All Commentary
Monday, August 28, 2017

Does Society Have Room for Brilliant Eccentrics?

They are some of the best minds among us. There seems to be no reliable market for many of them.

He holds a PhD in mathematics. He reads constantly. He is a warm human being. He is interested in everything: sciences, art, music, religion, history. He has balanced and interesting views on nearly every topic. He dreams big. Still, he can’t get a job. Why? It’s hard to say, but the problem can be summed up with this: he just can’t get it together.

We’ve all known brilliant but eccentric people who have a hard time finding a place for themselves.He is an eccentric. There are millions of them, and they are some of the best minds among us. There seems to be no reliable market for many of them.

This case is a composite of cases that you and I have known but it is not unrealistic. It’s troubling to see such cases. They are not uncommon. Typically, the problem isn’t that they are odd. There is some deeper flaw – it could be substance abuse, social disorientation, odd sleeping hours, or just profound professional anxiety – that prevents such people from being part of mainstream life.

Room for All Kinds

We’ve all known brilliant but eccentric people who have a hard time finding a place for themselves. Maybe I’ve known more than most others, I’m not sure. But people like this pose certain troubling problems. They are accomplished, learned, fascinating, but awkward at functioning in official systems that adjudicate success.

The question is: what can society do about it? For starters, we can stop trying to force them to conform by creating systems in which only normative personalities can succeed. This is precisely what over-regulated, over-regimented, over-structured economies do. The people who cannot fit in fall through the cracks. We lose their intelligence and talents.

The more we force conformity, the more we lose people whose personalities resist conforming. There is tremendous societal loss here.

I’m particularly pained by our educational systems imposed by force on children for their entire youth. We move them from class to class, institution to institution, telling every kid – as if they are all the same person with the same needs – that their only job is to sit and listen and repeat what is found in state-approved texts. And we are shocked that the smartest (and the weakest) among them don’t take too well to this.

That there is a mass exodus to something else is hardly surprising. And yet the problem runs much deeper than education to penetrate every aspect of employment, commerce, health, trade, drugs, housing, and even food. The regulatory state that manages these sectors punishes eccentricity and nonconformity, causing people who do not, and cannot fit in, to slip through the cracks, never finding their way through the labyrinth of bureaucracy and rules.

The Glass Castle

This problem has been on my mind since I went to see the movie “The Glass Castle,” based on the true story of the strange childhood of the now-famous writer Jeannette Walls. She, her two sisters and brother, didn’t attend normal schools. They didn’t live in a normal apartment or home. They were nomadic and learned from life. The title of the film and book comes from a blueprint of a dream house that their father was forever expanding but never actually tried to build.

What I got was not the movie I wanted to see. But I saw the movie I needed to see. 

I went into it hoping that the film would be a tribute to what is called “unschooling,” which is this notion that the less you structure education the better it is for the child. It unleashes beautiful creativity and allows the human mind to grow to its full potential. Unschooling is about as opposite of conventional public schooling as it can get. I wanted the film to be about how this family’s life was weird but wonderful.

What I got was not the movie I wanted to see. But I saw the movie I needed to see.

The real life story is more complicated than it first appears. There’s no question that the father, brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson, was extremely smart. He was onto something with the notion that people don’t really learn from textbooks; they learn from life. He genuinely loved his children, but he was just too eccentric to navigate the systems that society had set up for him.

One major factor in this case makes him unsympathetic. He had a problem with alcohol. Not just a small problem. He was a grim, gruesome, groveling alcoholic of the highest order, and it seriously destroyed any chance he had to make good on his job to be a good husband and father. It’s a miracle that he stayed out of prison for life. It’s amazing that he managed even to retain custody of his children at all.

In other words, a man who might otherwise have been a charming eccentric, with unconventional ways of living became something close to a monster. He wanted his children to live free lives but he eventually came to be their main oppressor, to the point that his children at some point had to plot an escape.

What the father did to those children and to himself was utterly inexcusable.For those of us who want to cheer on unconventional lives and choices, watching this movie was extremely difficult. I was squirming during much of the film and whole sectors stand out in my memory as somewhat haunting.

The ending of the film attempts a redemption of the father, where the children sit around remembering his odd ways and engaging in affectionate reminiscences. However, it doesn’t really work. The movie showed us too much to move on and laugh. What the father did to those children and to himself was utterly inexcusable.

People are Robust

I wanted the film to be about the hidden virtues of unconventional education. What I took from the film was something different, and more inspiring. What’s remarkable is how the kids were able to deal with what they did and still make a good life for themselves. They pressed on, endured, and overcame to build great lives despite everything. It is a special virtue on their part that they were able to search hard and find a bright side in their story.

In a sense, I see this as an allegory for the hundreds of millions of kids put through the regime of regulated, institutionalized, collectivized, and coerced schooling and somehow managed to survive that as well.

Which brings us back to the “problem” of eccentrics in society.Each case is a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. For that matter, you could say the same about the functioning of all kinds of things in the world today despite the vast impositions, regulations, plunderings, mandates, and prohibitions. The human mind craves freedom but is not granted it. And yet we manage to find our way in any case, not because of the system but in spite of it.

Which brings us back to the “problem” of eccentrics in society. They will always be with us, not as problems but as reminders: no society can create a single system for everyone. If we want everyone to find a place, to realize the dignity they deserve as human persons, we must have infinite opportunities for experimentation and different ways of living. This is necessary not only to minimize the possibility of people falling through the cracks, but also to maximize the chance that we can all benefit from every bit of human brilliance in our midst.

As Glass Castle reminds us, not everyone will use that freedom in ways that are ideal or even non-damaging to themselves and others. But freedom at least allows room for experimentation, learning, adaptation, and evolution of individuals and society. Freedom is a far better system than any which denies us individuality and potential to live the best life we can.