The Genius Next Door

Teach Your Children Well
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

The Genius Next Door

Genius of America
Adolphe Yvon

There was a review in the New York Times, “How to Be Brilliant,” of a book on genius and how to become one, The Genius in All of Us. The premise of the book is that everyone has the potential to be a genius of one kind or another, mathematical, musical, and so on, it just requires a bit of hard work and tenacity. According to the book becoming the best at anything is a matter of dedication, self-confidence, and a willingness to fail often in pursuit of a single thing. The research suggests that anyone who achieved greatness at anything did so by working relentlessly at developing the necessary skills. This probably comes as no huge surprise but the question that seems to go unanswered is how many worked relentlessly and did not achieve. We know who Mozart and Einstein are because they achieved the thing that they pursued, but are there others who were as relentless in their pursuit that we never heard of because they never arrived at their goal.

Of course it is probably a good thing to pursue our interests wholeheartedly and to work as best we can at developing our abilities and interests, but is that in itself enough. Is there something extra that some have that others do not that is as important to success as hard work. I suppose if our aspirations are in proportion to our abilities than the hard work by itself should be enough, but is this how dreams and aspirations operate? In an American Idol culture many are infected with a dream but the American Idol culture suggests that at best one or two will actually succeed. The American culture is built on competition and where it is true that competition can bring out a person’s best, it is also true that competition usually allows for only one winner. There was a sign at the Olympic games held in Atlanta, for example, that said, “Second is the first loser.”

The song, Teach Your Children suggests that much comes down to being true to ourselves and teaching our children to be true to themselves. Having a code to live by is important, so is knowing ourselves and our abilities. It is also important to remember that not all genius is appreciated in its lifetime. Jonathan Swift said that “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Swift is suggesting not only that most are not geniuses but also that most are resentful of the true genius when she or he appears. According to Peter Schaeffer’s play Amadeus Mozart was poisoned by another composer who was envious of Mozart’s ability. Though the history of this is a bit dubious, it does underscore that for the genius even if fame is not elusive there will always be rivals to contend with.


The play Copenhagen is about a meeting between two physicists that were geniuses of their day, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The meeting took place early in World War II and is of interest because Heisenberg was a German physicist working for the Nazis and Bohr was a Danish physicist of Jewish decent (his mother was Jewish). The two men were friends before the war but their relationship was to say the least a bit strained by the war and the ideology of the German government that fought it. I think this raises another important point about genius and that is it does not protect one from embracing idiotic ideas. Heisenberg may not have believed the Nazi ideology but he still worked for it. Germany at the time of the Nazis was one of the most intelligent countries in the world if intelligence is measured by the number of highly educated men and women, men and women of genius perhaps. Wisdom and genius are often not the same thing and perhaps if the former were revered more than the latter the world would be a better more benevolent place.

Wotan visits Mime and offers him his help
Arthur Rackham

Another name for a genius is a “wiz,” an abbreviated form of wizard, someone for whom everything seems to come easily, someone who can work magic with ideas, a musical instrument, or a ball of one kind or another. I like the wizards in stories. The good ones not only can do marvelous things, but they are often wise to boot. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word wizard etymologically means “wise one” (actually the word is formed from “wise” + “ard”) and it was once a word for a philosopher or sage, though even in its archaic sense it had a derogatory connotation, as it often does to this day. Still, it suggests that the true genius is not only intelligent, but also wise. If we keep Arthur C. Clarke’s third law in mind, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” than the scientists that create the cutting edge technologies we use or are waiting for are themselves wizards in the mold of Merlin or Gandalf.

For most the science that runs our technology and many of our tools is like magic, we understand that they work and know how to make the machines do what we want them to do, but few of us understand how they work, how they do what they do. Science is for many a kind of magic that we believe in because the scientists that work the magic tell us there is nothing mysterious in it, that it all works according to certain rules. But then, those in the wizarding schools of J. K. Rowling or Ursula Le Guin are learning the rules by which the magic of those books work. There is, they would have us believe, a kind of “science” to the art of witchcraft and wizardry.

