In the 1920s, Walt Disney began a new career as a cartoonist. A rarity in those days since the industry had no large market. Once this new entertainment medium became profitable, Disney hired additional artists to draw the thousands of still pictures needed to produce a high quality animated feature. Disney’s early success was with an animated character named Oswald Rabbit. The copyright, however, was held by a movie distributor rather than Disney. The distributor, hoping to cut costs, hired the cartoonists away from Disney eliminating the need to pay Disney. Based on physical assets and general abilities, Disney was not needed. Or was he? When was the last time you saw an Oswald Rabbit cartoon? Where did the distributor go wrong?

The distributor, with the Disney staff and the copyright on Disney’s character, expected to profit from his coup—but without Disney’s ideas and fantasies. The physical things—the drawings, the film, and the theaters—were merely vehicles. It was only a matter of time before another set of vehicles could be arranged and the ideas incorporated in a new character—Mickey Mouse—which Disney copyrighted in his own name.[1]

Disney’s creative genius made the difference. Of course, Disney also needed the cartoonists (who were better artists than he was), the theaters, and the distribution vehicles. But it was Disney’s vision and ideas that made his creations household names.

“Average” students often excel in non-traditional academic environments. Instead of taking the academic, or “by-the-book approach,” they look for what has never been tried. And without having the latest scientific studies to tell them that something can’t be done, they often do it in spite of the research. A young Thomas Edison, for example, overheard the schoolmaster say that his mind was “addled.” Edison recalled the incident:

I remember I used never to be able to get along at school. I was always at the foot of the class. I used to feel the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid.[2]

We know that Edison was not “addled.” He was a different kind of student, different in terms of the teaching methods employed in the nineteenth century and often duplicated today. For Edison, it was always “necessary to observe with his own eyes, to ‘do things’ or ‘make things’ himself. To see for himself, to test things himself, he said, ‘for one instant, was better than learning about something never seen before for two hours.’”[3]

Edison was always the experimenter. He would try everything to find a workable solution to a puzzling problem. To discover a long-burning filament for his incandescent lamp, Edison “tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.”[4] To an empirical scientist, this was a waste of time, money, and effort. But for Edison, it worked, and the world is better for it. I’ve read somewhere that Edison gave the task to one of this workers of turning tungsten (a very brittle metal in raw form) into a wire, seemingly an impossible task, by scientific standards of the day. Edison didn’t “know” that it wasn’t supposed to work. The scientist to whom Edison gave the project probably would have never tried tungsten because all of his training told him it could not work.

Edison recognized that others had abilities that he did not possess. This, too, is a sign of genius. He employed men at his laboratory who had doctorates in physics and chemistry from prestigious universities from around the world. Their considerable academic acumen did not impress him, however. He believed that university-trained scientists see only “‘that which they were taught to look for,’ and thus they miss ‘the great secrets of nature lying under foot.’” Edison loved to jab at his academic superiors. “Do you think I’d have amounted to anything if I went to school?” Martin Rosanoff, a university-trained chemist who worked for Edison remarked, “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things as the phonograph!”[5]

There are many young people who are academic “ransackers.” They prefer to hunt for solutions to problems rather than to be told about them. Your child has the potential to excel. I believe there is latent genius in all of us. We should not be discouraged, therefore, if our children do not seem to measure up to other students. Don’t write them off. Encourage them to pursue their interests. Use their interests to teach them the necessities. So what if they don’t take calculus and physics. Those who need to take them will. Maybe your child’s genius lies elsewhere, in the area of the unexplored and untried.


[1] Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 71. [2] Quoted in Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 20. [3] Josephson, Edison, 20. [4] Josephson, Edison, 233-34. [5] Josephson, Edison, 412.