Helping People Learn

THERE'S a fine line between helping too little and helping too much. That came to mind when reading of Boston University's decision to trim back its programs for aiding students with learning disabilities.

The university's provost and president-designate, Jon Westling, voiced concerns that some students were being given advantages - such as longer times to complete exams - without adequate proof that they had a genuine disability.

This is difficult ground. Some conditions that interfere with normal learning, notably reading disorders, are widely recognized. Others, such as attention ''deficits,'' are harder to distinguish from youthful mind-wandering or resistance to discipline.

The expanding learning-disabilities field covers a lot of territory. Some schools, including a few colleges, have excellent programs to simply prepare for normal life people who have trouble with basic communication or computational skills. A few others cater specifically to people with greater academic promise - and many of the so-called learning disabled show brilliance in certain pursuits.

Often, however, the brilliance only emerges when someone - such as a caring teacher - takes the time, and musters the patience, to help an individual get past what seemed unscalable hurdles.

That restates the initial problem: too little help versus too much. BU may be correct to give its program - sometimes praised as one of the most advanced of its kind - a hard look. In education, labels are often too quickly relied on and bureaucratic turf too easily fenced off. Public skepticism over the extent and cost of programs to help ''special'' students is easily provoked, both at higher and lower levels of education. Schools do well to assure donors, parents, and taxpayers that what's being done is in fact necessary.

But once that determination is made, the work of helping all students realize their potential and become useful members of society should move ahead. The idea, after all, is to respect individuality and foster independence, fundamental American tasks.

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