Monday, September 08, 2008

Flash from the Past: "He passed in what he thought idleness..."

"He passed in what he thought idleness, and was scolded by his father for his want of steady application. He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books his way, and inclination directed him through them..."

When the teachers were interviewed about this Flash from the Past as a child, none recalled ever having corrected him except when "talking and diverting other boys from their business." Throughout his life, this Flash from the Past would be troubled by vision problems, hearing problems, facial tics, severe depression, and poverty. And yet despite these burdens, he would later be hailed as one of the "most distinguished man of letters in English history."

This was Samuel Johnson, poet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor and author of the Dictionary of the English language and what some believe to be the most authoritative guide to Shakespeare.

It turns out Johnson was a master at incidental learning. From his famous biographer Boswell: "...indolence and procrastination were inherent in his constitution...", but what he did have was a prodigious memory - and "he never forgot any thing that he heard or read."

It's hard to believe that a lazy and apparently inconsistent reader could also have such a perfect memory, but the characteristics may be linked. Some incidental learners require frequent task switching to maintain alertness and interest (these folks are not uncommonly reading several books at a time), and this trait may be especially common in the setting of Tourettes syndrome, which is seems Johnson had. Johnson could have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder if the diagnosis had been around then; but the obvious question comes to mind - if he is truly inattentive, how could he be so retentive (or why does he remember and know so much)?

For incidental learners such as these, teachers and parents are often better off making available resources and staying out of the way for the educational process.

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good." - Samuel Johnson

The Hack as Genius: Samuel Johnson
Boswell's Life of Johnson

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