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Young Sheldon and the War Against Genius

My husband and I are huge fans of shows like The Big Bang Theory and Scorpion, so it’s no shock we’d enjoy the new spinoff Young Sheldon that premiered this fall on CBS (to return in November after football season). It’s refreshing to see gifted minds featured in fictional scenarios, whether for laughs or dramatic adventures, because we can relate to them. We were the nerds in school and we’re the geeks now, always intrigued by how new knowledge shapes the way we see and work in the world around us. Note, I say “we” because “nerd” and “geek” are gender-neutral, something Naomi Schaefer Riley seems to be unable to comprehend. Writing for the New York Post she uses Young Sheldon and other male genius characters premiering this fall season in her continuing quest to right the wrongs being done against boys in public education. Don’t get me wrong: I agree that boys are being done a disservice in public schools. However, by manipulating genius to defend fidgety boys who fail to graduate high school, Schaefer Riley misses the point of shows like Young Sheldon and the bigger picture of exactly why public schools fail students.

The argument Schaefer Riley presents is nothing new to anyone following what Christina Hoff Sommers infamously dubbed “the war against boys.” Educational administrators, even at the college level, favor communication, collaboration, and multitasking skills. Average girls tend to excel at these things while average boys struggle with them. Schaefer Riley observes that edgy boys who can’t sit still either get suspended for playing with finger-guns or have technology thrown at them by exhausted teachers looking for a pacifier. Embracing the average, she somehow concludes that all boys are undiscovered geniuses being abused by the system.

This is where her theorizing stops making sense. Plenty of us had to deal with class clowns who posed the threat of constant interruptions long before tablets and Scantrons entered kindergarten. Sure, some of them had brains so big they didn’t know what to do with them. But, many others simply came from homes lacking in discipline or had legitimate emotional, psychological, or learning issues that impacted their classroom behavior. In other words, to suddenly diagnose every disaffected boy with a video game addiction as a mislabeled genius is reductionist at best, stupid at worst.

What’s more, it does a huge disservice to a subset of bright young children who are constantly maligned by the bureaucracy of public education. Some are twice gifted and forced to squander their rigorous intellect in a special education classroom because of a learning disability. Others, unlike Young Sheldon, are denied the ability to skip ahead academically because some dimwitted guidance counselor is concerned about their social development. Most wind up learning how to navigate both the academic and professional worlds by keeping their heads down, lest they be refused job promotions because some boss (who reminds them an awful lot of many a former teacher) is afraid they’re “too smart.”

The truth is that public education is for the average student. Public education was designed to craft immigrants into productive citizens. It was never designed to foster the intellectual, emotional, or psychological needs of children of above-average intelligence.

Reducing this valid and too often overlooked fact about public education to a re-statement about the war on boys is boring to the point of insult. Schaefer Riley asserts that shows about male geniuses fail to address an epidemic of disaffected boys and men who are “dropping out” of society altogether because they can’t socially fit in. Ignoring the genius factor, it sounds as if she’d rather Sheldon Cooper and his fictional ilk take after Walter White in order to better suit the statistics. Much like many a school administrator, she’d rather the genius fit into the average box.

Young Sheldon and shows of its kind aren’t “disguising” the truth about the high percentage of male high school or workforce dropouts. Nor are they painting a rosy picture of what can happen to men who are brilliant but otherwise socially inept. Why? Contrary to the apparent desire of Schaefer Riley, these aren’t shows about Columbine killers or middle-aged heroin addicts. They are shows about geniuses (male and female) who use their intellect to rise above the sad fact that some people will dislike you and even discriminate against you if you are “too smart.”

It is a metaphorical point that far too many average thinkers, certainly those currently being trained to “analyze” literature via Common Core methods, fail to comprehend. That is their loss. Sure, young Sheldon Cooper may not have many friends at school, but he has supportive parents at home who believe in him despite what school administrators, teachers, and students think. I’m guessing that’s more than most disaffected young men can say from behind a Minecraft screen. Perhaps when a study is released to support that sad fact, Schaefer Riley will get a little more creative in her thinking. Until then, conservative education activists will have to settle for forcing genius into the same old gender soapbox.