A medical classmate of mine is an inveterate reader and every once in a while I call or eMail him for reading recommendations. A couple of years ago he suggested The Physician by Noah Gordon. It was a fun read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, the history of medicine, or the medieval world. It involves an orphan who first becomes a barber-surgeon (barbers were the first surgeons) but then travels to Persia – modern Iran – to become a physician. There he studies under the great ibn Sina, or as he was known to the West, Avicenna.1)Writing this post, I was pleased to discover the book has been turned into a movie, with the great ibn Sina portrayed by – who else? – Ben Kinglsey.
Avicenna originated many ideas that are still current in medicine, but one that is not generally recognized is his work on hypnosis. He wrote that there is a distinction between true sleep, and the ‘temple sleep’ that had been used to treat illness for millennia, a state in which the patient is highly suggestible.
Hypnosis, to my mind, is fascinating evidence of problems with so many of our assumptions about humanity. For instance, it calls into question ideas about innate ability. A skilled hypnotist can take someone of ordinary intellect, hypnotize her and tell her to perform at some extraordinary intellectual level – memorization, mental calculations, or linguistic excellence and innovation (i.e., speaking in ‘foreign,’ but actually spontaneously invented, languages) – and she performs at a level that is astonishing.
The reason why that is so important is that it shows that what we assume to be ‘extraordinary’ intellectual ability may be quite ordinary. It suggests that there may be no fundamental difference between the university valedictorian and the high school dropout. (I would very much like for a hypnotized patient to be given an IQ or other standardized test, and see how she performs when compared to her fully awake state.) If my suspicions here are correct, despite millennia of educational theory and practice insisting that some children are simply incapable of learning very much, there may not be much difference in the learning abilities of otherwise healthy children. Which leads to a very disturbing conclusion:
Our children do not fail school. Schools fail our children.
When you buy some cell phone brands, a model is often part of a series which runs from a top-of-the-line phone with a wide variety of features, down to the bargain-basement version, with only the essential features. Here’s the industry’s secret:
Often, they’re all the same phone.
If you think about it from a business standpoint, that makes perfect sense. The largest expense of making any complex, mass-produced item, lies in making the first one. All the products that roll off the assembly line after the first one cost very little by comparison. Obviously, it is much cheaper to simply make one top-level phone than to make four or five different phones with different features. So except for some stylistic changes, often the only difference among the phones is what the manufacturer turns off.
Which is what I suspect that we do with our children. We designate, and design, that some of them will be bright. And we determine that the rest will be dullards, or at least duller than ‘the best.’ We simply turn off some of their abilities.
How and why that came to be is interesting.
Up next: Hunting the Wild Barn
The Physician book cover courtesy of Barcelona Editions.
Engraving of Avicenna/ibn Sina, courtesy of Wikimedia.org.