brainThe final section of case studies in Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ is called ‘The World of the Simple’.

The first of the four essays examines the case of a young woman called Rebecca who, because of a number of physical and neurological handicaps, had spent her life being branded as a moron.

Sacks admits that he also initially regarded her as little more than a “broken creature” and something of a hopeless case. The neurological tests he carried out only served to confirm her retarded state. But when he saw her outside the clinic, he formed an entirely different impression.

He witnessed her instinctive and serene response to nature then later observed that when she danced or performed in theatre workshops she exhibited none of the awkwardness and clumsiness he had assumed was her permanent condition.

All this forced him to question how such subjects are judged; he wrote: “I thought, as I watched her on the bench – enjoying not just a simple but a sacred view of nature – our approach, our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate”.

Reading this chapter made me reflect how the same inadequacies Sacks described can routinely be found in our educational institutions. For instance, standardized testing in schools is,at best, only a measure of one aspect of a young child’s intelligence.


Oliver Sacks

The focus on defects rather than powers becomes a burden which is carried through to many aspects of an individual’s education and then replicated in working environments.

From my own experience of teaching English as a second language to undergraduates in Italy, I constantly encounter students who are demotivated by their inability to get high grades or to pass obligatory exams. The sad truth is that too many of these tests fall short of being a true measure of their linguistic abilities.

For example, to successfully complete multiple choice ‘cloze’ (fill in the gap) exercises often show only that a candidate has been able to memorize a series of grammar structures. Similarly, reading and listening comprehensions constantly contain deliberately ambiguous options that seem designed to trick students into choosing the ‘wrong’ answer. Books are published that teach learners how to recognize and avoid being duped by these false distractors. None of this really fulfills the objective of helping students to communicate effectively in English.

The lesson of the rigid testing techniques applied to Rebecca by Oliver Sacks led him to conclude that “they only show us defects, they do not show us powers; they only show us puzzles and schemata when we need to see music, narrative, play, a being conducting itself spontaneously in its own natural way”.

This constant focus on ‘defectology’ rather than ‘narratology’ is, of course, not confined to neuropsychology. In all spheres of life we should be finding ways to build on our strengths and to not be disillusioned by our weaknesses.

In short, we should be learning to live rather than living to learn.