What would Disney learn in school today?

Would we give (Disney) an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Short-sighted administrators reject “critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” as “fluff,” writes Colucci, who teaches gifted elementary students. Teachers are forced to spend time on mindless test prep instead.

Teaching reading and math basics to students who’ve already mastered the basics is a  waste of time, even if the only goal is boosting test scores. But I don’t think schools of any era have been set up to nurture geniuses.

Walt Disney developed his artistic talent by taking private art classes on Saturdays and in night school. He dropped out of high school to serve as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I.

Thomas Edison attended school only for a few months.

He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own.

. . . At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit.

As a 10-year-old boy, Albert Einstein read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Euclid’s Elements with a family friend. Einstein left high school early, complaining “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.” (Depending in which account you believe, he ran away or used a doctor’s note.) Unlike Disney and Edison, Einstein went on to study at a university.

It’s very hard for any conventional school to cater to the needs of a 10-year-old who is  turned on by Kant and Euclid. Geniuses have to make their own way.

About Joanne


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    This suggests two things to me:

    1. Students who can already do the reading and math should not be kept with the other kids and do it over and over again. The problem in smothering creativity may be “inclusion,” not testing. (So why is it that so many of the people who oppose testing support inclusion?)

    2. Since Edison and Disney didn’t finish high school, perhaps the compulsory school age should be lowered. Or maybe there should be diploma based on what you can do, rather than how many hours you’ve spent in school. Since there are lots of high school graduates who can’t read or write or do math at an eight grade level, we could make eighth grade proficiency the standard for this new diploma and we would still graduate fewer unskilled citizens.

  2. They oppose testing BECAUSE they support inclusion. Inclusion allows them to pretend that all are equally able and equally motivated; testing reveals the falsity of that pretense.

    I’m all for lowering the required schooling age to 14, completion of 8th grade or demonstration of 8th grade proficiency on the ITBS or equivalent . Eliminate state testing, since it’s largely a joke and require ITBS or equivalent at least every two years for advancement, until MS, when SSAT may be substituted. In HS, use SAT/ACT/SAT II or suitable vocational asessment tests if such are available.

  3. My first thought is that Disney’s parents would be lucky to find a school where they actually did times tables.

    That aside, even the most in-depth art class (outside of a dedicated arts school) is not going to provide enough time for a Disney to fully develop his talent. It should, however, give him enough math knowledge to get his started with his business and enough literature knowledge to help him develop his stories.

    School is there to give a broad background of knowledge, with as many avenues as possible for students to excel. The real geniuses are going to have to do a lot of work on the outside. The biggest problem with comparisons such as this is that uses outliers to describe the middle.

    That being said, I will second Roger’s first comment. If you want to let children excel, you have to stop forcing them to share classrooms with students who are years behind. The biggest problem we have, especially in urban districts, is that we are crushing the kids who really can perform, and leaving the ones who need extra help with teachers who have no time to do so. Even if one person has a “right” to an education, no person’s right extends to the point at which it abridges those of others.

  4. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    According to Tesla Edison wasted a great deal of time pursuing ideas that could have been discredited with a little math on a napkin. The idea that people like Edison had nothing to benefit from a standard education is absurd.

  5. “According to Tesla Edison wasted a great deal of time pursuing ideas that could have been discredited with a little math on a napkin. The idea that people like Edison had nothing to benefit from a standard education is absurd.”

    A standard education, yes, but maybe not delivered the standard way. A partially deaf, inattentive child who was described by his teacher as “addled” and who lasted only a few months in school is not an ideal candidate for standard K12. Would he have been better off with some more math? Sure, and if I were making up an educational plan for the young Edison, I would have set him up with a math tutor for the early elementary years, and then tried to get him back into school for junior high or high school. I think community college would have been a very good fit for a self-starter like Edison. Of course, this plan is totally anachronistic–in Edison’s childhood, you did very well to get an 8th grade education.

  6. Constant attempts are being made to blame the problems with the schools on testing: the reality of course is that the testing was put in place specifically because the schools were failing at their mission in ways that could no longer be ignored.

    Schools in the era of Edison, Einstein, and Disney were far more likely to require the practicing of times tables than those today.