Map of “Mercury” as described in The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
David Bedell

The painting that started this off and the map above suggest the true meaning of genius and that is the spirit of a place or a person, or even a thing, one might say the spirit of a noun. The painting captures the spirit of America, some of what makes it a unique place and the painting is full of truly American images, like frontiersmen and frontiers that in the painting are a bit mysterious. But in this sense we are all geniuses in that we all have a spirit that in some way defines us. That spirit might also be summed up as our character, the spirit by which others know us. It is this kind of genius we all need to cultivate and to infuse with maturity and a bit of wisdom. Is our genius one of fidelity and courage, or of duplicity or timidity?

In most of the stories in which the great wizards appear, there is this concern for being true to something worthwhile and noble. Merlin wanted to make Britain a more just society, Gandalf wants to preserve what is best in Middle Earth, and Dumbledore wants to see magic used to promote wise and virtuous ends. The story of Ged, or Sparrowhawk, the wizard of The Wizard of Earthsea, is about finding redemption and the wisdom to use his skill with magic to better his world and himself.

Book cover art for the book A Wizard of Earthsea
Ruth Robbins

Perhaps this is the true magic we all need to work, to transform ourselves from selfish people motivated by self-interest into more generous people who work at improving the worlds in which we live and wander. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness of one kind or another. Many, though by no means all, that have been given the label of genius have not been good people. Their genius in that other sense was largely underdeveloped, or at least the more virtuous aspects of it were. Personally, I think that most of us are at some level a bit insecure and that some mask that insecurity with physical strength or some other kind of personal superiority. But even if this is not true, we are somehow diminished as people if we are incapable of living for anyone other than ourselves and in this regard it would benefit us all to develop the better angels of our genius.

A Penny for Your Two-Cents Worth

From Sitting Here in Limbo

Jimmy Cliff

A Penny for Your Two-Cents Worth

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein
Paul Ehrenfest

Limbo is an uncomfortable place to be, it is the ultimate dead end, it is not as painful a place to live as purgatory but there is also no hope for advancement. It’s not hell, but that is about all that can be said for it. The song presents a less “theological” view of limbo. It is a place between, between what we were and what we might become; we can see where we were and understand why we cannot go back but for one reason or another we cannot progress to the next stage, perhaps are not even certain what the next stage is. In this sense we are often in a kind of limbo. A relationship has ended; another may or may not take its place. A belief is recognized as inadequate or untrue but there is no alternative belief to pick up where the other left off. This is an uncomfortable place to be, but often we learn important things about our world and ourselves while we are there.

As an educator I live in a kind of limbo, that space between the belief that all students can learn at the highest levels, that intelligence is solely a matter of training and time on task and the belief that intelligence is an innate gift that some possess and others do not, that even with the best training from the best teachers and the most diligent efforts of all parties to the process some students will never master calculus, become concert pianists, or write great poetry. In the photograph above, for example, were these two men, Bohr and Einstein, no more gifted than all the other physicists of their generation or were they born with gifts of intellect that few others of their generation possessed? Did they work harder or more effectively at developing that slice of intellect that all were given in equal measure or did they get a bigger slice?

As a teacher there is no resolution to this conflict. If I treat students as though the abilities they possess were doled out unequally I will challenge some students more than others, give up on some students because their GPA suggests to challenge them too much would only produce failure and frustration. If, on the other hand, I accept that all receive an equal portion and as a result challenge all equally I have to be careful not to blame the students, to think them lazy, when they do not achieve. If all are gifted equally than it is the students’ fault that their innate gifts are so woefully underdeveloped when they fail at the challenges set before them. If the fault lies not with the student but with their preparation then the blame for a student’s failure must rest with the teacher and not with the student. This might be possible, but in my experience I have seen many students fail even though their teachers made every effort and taught them very well.

