See Johnny Learn: Mel Levine '61

By Chad Galts / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
Do you pay as close attention to your kids' successes and strengths as you do to their shortcomings? Some kids, admits pediatrician and best-selling writer Mel Levine '61, make it easy. Others - the ones who daydream, speak out of turn, bounce frantically when they should be sitting still, and do miserably in school - can be a little harder to appreciate. But, says the author of the best-selling A Mind at a Time, the effort is worth it.

"I have been treating kids with learning problems for thirty years," Levine says, "and every time I meet a new one, I learn something different." He cites the example of Fritz, an eight-year-old patient with motor and memory problems, who calmly repaired a broken otoscope during a visit to Levine's office. This one-child-at-a-time approach typifies the soft-spoken doctor's approach to his work - and makes A Mind at a Time a compelling read. The book is, among other things, packed with stories of kids who suffer from a wide variety of disorders. Levine explains these disorders in clear language while placing them in the context of an individual child's suffering. As a result A Mind at a Time has been a New York Times best-seller for six months.

Borrowing an analogy from taxonomy, Levine, who is director of the Clinical Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, says that clinicians can be divided into lumpers and splitters. Lumpers try to find ways to connect things, or people, and assign them membership in certain groups, while splitters break groups up into individuals. Levine confesses to being an incorrigible splitter. "I don't like to take people and characteristics of people as indications that they are members of some group," he says. "There is something dehumanizing and pessimistic about that." Traditional learning-disorder diagnoses, he adds, are cases of "labeling the phenomenon rather than the person."

A Mind at a Time was written primarily for parents. Levine hopes it will help them know what to look for in a second-grader, for example, and how to cope with unexpected challenges. The trick, he says, is to be watchful for a child's natural interests. "Every kid should have a management plan for his strengths," he says. "If your child is interested in birds, buy him some binoculars; if he's interested in rocks and minerals, buy him a rock hammer."

Levine credits Brown, where he was able to leaven his premed requirements with literature courses, as an early influence on his ideas. His next two years, spent studying existentialism at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, offered further refinement. "I learned that you shouldn't spend a lot of time looking around for the causes of things," he says. "You just fix them as they are. I don't ask why; my job is to alleviate suffering."

Levine's next book, The Myth of Laziness, is due out in January. It is, he says, about people with "output failure - those who are bright and wonderful but just can't produce anything." Sounds like another best-seller.

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November / December 2002