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Danielle Gomez

Rethinking Genius

November 17, 2009 at 8:51 PM

 Last week I posted a blog questioning why it is that we classify Bach as a musical genius.  The subsequent discussion began to touch on what the word "genius" really means.  I would like to expand on that discussion.

I am the type of person who learns best through debate.  I like to present theories to have holes poked in them.  With this in mind, I would like to present the following theory:  in American culture, the concept of "genius" has been blown out of proportion to the point where it is now used as an excuse for failure rather than a description for merit.

My arguments for this theory are as follows:

The purest definition of genius is synonymous with idiot-savant.  An idiot-savant is someone who excels in one particular area to the point that they are dysfunctional in all other areas.  For example, an idiot-savant in math can do incredibly complex math calculations in their head.  But, in these cases, math calculations are usually all they can do.  They will have no social skills to speak of, may not be able to write very well, etc.

Obviously, these extreme cases are rare.  The term "genius" has been loosened to incorporate anyone who is particularly skillful in a field but not necessarily an idiot-savant.  They are functional members of society.  Einstein is a good example of this.  His work in math and physics is nothing short of brilliant.  However, he was still at least capable of pursuing other interests such as playing the violin.

Now enter the word "smart."  This is a term usually dubbed in school to certain students.  You have the "regular" kids and the "smart" kids.  In order to be smart, a student must test well enough to receive high grades.  The skills of a smart student lie not in the actual material itself, but rather in his ability to take a test on it.

Americans are obsessed with tests.  We test for IQ, we test for schools, we test for jobs, we test for driving.... we love the fact that we are trying to quantify skill and put a number on it.  Because of this, we see a rising number of parents putting their kids in schools for the gifted (aka genius) simply because their child scored well on the entrance exam.

Now this is not to say that smart kids do not retain any of the material they are tested on and that children in gifted schools are unintelligent.  My point is that we are starting to lose the concept that is the single-mindedness of genius.  Mozart, for example, would spend hours obsessively folding napkins while he composed.  Going back to Einstein, the man may have had other interests, but he was completely oblivious as to his appearance or level of hygiene.  A genius is not a well-rounded individual.

The fact that the line between smart and genius is fuzzy for Americans has led to a shift in educational attitudes.  More and more you see students (of any age) have the attitude that they failed at something simply because they were not smart enough (aka a genius).  I see this a lot with beginning adult violin students.  They play a wrong note and will immediately berate themselves for being stupid or not talented enough to play.  

What they are lacking is not talent, it's the ability to separate the mistake from the process.  I will ask them to look at their violin and tell me why they played a wrong note.  Sometimes they will stare at the violin for a full 30 seconds before finally saying "oh! I was on the wrong string!"  The ability to make a mistake, figure out why you made the mistake, and then correct it is an acquired brain process.  It takes patience and practice to be able to break down a process like that and has absolutely nothing to do with how intelligent you are.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 9:45 PM

 I like the theory of multiple intelligences, of there being many ways to be intelligent.  The "high scoring on tests" way is just one of them.  

And I agree with you that the whole "genius" thing, as conceived of and used in the US today, is not very helpful.  The term gets used ironically, like "geek."  The Mac store has a "genius bar," for example, where you can get help with your computer.  

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 17, 2009 at 10:12 PM

 I agree it is getting thrown around flippantly.  While it may seem nitpicky to harp on the way genius is being used, I honestly believe that it is undermining children in schools.  They start to expect themselves to be good at everything which is impossible for anyone.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 18, 2009 at 2:17 AM

Danielle I agree so much.

Ah, I dealeated my rambling against the lazy "cools" that have super high grades in my program without doing anything.  It's insulting for those who work very hard and sure they are so many of these foolish lucky people but is it really necessary to say in detail erxamples of their immature acting???  Maybe I was just very tired yesterday after a tough exam...


But fourtunately, not every smart and admirable person is like this. They are some who are just so kind, it's unbelievable!


From Danielle Gomez
Posted on November 19, 2009 at 1:21 AM


You see people in every college in every major that seem to be able to get by with flying colors and no apparent effort.  In the end, everything evens out.  The lack of work will eventually catch up to them in one way or another.  

My point with the term "smart" was not necessarily that some people are able to coast through school on testing alone (which some do, unfortunately).  It was that kids who are smart or "good students" are expected to test well and succeed in every subject.  If they do well in all subjects except one, the automatic question is "what's the matter?  you should be getting higher grades, you're a good student."  It's never "do you need help with math?  you don't seem to be getting it."

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 19, 2009 at 1:13 PM

Oh I see!   Well I don't know if you call going in med, pharmacy or dent  school "evens out" : )  I've seen such things with my sister's co-students and have witness some myself (but in college) If these "cools" succed well in college, they are accepted in anything at university not to mention that some places have put 50% gender policies so they take 50% girls 50% girls no matter what.  I've known some serious girls that had as much high grades as boys that would have been taken before the 50% policy but that were refused just because they put guys with lower grades to complete the 50%.  Not to say that all serious students are girls lol  It is just an example of some discrimination of some serious students that can sometimes lead to things like I told in the post I deleated. Although, girls are less lazy than boys in college : )    As for university???

But surely you mean "evens out" because they'll be pretentious or immature workers in whatever they do in life : )   With this, I agree!!!

 Sure these "cools" are different than what you talked about those who have pressure to succed in all subjects etc. Cools don't have pressure. They don't really care, they are just lucky.

Interesting discussion!


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