Darwin was too cool for school. But stay in school.

For this assignment I read a pleasantly entertaining yet comprehensive biography of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky entitled One Beetle Too Many. The narrative was greatly enhanced by the illustrations of Matthew Trueman. The fact that this book was written for children didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the work nor the opportunity to learn from it, but it did make me wonder about some of the things that Lasky apparently thought worth emphasizing when telling this story to young people.

The first—and, in my opinion, most worth talking about—thing I noticed was what was perhaps a strange moral about academic achievement. In the early pages of the book—the part where Darwin was still young and going to school—there seems to be an unwarranted amount of emphasis on how poorly he did in school. The book offers plenty of anecdotes to make it clear that it wasn’t a matter of him not being interested in science yet, telling of his adventures collecting beetles or him and his brother turning a garden shed into a chemistry lab in which they made plenty of explosions. He simply didn’t do well in school, whether it was as a young boy or as a young man at the University of Edinburgh. This narrative is not unfamiliar to me. Though I didn’t know it applied to Darwin until I learned more about Darwin in college, I remember hearing similar stories about famous intellectual historical figures such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison all doing poorly in school before moving on to greatness when I was a school-aged child myself.

Where does this fascination with the flunked genius story come from and why are we so anxious to repeat it to children? At first glance it would seem very counterintuitive; don’t we want our children to succeed in school as much as they can? Then why paint the hero of any story we tell them—the intellectual hero, no less—as someone who could not or would not academically excel, and apparently faced no harsh consequences for this failure? Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it, maybe adults and children alike like this kind of story because we all like every story where we get to root for the underdog and see our heroes overcome impossible odds and insurmountable failures, but part of me is still convinced that when we tell kids this kind of story—especially when the story is backed by actual history—we might be sending the wrong message. Then again, maybe, for kids who struggle with school, it’s the right message: “If Darwin didn’t do well in school and still grew up to be Darwin, you can still grow up to be whoever you want to be too.” I wouldn’t know if kids in that situation are receptive to that. I was good at school when I was a kid. The message I picked up from these stories was that real geniuses were nothing like me, were apparently more like the class clowns or blossoming delinquents in the back of the classroom. Seeing as no one who’ll be at my high school reunion has won any Nobel Prizes yet, I suppose I was half right and half wrong.

It’s true; at the end of the day Charles Darwin’s report card didn’t have any bearing on how he would go on to shape history. Doesn’t that beg the question of why it should be brought up at all?

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