The burden of having cognitive issues

When I was a kid, the primary school I went to had a special way of dealing with people who suffered from cognitive issues. The method was simple. If a kid had a cognitive issue, the teacher would relentlessly bash at them. They’d usually begin by demanding the kid explain why they couldn’t get letters the right way around, or muddled up numbers, or whatever. Of course the kid didn’t know, to them it just happened. But that was no excuse. The teacher knew the kid had chosen to do it, how dare they try to lie their way out by pretending otherwise.

It didn’t matter what the cognitive issue was. I was a left-hander, for instance, which made me an automatic target for this sort of behaviour. But it could have been worse. Woe betide anybody with, say, synesthesia (now known to affect about 4 percent of any population). But in New Zealand schools circa 1970 it couldn’t exist. How dare the kid claim that sounds have a colour. The C below Middle C is not a ‘shade of brown’, that’s an idiot fantasy. Obviously the kid was making it up and (once again) had to be punished for being a liar. And as for dyslexia, dyspraxia or any of the related cognitive issues (affecting about 10 percent, variously) – well, that meant they were stupid, and didn’t try hard enough, and for that they had to be utterly crushed – slammed and slammed and slammed at every turn – until they chose to just snap out of it and be normal.

The New Zealand school system in action, circa 1970s…

It was an endless cycle; once the teacher had finished punishing the kid, if the kid hadn’t become normal – well, it was proof that they needed punishing again.  And again, and again, and again. They had to be bashed and bashed and bashed, because it was their fault for having a cognitive problem.

The real objective, I think, was to get the targeted kid to confess how wrong and weak they were for getting things wrong all the time, all the while letting the teachers get their jollies by beating up on those the system had defined as powerless under them.

A lot of this flowed from the fact that the early-to-mid twentieth century was the great age of conformity and eugenics; psychologists dictated what was ‘normal’ – a vision framed, inevitably, by the prejudices and the fact that their field was largely founded in pseudo-intellectual woo-woo masquerading as science. Society of the twentieth century was geared towards ‘correcting’ anybody who differed. Kids were bashed, beaten and ridiculed into traumatised submission to the absolute power of their teachers. Adults were told how defective they were by psychologists, and then drugged and lobotomised into mute conformity with what psychology demanded.

It seems to me that much of the way current society treats cognitive issues is a reaction to that earlier barbarism. These days we accept cognitive issues and even profess to understand them. It is now understood that dyslexia, for instance, often goes hand-in-hand with unique intelligence and thought processes, because it reflects different hard-wiring. So does synesthesia, dyspraxia and many of the other cognitive ‘disorders’ that, seventy or eighty years ago, were regarded as disabilities that had to be viciously bashed out of people in order to ‘help’ them.

I have to wonder, though, where the big issue of the twenty-first century will be.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

4 thoughts on “The burden of having cognitive issues

  1. Thanks for this. It helps to know that others than me experienced it that way. Doing teacher training, and working in a school brought me to the realisation that teachers know nothing, have no understanding of the minds they se themselves up to train, and more than that, they have not “grown up” themselves. They too are trapped in the cycle. Working for several charities and “movements” through my life, I am concluding that the so called “normal” are the lunies. Those who just accept the lies of politics and society and pretend that all is well. Those who hang on to the toxic secrets they were indoctrinated with. Those who watch as the whistle-blowers are crucified and say nothing. And these are the ones with the vote?


  2. Things may be less brutal now, but there’s still a message to those who aren’t quite “normal” — introverts, for example — that if they only use the correct techniques to make themselves look sort of normal, they’ll succeed. Any introvert who chooses to be their unsocial self is shunted to the sidelines.

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    1. Oh yes, the introvert ‘problem’. One I am intimately familiar with! Apparently it’s not many decades since the APA were actually trying to define ‘introversion’ as a psychological disorder – and they were still trying to include it in their DSM-5 definition manual as recently as 2010! I have long suspected that ‘psychology’ isn’t about caring for and helping others; it’s actually a system for reinforcing a narrow and socially-defined ‘normal’ that ignores a wide swathe of ordinary human nature, and for punishing those who don’t meet the defined behaviours. I wonder what would happen if they defined ‘introversion’ as normal and stigmatised ‘extroverts’ for daring to avoid being alone?


  3. I remember being struck by a writer and a story that embraced “eccentricity” — which really meant “identity” — in nearly all forms, the writer being Fannie Flagg, and the story “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.” British writers always struck me as being a little more willing to embrace and value “eccentricity” in their work. Whether that reflects social norms or not, I couldn’t say.

    Until we as a species understand that society doesn’t get to form individual identities, only to keep those identities within certain norms of behavior (recognized as far back in history as the Code of Hammurabi), then I suspect we’ll have inequities based on someone’s ideas of “normative” behavior. At the heart of that seems to be the idea of defining a hierarchy, as your anecdotes from school days illustrate. The urgent need to be on top of the heap, somewhere, somehow, seems to drive a lot of that.

    I’m not talking about equality as meaning everyone is the same. That’s a laughable notion, as well as ultimately unworkable, except maybe for bees and ants. More like a give and take. I’m me, you’re you, start from there.

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