Genius is Not Educated

The WSJ published an interesting article entitled Educating the Next Steve Jobs:

Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills.

In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation. Amanda Alonzo, a 32-year-old teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists in the last two years—more than any other public school science teacher in the U.S.—told me, “One of the most important things I have to teach my students is that when you fail, you are learning.” Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it.

It’s nice to read about the value of failure, a topic that I have written a few words about.

But really, I don’t think that revolutionary thinking can be educated, and I think it’s foolish (and possibly even counter-productive) to try. School by definition inculcates systematic thinking, methodology and dogma. It inculcates competence. That’s generally a good thing; surgeons, medical researchers, lawyers, engineers, musicians and all manner of professionals need to be competent to function. Innovation is not necessarily inherent in any of those fields. But genius and revolutionary thinking is not really about competence and confidence.

Malcolm Gladwell is famous for formulating the idea that with 10,000 hours of practice, it is possible to master a skill.

The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

So is 10,000 hours of practice all that stands between incompetence and world-changing greatness?

Gladwell grandly theorises that many famous history-changers (“outliers”) like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Beatles got to where they did with 10,000 hours of practice. But that ignores a lot of silent evidence; for every Bill Gates programming over a mainframe for 10,000 hours, there is a housewife that we have never heard of who has done 10,000 hours of parenting, and (probably much more than) 10,000 hours of housework. There is a surgeon who has done 40,000 hours of operations. There is a truck driver who has driven for 100,000 hours.

Gladwell is keen to point out, of course, that people’s skills also flourish through the networks they cultivate, and the people they meet, and that (of course) it’s just a little more complicated than 10,000 hours of practice.

My view is that all 10,000 hours of practice (something which of course can be delivered within a traditional educational framework) does is lay down a bedrock of competency.

My theory is that revolutionary thinking is not simply a matter of persistence, but is instead attitudinal, and mostly comes out of people who are forced or who force themselves to take a radically different perspective to the rest of the world. They are — almost by definition — autodidacts, simply because their style of thinking has not yet been pioneered. They have to teach themselves, and iron out the kinks. Being an autodidact of course is not necessarily a matter of choice; very often it is a matter of necessity — people who don’t have access to traditional education, or who are forced to exist outside the system. This can be due to poverty, strong personalities, or a preference for self-teaching (very often expressed as a preference for doing over thinking).

The established system is often very useful for such people, because it gives them a framework from which to hang contrarianism. It gives them something to rebel against and kick out against.

On the other hand there are many examples of professional academics and those within the establishment who pioneer and innovate (although of course it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of academic papers today are masturbatory regurgitation). But such activity forces even the most staid into autodidactic learning; it forces them to make mistakes, and challenge themselves and learn their own lessons.

I suppose it is possible to try to inculcate a love of tinkering, of trial-and-error, and an understanding of the value of failure. It is certainly possible to encourage an interest in self-teaching. But it remains to be seen how many of us will really bite. It strikes me as if most of us do not really want to be innovators; I see far more who want job security, loving families, and plenty of leisure time.

I tend to believe that today’s education system is fit for its own purposes; it churns out competent thinkers, competent doers, people who can analyse to a framework and work to a deadline. True autodidacts and philosophers (in the most literal sense of the word — lovers of thinking, learning and wisdom) will find their own way.

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26 thoughts on “Genius is Not Educated

  1. Amen. I would say genius is perseverance in a field and the application of original thinking – thinking that goes against the mainstream – it takes persistence, bravery, and intelligence. Most are content just fitting in because its safe. But fitting in does not equal originality.

  2. Obviously there is no such thing as a perfect education system. It needs constant improvement and change to matching up with the needs of time and human development.

    However, for the title of this blog: “Genius is Not Educated” I beg to differ.

    Genius is not “Not educated.” Genius is born to be capable to be educated in no time or in the fastest speed. They know how to educate themselves. A new born must learn from somewhere.

    Was Mozart and Beethoven educated?

    I believe the answer is “Yes and Yes”. They both were tutored and learned and practiced. The difference between a genius and a mediocre is that a genius only need 10 hours while the mediocre need 1000 and more hours practicing to perform the same piece. And despite the difference in time of practicing, the genius is perform perfectly while a mediocre can’t.

    Nonetheless the majority people are mediocre ( In another word the “sheeple.”) They need the “normal” school system to help them be become the functioning part of the society. So the education system today does serve to that purpose. But it does need constant improvement and update to catch up the change in human life style.

