Genius is in the doing

We’re paying too much attention to child geniuses, argues Jordan Ellenberg, a former prodigy who’s now a math professor and writer.

I started reading at 2. I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was 5. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples. In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry.

. . . Many advocates for gifted education are similarly delighted by kids like me, seeing us as a kind of natural resource, one we risk squandering as surely as we do fossil fuels. . . . “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles,” the Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski said in a recent interview. “Schizophrenia, cancer—they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy. But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids.”

Most child prodigies grow up to be highly successful adults, Ellenberg writes. But “most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies.” Don’t expect the geniuses to solve all the riddles, he writes. The other 99 percent will have to do most of the work.

The cult of genius tends to undervalue hard work and the productive persistence that psychologists nowadays like to call “grit” — not to mention creativity, perspective and taste, without which all those other virtues may be wasted on pointless projects.

His math students believe that it’s not worth doing math unless you’re the best, one of the “special few,” complains Ellenberg, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. If you’re not a genius, you’re chopped liver. “Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person,” he concludes.

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  1. I read the author’s piece which, like so many of its type, assumes a consistency to gifted education that does not actually exist in practice. I do agree with the take-away, that the sort of approach to gifted education he describes is flawed — as is “doing nothing, because gifted kids can take care of themselves.” Instead of taking the approach of “You’re really smart, so you don’t have to try hard and you’ll do well,” education of gifted children should be predicated upon presenting them with challenge. Rather than walking them through the regular curriculum at a pace that they don’t find challenging, it is possible to accelerate or expand upon the material to make it challenging. Why isn’t that done as a general practice? In my estimation, because it’s a lot of work for school administrators and teachers, and can cost additional money.