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I was thinking about Sir Ken Robinson on the bus on the way to get a TDaP vaccine, focused mainly on how tremendously ironic I think it is that a man who hales from the 2nd most individualistic culture in the world and (I think) currently lives in the most individualistic culture believes our schools are forcing too many square pegs into round holes.

I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science--fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.

I believe this is a classroom in Shanghai. China is not outperforming the US in education, by any measure, but other Asian countries who have very similarly designed classrooms are in math and science–fields that require a high degree of creative thinking.

The man has clearly entered very few classrooms outside of his own culture and has no idea how much rote learning and conformity goes on in schools elsewhere. He seems so without perspective that he makes me laugh.

He is really telling us we need to be more what we most love to do. And we love him for it. It is like going to church and having the priest tell you to sin more or going to the doctor and having her recommend you eat more chocolate cake.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Individualism is our form of excess. It has not made us happier and it may or may not be making us more successful. It may be giving rise to increasing rates of suicide among Baby Boomers, and it may be contributing to a variety of stress-related diseases especially among older people–who have had more years to develop them.

He also seems to have no clue that people are not, in fact, distributed randomly across the country or around the world. We tend to cluster in various ways–we gravitate towards one another when we have shared interests or values, and we also tend to adopt one another’s habits and behaviors over time.

In the above video, he uses a map of the country to drive home the point that the rising rates of ADHD are figments of our imagination. But it is based on this idea that people are distributed randomly across the continent. There is no reason to think that we would be.

When you consider that, first of all, the US is almost entirely composed of people who rather recently (a few generations ago) left their homes, underwent a risky and uncertain journey, and began a new life in a far-off and unfamiliar place,you should probably expect that the people who live here might be substantially different from people back in their home countries. Because most sensible people would stay home.

Even in the face of economic and political adversity, there is still a safety in “the devil you know.” Americans have mostly embraced the devil they didn’t know. That isn’t quite unique, but it’s not usual.

Temperamentally, it seems completely reasonable to expect that Americans would be weighted towards certain behaviors: either merely culturally or because of some process in genetics. You would expect to see more risk-taking, more willingness to try new things, more restlessness, and less contentment with the status quo than those immigrants have left behind.

And while every country has its immigrants, some of the former British colonies are rather unique in being composed almost entirely of people who arrived there only within the last few hundred years. So, It does not in the slightest surprise me that the US has higher rates of ADHD diagnosis than Europe, even though most Americans come from European stock. Americans should certainly be more “something.”

But impulsive, hyperactive, and craving high degrees of stimulation and activity would be among them.

Certainly, if I had ADHD, and I were alive around the time my own immigrant great-grandparents arrived in this country, fleeing to a brand-new, largely unknown country might be the first thing I ever really wanted to do. And along with me, I would be bringing my ADHD genes.

It also does not surprise me that the United States would have different rates of diagnosis in different parts of the country. We cluster, we share, and we become like the others near us, and therefore different from those further away. And these differences affect all kinds of things: how willing we much we trust doctors and how willing we are to have our kids labeled, among them.


It may be that everyone with impulsive, hyperactive genes decided to move to Louisiana at some point. Or it may be that Westerners resist having their kids labeled even if that label might help their children be successful and have positive self-esteems. We don’t know, do we?

The map does mean something, but there are so many factors at work, it’s hard to say what

It certainly doesn’t mean we are simply intolerant of difference.

Although we don’t really know what causes ADHD, even if it does seem to have a genetic basis, there are other factors that seem to affect our genes. It wasn’t long ago when we realized that having an older father seemed to contribute to the risk of being born with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There is no reason to think that behavior–like waiting longer to have children–is evenly distributed either. In fact, some behaviors most definitely are not: Americans are much less careful with our food than our European counterparts. We allow far more hormones into our meats, for example. We are less cautious with GMOs. But we smoke less.

So when I get to that portion of Sir Ken’s speech, I can’t help but laugh. And not because of the absurdity of thinking that there may, in fact, be real genetic differences (on average) in populations living in different parts of the world or the country. But because the number of assumptions he is making in forming the arguments are so many and so great that the whole cloth of what he is saying is absurd.

In fact, Sir Ken is quite wrong on one point he makes; he claims we are anesthetizing children. And yet what we give those children who are diagnosed with ADHD are not sedatives. They are most often stimulants. We are, just as he urges, trying to wake them up.

His arguments are not only lacking in logic, but simply wrong.

And yet we love him.  Because he tells us what we want to hear. We want to be told how unique and creative we could be if only we had the chance. We want to be told we are special, that we have these unique and wonderful innate capacities. We want to be told we could have been geniuses if we hadn’t been spoiled by our second-grade teacher making us color within the lines.

And we value creativity and individuality, so we think those things will solve everything. It may be killing us, but we like it anyway.

I think I’ll get some chocolate cake.