Cultural commentator Dr Andrew Webber has told a conference that children who watch a lot of TV and become experts on things like Lost or James Bond should be seen not as idle, but possibly as superbright. "There is," he says, "a cultural fallacy that says this knowledge isn't important... but why is it any less important than knowing all about Shakespeare?I Why is knowledge of the novels of Thomas Hardy any better than a knowledge of Lost?"
Damn. Why did he have to spoil a good point with that tiresome old chestnut? The answer, if it's even worth giving again, is that unlike TV blockbusters Shakespeare and Hardy are not sugar-coated and easily swallowable contemporaries, and that getting a grip on them is useful to cultural understanding and mental discipline, as any fule kno. But without that burst of rhetoric, Dr Webber was making a very valuable point, and one that goes a long way beyond his own narrow discipline.
What he is saying is that when a child develops a passionate and detailed interest in something - comic books, rock bands, computer games - he or she should not be dismissed as a "geek" rather than a bright spark. On that point Dr Webber is right. It is a truth universally acknowledged that boys who can't remember the periodic table, or the alphabet, will reel off entire football teams, that those who doze through language classes will pronounce the name of Mourinho or Fittipaldi with a faultless lilt, and that girls who need to be chained to the desk before they will read a set book can discuss with vast emotional intelligence and subtle morality the ethics of murderous Tracy Barlow's attempted sexual blackmail in Coronation Street.
PE slackers may have remarkable street-dance moves once you're not watching, or do extraordinary skateboard stunts which they refuse to harness to the sports hall's tedious goings-on. The boy who can't be bothered with your slow-moving ICT lessons is secretly hacking into the Ministry of Defence computer for fun, while that yawning kid in your biology class may turn out to be a fisherman with an encyclopaedic knowlege of worms, or a pit-mechanic capable of servicing a racing bike in minutes.
And these are not geeks. It's just that their interests do not match those we have laid down for them - or, unfortunately, those they will need to convince employers. The trick - as every good teacher has known since Noah taught Shem, Ham and Japhet to muck out the giraffes - is spotting the passion, approving and appreciating it, and gently diverting some of it to irrigate more conventional avenues of learning. Good teachers do this every day. It's one of the core skills of pedagogy.
If Dr Webber had only stuck to that point, instead of sneering at Shakespeare and Hardy, I'd give the man a coconut.