Philosophically I believe that some students are more gifted than others, but guide my practice by a belief that all are equally gifted. I challenge all my classes, from College Prep to Honors and A. P. with the same course content, they read the same books, they write the same kinds of essays, they are given the same projects; I do not expect all my classes to master the materials at the same level, but I expect a degree of mastery from all my students. I work from an assumption that all my students would be A. P. students if they had received proper preparation. But philosophically, I do not believe this, so I provide back doors so that those who are not equal to the challenge (or do not believe themselves equal to the challenge) have an avenue of escape, ways to pass the course without mastering everything, though they do have to master some things. I believe that it is important to set high expectations because in my experience most students will not believe in themselves unless someone else (usually an adult) believes in them first. And even when they are not successful at living up to our expectations, each student must be helped especially when they are struggling with the challenges set before them.

Mozart Sheet Music
Robert Bellamy

The image above is of a page of sheet music written in Mozart’s own hand. It is from his Requiem. In the movie Amadeus a character looking at a page of Mozart’s music remarks that there are no erasures. He is told by Mozart’s wife that Mozart does not rewrite it comes from his mind to the paper in its final form. I do not know if this is historically accurate but it makes for a memorable moment in the film. According to David Brooks, in an article showed to me by friends this week, this was not because Mozart was born a musical genius but because he worked hard at developing that equal share of raw intelligence he was given. Perhaps this is true, but if so, few composers before or since have worked as hard.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Johann Nepomuk della Croce

I tend to think that Mozart was gifted and that there was more involved than hard work and fortuitous circumstances, but, of course, I cannot prove this. A recipe is given in the article for producing a genius. Find the right person born into the right combination of circumstances and then make sure that person gets the requisite training. Stanislavsky made a similar kind of argument for the development of a corps of actors. He trained young actors and achieved some interesting results but few went on to become household names. His methods were brought to the United States and resulted in the Actors Studio that produced actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. But how many actors that went through the program have never been heard of after graduation. Is this because they did not work as hard as Brando or did Brando have an additional something the others did not?

Giant Posters of Dodger Greats (posted on the exterior of Dodger Stadium)
Kenneth Han

These were the two geniuses I emulated when I was young. They are hard to make out but the gentleman on the left is Don Drysdale and the gentleman on the right is Sandy Koufax. Being left handed I was especially attracted to Sandy Koufax and had dreams that I might one day pitch like him. I practiced a side arm pitch with a high kick. I was never much good but the wind up and the pitch were a lot of fun. But they accomplished things as athletes that have not been equaled. What they were able to do with a baseball was sheer genius and I know lots of boys from my generation that worked awful hard at being like them, but none of them succeeded. I had a student in Los Angeles who had, I was told by his coach, an incredible fastball. He did not have to work that hard to develop it, he just seemed to be able to throw a baseball incredibly fast. He was kicked off the team because he would not accept coaching. He was asked to come to a Dodger try out camp because of the speed at which he could throw a ball, but he did not want to do push ups and left. As far as I know he never played sports after high school. The skill he had, though, seemed to come naturally.

New Math
Tom Lehrer

The math I studied in high school is the math Tom Lehrer sings about (I am not sure who is doing the singing in the video but the song is by Tom Lehrer and was popular when I was young). New Math was a movement that believed that all students could learn math at the highest levels if it was taught a certain way. I do not know if this is in fact what new math was, but that was how it was presented to me. In my ninth grade math class we had these two large yellow books published, if my memory serves me well, by Yale University. They were paperback books with yellow textured covers. We got about half way through the program during my ninth grade year. Those that did well went on to geometry, those that did not had to go back and redo the ninth grade math in the hopes they would pick up what they had missed the first time. I was in the group that did ninth grade math over again.

The most important thing that I got out of new math was an introduction to different number systems. I will sometimes tell my students that in English there is rarely a single answer to a literary question. It is not like mathematics where two plus two is always four unless of course you are in base three in which case it is eleven. I think this illustrates that true intelligence is at least in part, measured by an ability to see things from more than one point of view. I recently saw a tee shirt that said there are 10 kinds of people in the world those that understand binary and those that do not. Because I studied new math in high school I understood the joke.