Let Them Diverge

January 12th, 2010

Divergence is instrumental to learning. But too often we seek to get rid of divergence at its first stirring–shunning it as a body might reject a transplanted organ.

Throughout history divergent souls have been met with scorn and rejection. Igor Stravinsky was one such Divergent. When he debuted The Rite of Spring a riot ensued. People attending the premiere expected to hear music that was familiar and comfortable. Stravinsky delivered something of another sort. The audience took offense and began to boo, scream, yell, fight with one another. Police arrived and were unable to subdue the crowd. Stravinsky was rumored to have escaped through a bathroom window.

The source of the conflict was not Stravinsky. The riot was fueled by the audience members’ internal expectations and assumptions. Interestingly, critics and audience members lauded subsequent performances. There were no additional riots. Why? Because the audience changed. “The Song Remains the Same.” Once the audience members adjusted their expectations they could appreciate and enjoy what Stravinsky was doing. It all made sense. It was so profound.

We have classrooms full of Divergents. They, like Stravinsky, want to explore and understand and articulate their perceptions. Stravinsky was inspired by West African rhythms, which he incorporated into The Rite of Spring. Imagine if Stravinsky had cowered in fear at the outrage shown toward his masterpiece. Imagine if he had never written The Rite of Spring for fear it wasn’t the answer the world wanted. I can’t imagine life without my favorite Divergents:

Jesus of Nazareth

Soren Kierkegaard

Bob Dylan

Vincent Van Gogh

Pablo Picasso

Thomas Edison

Alexander Fleming

Mother Theresa

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Galileo Galilei


Make your own list and ask if your life wouldn’t rap hollow if these people had buckled or been made to acquiesce if they didn’t stop diverging. Their divergence made them brilliant. It made their life worth living. How dare we strip students of this gift?

You are very likely going to be in a classroom or other learning arena in which a youth will ask a question or make a comment that is off topic. He may challenge what you say or introduce a comment that seems oblique. Here’s your opportunity to give a gift that could change this teen’s life. Stop! Ask the student to say more. Do you remember the Donahue Show? Do a Donahue. Bow your white-haired head, stretch the mic out, and just listen. That’s it. Something is happening within that student. Water has finally reached that little seed with a message, “Hey little buddy. It’s time to wake up.” Life is in the works and you get to be a part of letting it happen. So resist the urge to kill the seed with a piece of plywood. Give it warmth and more water, and let it grow.

Teens are watching what we’re doing and saying. They have a deep sense that, “I know you’re saying this is how things are, but in order to understand what you mean I must explore certain questions whose end may or may not be yours.”

To effectively teach and mentor teens we need to permit, even encourage divergence–a central element to becoming fully human.

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