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Letters About Literature National Winners 2011

National Honor Winner, Level 2: Solomon Polansky, MN

Dear Mr. Keyes,

Upon reading your book Flowers for Algernon, I felt a change. Perhaps not a physical change, such as a loss of a limb, but a change in my mind and heart. This story provided me with a new understanding of our society and a completely different point of view I had never thought about previously. A new window was opened in my mind, and now light could flood in.

This change began with the main character in your story. Charlie, a man with an obvious mental disability, narrates his experience in journal form. Charlie was able to teach me about myself and society as a whole. As I journeyed with Charlie through its pages, I began to realize new truths about knowledge and intelligence.

We often judge these two powerful characteristics, knowledge and intelligence, by someone’s IQ or test scores. However, this measuring system is flawed. Before Charlie’s operation, he is hardworking, modest, and friendly to all, even to those who ridicule and mock him because of his disability. Soon after the procedure, as his intelligence rapidly increases, he becomes irritable, impatient, and condescending. Is this what we prize as a culture? High test scores at the expense of civility? Now more than ever, high achievement is prized in our society; getting second place is unacceptable and is viewed as failure. Our American culture turns everything into a competition. From athletics (such as professional leagues) to academics (such as college admission), our society has made everything into a contest.

The scientists who engineered this change in Charlie also share this obsession with first place. Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur are constantly bickering with their associates about whose opinion is correct, and who contributes more to the project. Then, when presenting the results of the project, they work hard to ensure that their experiment would be first at the national science convention. To believe that these are the brilliant minds which we so highly prize is ridiculous given that their drive was not necessarily to serve the greater good, but to elevate their own image in the scientific world.

All of this experimentation went on without Charlie being consulted very much at all, and without his understanding of the risks. His sister, Norma, who has very little contact with him, is the one to give consent for the procedure. This leads to the question whether this experiment should have been done at all. Charlie is given a highly dangerous procedure without truly understanding the complications that are so common with experimental treatments. The more I think about this, the starker the injustice appears. If the scientists who conducted this experiment had spent more time testing their treatment on nonhuman subjects such as Algernon, would this have averted the agonizing end for Charlie as he watches his mind slip back into oblivion? Is it even ethical for the scientists to use a human being as a lab rat to test an experimental treatment when every previous treatment has failed? The scientists, no doubt, understood the risks, and yet they proceeded.

I often consider becoming a scientist when I grow older, yet this book casts a shadow upon a formerly brightly glorified profession. Not all scientists are saints in white coats, pulling miracles out of test tubes. This book shows a potential darker side of scientific motivation that was fascinating to see exposed. I am not opposed to scientific progress, yet I still wonder (especially in extreme cases as this) if human test subjects should be used, and what ethical questions this raises.

Your book was appreciated,

Solomon Polansky