New York City and state, makes a good case for the deliberate extension of dependence so as to create "an army of [factory] workers who know nothing." This is quite different from the old aim of training for development of knowledge and character.

"Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production requires such a clientele," he says.

If kids had to make something of themselves, as the young people above did, would they be locked into a junior criminal justice system because 9th grade bores them?

Gatto tells of David Farragut, a commissioned midshipman on a warship at 10, and captain of a prize crew at 12. In 2004, he'd be in seventh grade, or else.

Thomas Edison, bounced from school as a suspected idiot, was 11 when his mom let him take a job on trains. A crime today. At 12 he earned more than the average teacher by producing a paper about train life. It became a money tree in the Civil War.

Even recognizing that genius, like water, usually finds its own level, as we move from a factory society to one that sets a premium on ingenuity, can we afford to keep the lid on young people's potential? We ought to talk about it more than we do.

Eileen Foley is a Blade associate editor. E-mail: efoley@theblade.com



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