I grew up in a lower-middle-class New York neighbourhood, which harboured a large number of bright kids, and whose schools suffered from virtually none of the pathologies that afflict urban schools these days. In my community, the default assumption was that the route for a smart kid to take led to medicine or science. Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk were the culture’s reigning heroes.
As I was quite good at mathematics, it was natural for me to explore that subject much more deeply than schoolwork allowed. The more I learned, the more I was fascinated. Fortunately my secondary school was a very selective one, nationally known for turning out aspiring scientists, and my mathematics teachers were unusually knowledgeable.
Even more, I was surrounded by a group of kids as intensely interested in mathematics as I was. So my career was, in a sense, well launched even before I started university work. The main lesson to be drawn, I think, is that cultural ambience is the key factor in focusing the ambitions of gifted young people upon science.
Norman Levitt is author of Prometheus Bedevilled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and coauthor of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).