Gen. George S: Patton, Jr. at West Point, 1904-1909
Note to the reader: Although this month’s article is about Patton at West Point and his struggles to graduate and obtain a commission as an Army officer, it also focuses on dyslexia and the dramatic effect it had on his early life. I’d venture the opinion that everyone who reads this article knows at least one person who is dyslexic.
Dyslexia is a disorder that is believed to presently afflict as many as forty million Americans and 20-percent of the world’s population. It has afflicted many prominent people, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Albert Einstein, Thomas A. Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Nelson Rockefeller, and numerous others. First diagnosed in 1896 by two British physicians, dyslexia was virtually unknown in the United States until the 1920s, and although great strides have been made since then in what has become an enormous and important field of study, dyslexia still remains a complex and frustrating problem for both its sufferers and those who treat it.
Dyslexia has long perplexed the medical and scientific communities. There is no specific definition of exactly what it is or what causes it. The usual definition of dyslexia as merely a learning disorder characterized by reading, writing and spelling difficulty is highly misleading, and while certainly a factor, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Dyslexia is far more complex and has many wide-ranging effects that may include some or all of the following: an inability to concentrate; sharp mood swings; obsessiveness; hyperactivity; impulsiveness; compulsiveness; a tendency to boast, and nearly always, feelings of inferiority and stupidity. Renowned dyslexia expert, Dr. Harold S. Levinson, has written that: “most dyslexics feel dumb, despite being smart . . . Most often a dyslexic’s compulsion to succeed is motivated by an overwhelming desire to prove to himself and others that he is not really as stupid as he feels. Accordingly, the dyslexic disorder frequently serves as a potent stimulus to achieve, reflecting a desperate attempt to reverse the humiliating feelings of inferiority that are invariably present.” Moreover, as Levinson notes, “Unfortunately, tangible success and peer recognition, even adulation, do not neutralize or eliminate a dyslexic’s feeling dumb. All too often, accomplished, even famous, dyslexics merely feel that they have succeeded in fooling everyone around them, and that others are not truly aware of how inept they really are. They attribute their successes to chance, a lucky break, a fluke of nature.” (1)
Dyslexics experience a need to justify to themselves and those who have no grasp of the nature of their problem that they are as good or better than ordinary people. In many, it often becomes a near-obsessive driving force in which the dyslexic seems to be saying to himself, but secretly hoping that others will notice that: “I’m smart too! I’m just as good as you!” This feeling of inferiority, the need for the dyslexic to prove not only to himself, but to others that he or she is a person of intelligence and ability is the key, not only to understanding the source of Patton’s drive to succeed, but of the authoritarian, macho, warrior personality he deliberately created for himself.
As Patton grew to manhood it was dyslexia that fueled the fires of his ancestor-hero worship of the Civil War Pattons, lit by his father and his Aunt Nannie. He spent virtually his entire life proving himself worthy of his Patton heritage. It would obsess him so powerfully, so single-mindedly, so outlandishly, that few could comprehend how anyone could have his life dominated by such demons.
As an adult, Patton would lampoon his inability to spell, once advising his nephew, “any idiot can spell a word the same way time after time. But it calls for imagination and is much more distinguished to be able to spell it several different ways as I do.”
Virtually every symptom of dyslexia described above applied to Patton. Throughout his life he would deprecatingly refer to himself as having been slow, lazy and stupid as a student. During his plebe year at West Point he wrote to his future wife, Beatrice Banning Ayer, that, “I am either very lazy or very stupid or both for it is beastly hard for me to learn and as a natural result I hate to study.” (2)
This is the story of how he overcame his affliction at West Point and became a US Army officer.
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From the time of his youth in Southern California when he decided he would one day become a great general, it seemed unlikely that George S. Patton would ever achieve his dream. Patton suffered from lifelong, undiagnosed dyslexia, a complex malady that is far more than a learning disorder. Patton was eleven before he even learned to read and write and during his six years of formal schooling he did poorly in most academic subjects. His intense desire to attend West Point and attain an Army commission seemed little more than a far-fetched, childish dream.
Instead, his father sent him to the Virginia Military Institute in 1903 where he was a model cadet. By dint of intense study and dedication Patton succeeded in obtaining a Senatorial appointment to West Point in 1904, after beating out his competition to finish first. That Patton survived West Point to receive a commission in the cavalry was one of the crowning achievements of his life, and the subject of this article.
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