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Rethinking Genius

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.


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