Geeks in school: the need to nurture not bully

Turing at the time of his election to Fellowsh...

Turing at the time of his election to Fellowship of the Royal Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days ago I read a really good article by Professor S. Barry Cooper called “Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s Geeks”.

In the article Professor Cooper (who is  Chair of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee (TCAC), which is coordinating the Alan Turing Year) chose to look at the difficulties that many children who are on the Autistic Spectrum (as we believe Turing was, with suspected Asperger’s Syndrome) face when they are in school.

Asperger syndrome is mostly a ‘hidden disability’. This means that you can’t tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance. People with the condition have difficulties in three main areas. They are:

The characteristics of Asperger syndrome vary from one person to another but as well as the three main areas of difficulty, people with the condition may have:

  • love of routines
  • special interests
  • sensory difficulties.

The “special interests” section is particularly pertinent in regard to Alan Turing. He developed a passion for mathematics and the laws of nature from a very early age. In respect of this please note the following example of the area of “special interests” from the National Autistic Society website: “People with Asperger syndrome may develop an intense, sometimes obsessive, interest in a hobby or collecting. Sometimes these interests are lifelong; in other cases, one interest is replaced by an unconnected interest. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may focus on learning all there is to know about trains or computers. Some are exceptionally knowledgeable in their chosen field of interest. With encouragement, interests and skills can be developed so that people with Asperger syndrome can study or work in their favourite subjects.”

If you add to this obsession with a subject the problem that many Asperger children have with social interaction and making friends then you can see why Professor Cooper is so right that many gifted “Geeky” children have characteristics that make them very different from the “norm”.

In respect of Turing and mathematics this can be seen from his problems with studying the subject at Sherborne  School.

In his article “A Pioneer for a New Century — Alan Turing, part 1” G. James Jones looks at Turing’s early life up to the invention of his famous “Turing Machine” in 1936. When discussing his school life he states:

Sherborne and Alan were not the best match. Sherborne, as many English schools of the time, was concerned with creating citizens and not scholars. The headmaster, at the time of Alan’s enrollment, espoused the idea that school was originally created to be a miniature society. Students would learn to navigate the complexities of their later adult lives by learning to survive the power plays of their current public school life. Authority and obedience held more sway than the “free exchange of ideas” and the “opening of the mind.” Not long after arriving, the already shy Turing became even more withdrawn.

Alan sought solace in his books and course work. In 1927, he was able to find the infinite series of the “inverse tangent function” from the trigonometric formula for tan1/2x (tan-1x = x – x3/3 + x5/5 – x7/7 …) without the aid of elementary calculus (Alan had yet to be exposed to it). It was a significant enough achievement to have his mathematics instructor include himself among the roster of people that had proclaimed the boy’s genius. Such a proclamation didn’t hold much sway with the school. While the accomplishment was extraordinary, Sherborne’s headmaster, not a particular fan of science, felt he was wasting his time and was in danger of becoming a scientific specialist and not an educated man. This disrespect of science was not uncommon at the school. Alan’s autumn form-master, a classicist who was enthralled with Latin, called scientific subjects “low cunning” and felt that the only reasons that the Germans lost World War I was because they placed to much faith in science and engineering and not enough in religious thought and observance”.

Alan’s work in mathematics (according to his school reports) was “dirty” and he was told to stick to the syllabus and not wander off into areas of conjecture. To his fellow pupils he would have appeared as withdrawn, unfriendly, avoiding eye contact and very much a “boffin” or what we would now likely call a “geek”. He was thus cast in the role of “victim” to the bullies. He later said that he learnt to “run fast” in order to get away from them.

My concern with Turing’s story, as indeed Professor Cooper’s concern is in his article, is the way that our school system finds it almost impossible to stop these , often gifted, children, from becoming victims of bullying.

I wrote an e-mail to Professor Cooper to get is permission to quote from his article and he replied: ” I think schools need much more understanding of the problems children on the autistic spectrum experience. I’d be very happy for my article to help spread the message”.

I will quote the following from the article because it gives another slant to the story of “geeks in society” and that is how schools in the 21st century need to cultivate the skills and insights that children such as Alan Turing possess and not treat them as something strange (as if they are from a different planet!).

Professor Cooper writes:

” let’s face it – when it comes down to it, one of Britain’s best exports is geekery. One of the greatest is Isaac Newton. And recently we celebrated Charles Darwin. This year it is Alan Turing.

That last link – to Aspies for Freedom – is a very thought-provoking piece. It puts the case for people like Turing – and Darwin and Newton – being valued for their differences: “I am concerned that the 2012 celebrations could possibly also depict autism/AS in a negative and pitiful manner” posted one female Australian Aspie.

Yes – ‘thinking different’ can be far from a disability. Today’s computer-dominated world demands a leavening of creative geeky innovators. On June 5 the sober-minded Economist put it this way:

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties. But these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

In this post I have not discussed the incredible contribution that Alan Turing made to humanity in his brief life. There are many articles that you can read about this on the internet. I will end though in saying that his part in the creation of computers was immense, there are those who say that he is in large part responsible for laying the foundations of our digital society. The strange, bullied child whose Headteacher at Sherborne so mistrusted science has had the last laugh.

In a society plagued by huge problems of climate change, overpopulation and massive pollution, can schools afford to neglect any future Alan Turings? We should be giving them the chance to develop their talents because, as in the case of Turing, we are the beneficiaries in the end.

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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