Difference, Education and The Imitation Game: How Would Alan Turing Fare Today?

            Watching The Imitation Game, I asked myself if things would be different for a modern day Alan Turing. The Imitation Game is a film which follows the adversity Alan Turing faced as a student, a mathematical genius, and as a gay person in World War II era Britain. The theme of difference runs through the entire film. At school, The Imitation Game portrays Alan as a boy who is very different from his classmates- he takes things at face value, he has a brilliant, logical-mathematical way of thinking which comes off as rigid. He is misunderstood, except by his mother and a single companion named Christopher. As an adult, without Christopher by his side, Alan continues to be rigid in his thinking, mathematical in his interactions- choosing to speak only in factual terms, rarely understanding what people mean so much as what people say. Alan is in so many ways different from his peers- would the progress we’ve made since WWII help Alan in school today? I want to use a bit of imagination and place a British WWII-era Alan Turing in a modern day U.S. public school - what protections would Alan have in a U.S. school?

It is very possible that Alan would be given an Individualized Education Program or a 504 to provide services related to his social skills and ability to work with others. His qualification for an IEP or 504 would depend upon what testing would be involved. Would Alan Turing as portrayed in “The Imitation Game” have Anxiety, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism, and/or Depression? It’s possible that any one of these diagnoses would qualify Alan to receive services.

Historically, Alan Turing was not thought to be so rigid thinking. Turing was noted to have a good sense of humor and was known to be fun to be around. In the film, Turing is portrayed, regardless of diagnoses, as twice exceptional—living with both incredible gifts and challenges. I believe Alan Turing was twice exceptional. He did, in fact, think so differently that even his educators did not always understand him. The headmaster of Alan’s school wrote to his mother: "I hope he will not fall between two stools. If he is to stay at public school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school." His incredible ability to solve puzzles, to resolve problems, and to create or manufacture solutions using math and logic was innate. He began working on cryptography at a young age, at a time when classics were considered the most important thing to learn. To some of the teachers at the school, his work wasn’t genius—it was misguided; why would a student focus so intensely on math and science? Their response was essentially: “It won’t do him much good here.” Imagine if this was still the attitude we took in regards to students who have a passion for science and math! (It’s lucky that Alan’s work was as well publicized as it was, our world may look very different if it hadn’t been—Turing invented the Turing Machine, one of the first ancestors of computers. How’s that for thinking outside of the box?)

When thinking of how a modern day Alan Turing might be treated by the U.S. educational system, Jacob Barnett comes to mind. The major differences between Jacob and Alan being—field of study, Jacob began studying math at a young age and quickly moved into astrophysics, and official diagnosis, at 2 years old Jacob Barnett was diagnosed with “moderate to severe” autism, he stopped speaking, and his mother was told he was “lost.” In his TEDxTeen Talk, Jacob discusses how school didn't really educate him—the special education courses he was placed in didn't encourage him to think for himself, just to learn what was presented to him. Jacob began getting quiet again once in elementary school and his mother quickly changed his environment. Jacob began taking college math courses and acing them. Today, at 16 years old, Jacob has earned a master’s degree and is a doctoral student at the Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics. And this all happened because Jacob’s mother believed there could be a better place for him, that a different environment could nourish his mind better than the U.S. school system had been able to. The U.S. school system have few precedents set for how to educate students like Jacob and Alan—this means that students who are highly gifted, and twice exceptional, have no set path. If their parents have the means to guide them, these students will excel. If not, these students will likely struggle through a system that was not created with them in mind.

Like Jacob, Alan Turing truly excelled in his university courses. Alan was able to study at several different institutions, but not until he had completed primary and secondary school to attend university courses. In The Imitation Game and in real life, there was another challenge Alan faced while growing up; society was not and still often is not accepting of LGBTQ individuals. Alan Turing was gay during a time when “homosexuality” was illegal. In his adult life, Alan was prosecuted for indecency when found to have a relationship with a man—I cannot imagine the discrimination he would have faced had the other boys at school believed he was gay. The film portrays Alan being bullied and harassed in one of the very first scenes. This brief portrayal is shocking and awful to watch, and is a matter of everyday life for many LGBTQ youth. . . As we further develop the U.S. educational system, we truly have to keep in mind students who are bullied. Social and emotional learning is equally important as academic learning when it comes to students understanding the importance of equality. If modern day Alan Turing was placed at a school where diversity and acceptance were taught as core principles, I know we could do a lot better for him than society could when real life Alan Turing attended school.

Students who think differently need a unique combination of protection and guidance. IDEA and 504 serve to provide appropriate educations for students, but what about fulfilling educations? What about safe and fulfilling educations? Graham Moore, who adapted the screenplay for The Imitation Game spoke eloquently when accepting his Academy Award earlier this year.

When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here and, so, I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along. Thank you so much.
— Graham Moore, Oscar Acceptance Speech 2015

            Graham Moore was alternatively criticized and applauded for his speech. In my opinion, it can take an incredible amount of bravery to demonstrate that kind of vulnerability in front of thousands of people. I’m grateful that Graham Moore shared his story. Embracing each other’s differences is the step to a more diverse society, to a more successful society.

Imagine the future children with Learning Differences, children who are highly gifted, children who are twice exceptional, will have when we continue to encourage them, to celebrate their differences, to offer them our understanding, our compassion, and our guidance. I feel very lucky to live in a time where such progress has been made for students who learn differently, but I also see on a daily basis how we fail to serve these students in so many ways. What can we do to do better for them? That’s what I’m meditating on today. What would you suggest?