Educating Sherlock – What’s it all about?

The original Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation) emerged out of nowhere – discovered by Dr. Watson as a fully formed adult, complete with a fully furnished flat in Baker Street and a full client list. I don’t know if anyone else reading the short stories wondered how it was that Holmes acquired his distinctive mix of intellectual brilliance, physical daring, eccentricity and personal flaws but I certainly didn’t. Sherlock Holmes was always Sherlock Holmes, complete with the deerstalker and the pipe, just like Winston Churchill was always Winston Churchill – old, cigar-smoking, overweight and at war – and Donald Duck was, well: always a duck; never an egg.

The TV series changed all that. Suddenly, Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older, apparently more naturally brilliant brother, ceased to be content with the small, cameo role he had in the books and emerged as an important character in his own right. A character who still thought he was Sherlock’s intellectual superior, carrying on childhood familial patterns of thought and behaviour. The development of an intense and dysfunctional relationship between the two brothers – both of them high-achieving but intense and, in many respects, dysfunctional individuals – eventually started to beg questions about the rest of the family. When it emerged that there was a third sibling, even more intellectually precocious than either Sherlock or Mycroft and even more intensely dysfunctional, some of us were forced into wondering whether the screenwriters were deliberately perpetuating the myth that intellectual brilliance necessarily precludes emotional and relational intelligence. And some of us (well, me at least) started to wonder whether there might have been different (better?) ways to educate these three gifted and talented children.

Whether, in fact, the show (intentionally or unintentionally) was highlighting a very widespread problem: namely, the fact that we as a society have absolutely no clue how to raise our most gifted and talented children.  Do we hothouse them, or try to raise them in the mainstream education system? Should they have friends who share their brilliance (and exacerbate their oddity) or does their emotional and social health require them to have friendships with more “average” children? Is the answer to send them off to specialist schools? I grew up as part of a generation of trained musicians whose parents entrusted us to specialist (boarding) music schools. Those schools have recently been revealed to have been hotbeds of sexual (and other) abuse. Not only is that not a great environment in which to foster a healthy emotional, moral and psychological development, it’s not even a sure-fire way to raise great musicians – it may be news to all those who think we great artists should “suffer for our art” but eventually, extremely unhappy people do stop being productive or successful at what we do.

Are the specialist schools for other disciplines any better? I think not? In 2012, Luke Jennings wrote an article in the Guardian about the failure of pupils from White Lodge (the part of the Royal Ballet School catering to 11-16 year olds) to make it through Royal Ballet Upper school and graduate into the company. At the time of his writing, the previous year only one (out of an original cohort of 24) student had completed the training and won a place in the company. The year of his article, the tally was none. Either, then, the selection process for the Lower School is deeply flawed and fails to correctly identify children with the natural ability to become accomplished ballet dancers (leading to a heinous waste of resources) or the ballet teaching at one of the world’s most prestigious ballet schools is sub-standard (unlikely, given as the school has access to London’s finest ex-dancers and most committed teachers); or there are a lot of extremely talented young dancers who are not being given the emotional support they need to complete training in a discipline they love. In other words, a lot of young adults with shattered dreams.

From where I’m sitting, the prognosis doesn’t seem much better for academically gifted children. In the local area where I live, the selective entry schools are breeding grounds for behaviours such as anorexia, self-harm and, on occasion, suicide; the comprehensive schools are sites where a pupil who stands out (for their brilliance or for anything else) is a target for bullying. My children’s brightest contemporaries from primary school have been, variously: school-phobic, hospitalised in a child psychiatric unit, struggling with chronic ill-health to the extent of not being able to attend full-time school; truanting; on drugs and (perhaps these are the lucky ones) simply under-achieving.

To me, this represents not only an extraordinary waste of talent potential but, more importantly, an indefensible accumulation of human misery.

And so this website was born. It’s not particularly concerned with how we might nurture more brilliant ballet dancers  (or mathematicians, or tennis players or trumpeters) though it’s possible that a happy side result of better nurturing gifted and talented individuals as people might be that more of them grow up to fulfil their potential in the disciplines in which they are talented.  It is primarily concerned (as the title suggests) with the moral, social and emotional education of gifted and talented children and teenagers. The problem I see depicted in Sherlock is not that the Holmes children somehow struggled to achieve their full intellectual potential; it’s that their intellectual development seems to have been achieved at the price of pretty much all other aspects of their development as human beings. In the real world, it’s as likely that a teenager will – if they can – reject brilliance in favour of friendship, reject success in favour of feeling less like a freak. My own experience, though, is that whichever path you choose to take, the sacrifice of the other is a painful loss.

And the tragic thing is – I don’t think you actually need to choose. Or you shouldn’t.  Sherlock is more, not less, because of his friendship with Watson. Lestrade hits the nail on the head (albeit rather clumsily) when in the first episode he describes Sherlock as a “great” man (meaning, presumably, a brilliant mind) and hopes he might one day grow into a “good” one (meaning, as I interpret it, one capable of relationship and of moral decision-making). The trajectory as I’d term it is not in fact from “great” to “great and good”; but rather from “brilliant” to “great”. (Leaving aside the dreadful and thematically unsatisfying end of the fourth season.) The series is centrally concerned with showing how Sherlock develops, how he becomes a fully-rounded, feeling and thinking human being. In other words, it’s concerned with the education of Sherlock Holmes.

My only question (and the raison d’être of this blog) is: why did it have to wait till he was in his 30s and early 40s? Why couldn’t’ Sherlock be educated as a child? Why couldn’t Mycroft and Euros be better educated, too?

Welcome to Educating Sherlock. It consists in a series of blog-posts, most of which are loosely inspired by something or other in the Sherlock series.  But I also invite panel discussion, guest blogs, personal stories, and feedback from other people who work with gifted and talented children; people who were themselves identified as on the extreme end of the G&T spectrum; and anyone else who would like to challenge our preconceived notions about extreme intelligence, talent and education.

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