Will education change who my dyslexic son is?

"Bad education seeks to make the child something other than him or herself"

July 25, 2016
A child at work in a classroom ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images
A child at work in a classroom ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images

“Come in,” said a well-known educational psychologist. She’d spent the afternoon testing our son, Tom, who was then six. “Well,” she said, “he’s highly intelligent.” We braced ourselves for the “but." She didn’t cushion it. “He’s also severely dyslexic.”

I was delighted. Tom had always had a dazzlingly holistic view of the world. He saw connections and context where I saw only atomistic entities. For him, the world was an ecstatically vibrating web of relationship. His own relationships with leaves and stones were immediate, intense and accepting—at least relatively unmediated by the words we use to describe those things, and the concepts conjured by the words. If I walk into a wood I don’t hear the wind or the birdsong: they’re drowned out by deafening cognitive tinnitus. It’s been decades since I’ve seen a tree rather than my idea of a tree. My ideas of trees are far less boring than trees themselves, and only distantly related to them. Tom saw trees all the time. He was an epistemological aristocrat. And since he was dyslexic, and always would be, he’d never lose his aristocracy. My candidates for Philosopher King are all dyslexic.

As I cheered, my wife, who is less dangerously romantic and much more prescient and sensible, wept. She saw, as I did not, that Tom would have to live in our grey, nerdish, reductionist world; that he would be seen there not as a prodigy but a dunce; as a blunderer, not a visionary. And that’s what she said. My reaction was ridiculous: “We’ll make sure that he lives in a part of the world—call it a bubble if you like—that will appreciate him. And even if we can’t, just look at all those celebrated dyslexics. People are realizing that dyslexia is a gift, not a disability.”  She laughed at that. And quite right too.

We debated long, hard and loudly about how Tom should be educated. I resisted for a while my wife’s insistence that he should go to a specialist dyslexia school. My argument used words like “ghettoization." In the end my wife prevailed, and of course she was proved right. By the end of the first day Tom was palpably happier. He no longer had to pretend that he was the same as the other kids in his regular state school class. For the first time he had the companionship of real neurobiological peers.

But now that that was sorted, we couldn’t avoid the questions that had troubled me from the moment of the diagnosis: What was his education trying to do to him? And in particular, would it, if it were successful, change Tom so profoundly that it’d be tantamount to killing him?

Perhaps this sounds hysterical. After all, all education changes us. If we read to our children, or drill them in their tables, we’re forging new neuronal connections—physical changes in their brains. Not only do we regard this as commendable; we think that not to try to cause or facilitate those changes is culpable neglect. Yet perhaps we can agree that not all forms of education are good, and that the main distinction between good and bad education is that good education seeks to enable the child to be more him or herself, whereas bad education seeks to make the child something other than him or herself—typically a subscriber to some creed or world view endorsed by the educator, or a mere contributor to the GNP.

I wasn’t at all sure that Tom’s education, kind and well-meaning though it was, wasn’t of this latter kind. Weren’t we all trying to get him to see the world not as he naturally saw it, but as we did? Weren’t we saying that his view (better on every level than ours) ought to change; that he should fall meekly into sensorineural line for the sake of an easier life; that resistance to the dominant (and wrong) epistemology was hopeless? These were goals that would interfere with what and who Tom was. If it was over-dramatic to talk about killing Tom, surely his education was at least a form of castration—done so that he’d be quieter and more compliant.

In some medical treatment you have to accept a change in personality. If someone has a life-threatening brain tumour, it’s got to come out, even if it means that Patient A will become Patient B. But that’s removing pathology: in Tom’s case the change we sought was to insert pathology. That takes a lot of justification.

I tried to tell myself that his mode of perception could co-exist happily and synergistically with mine: that reading and writing would add value to his astonishing mental processing. “It’ll be great,” I pleaded to myself, “when he gets his nose into and his head around George Eliot. There’s no war between his world and mine, and if there is, he’s uniquely qualified to broker a vibrant peace.”

It sounded hollow to me. It still does.

Charles Foster discusses this issue further in the forthcoming book "Philosophers take on the world," published on 1st November