  3. p.s.

    Main problem with the education system is that it becomes more and more greedy and profit driven. They are misleading the masses – the sheeple by telling them that if they pay the staggering high fee to the school they (the sheeple) too can become the genius. Or rather the education system will turn the sheeple into the genius.

    • I believe the answer is “Yes and Yes”. They both were tutored and learned and practiced.

      Most of Mozart’s early works were not very original. In my view he only got good once he started really experimenting. I think you’re right that people like Mozart and Beethoven reach competency much faster than the average person, (which gives them much more opportunity to experiment later on), but there are many “child prodigies” who are just as proficient as Mozart as a child, but who do not go on to fulfil that promise as adults.

      Main problem with the education system is that it becomes more and more greedy and profit driven.

      Yeah, excellent point.

  4. i noticed recently that genius was put down as being a randomness of nature, and as such did not require fostering as it happens anyway, as though if Einstein didn’t come along, someone else would. It sounded suspiciously like a socialist theory to justify collectivism over individuality.

    As for future education, i’m trying to teach my children to not only become potentially good employees, but also to be able to be self-sufficient by being able to go into business as an alternative. I suspect that future employment will all be temporary and unsustainable, and there are plenty of reasons our children need to be self-sufficient in future.

    • I do think genius and revolutionary thinking is somewhat random. As I say in the piece, I think that a lot of the time, people who are forced to look at things from a new perspective don’t do so out of choice; they do so because they have no other alternatives.

      Of course, this idea is often misused to denigrate individualism and promote collectivism…

        • Individualism for me has nothing to do with selfishness. The opposite, in fact. Individualism is to do with not trying to impose your values on other people; treating them as individuals.

      • I guess I should have been more clear, it sounded like you arguing a straw man: who promotes collectivism, in America at least?

        • Depends how you define collectivism.

          I’d define it very broadly as politics that tramples individual rights to promote collective interests. We all think collectively at times, but some pigs are more equal than others.

          I’d claim the entire modern national security apparatus (NDAA, Patriot Act, TSA, drone strikes) is tailored to protecting “collective” interests by trampling individual rights.

          So by that logic Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, most of the NYT columnists, the Atlantic, Slate, Salon columnists, etc.

  5. The state education system is not fit for purpose, it is desigened to create wage slaves, not independent thinkers or strong personalities. All self esteem in the education system is dependent on external people…the teacher or someone else says you are good enough…so you are always searching and looking for others to give you self worth…this makes you easily controlled.

    Steve Jobs tried LSD and believed this gave him some insights. Perhaps education can be designed to naturally bring out this creative aspect of the human being instead of killing it with massive amount of information input as is done currently. The ruling elites fear innovation and human creative potential because anyone can invent something that will undermine their power and wealth…such potential needs to be greatly diminished and this is what the state education system does.

    Imagine if someone came up with a energy source that could run industry, cars and homes, which was easily gathered from the natural environment…this would completely destroy the current elites all individuals would be free to do anything they wanted without oil companies or governments controlling them…very dangerous (for the ruling elites).

    • The state education system was mostly a failure and a waste of time for me, mo.

      The thing is, I think that that was a valuable experience that resulted in me having an even stronger personality, and thinking even more independently.

  6. LSD is the baby brother to DMT (Acacia bark seeds – Australian Aboriginals, or Ayahuasca – Amazonian Indians) have far greater insights, but we fail to tap into their wisdom.

    Imagination is the key to innovation, and one must be relaxed and burden free to have the state of mind to day dream and enjoy strokes of genius.

    I think that a Board Game called “Statism” where you can not pass go unless you comply with a new innovation sapping rule, or pay higher taxes, or must give money to political parties will teach childen more about the rules of life than any school. It will be so complicated most children will give up playing it because it is just too hard.

    But it will be a hit at the Obamas household.

  7. You used the expression ‘value of failure’ in the post, and this is key to the discussion. Creativity is not something to be taught but is an inborn talent to be fostered. In other words, get out of the way. Recognize that there is a difference between teaching techniques for competence and instilling values that will promote creativity and genius.

    Statism, collectivism, and most all government dominated educational systems are rather not inclined to get out of the way, so the people face a failure of the worst imaginable type, wasted lives controlled by other people.

    • The public education system doesn’t work for dealing with independent thinkers or fostering independent thinking. But it works fine for most of us; people who just want to get ordinary jobs. For most people that just means mastering a few skills, learning to meet deadlines, show up on time, act competently. As I say in the article, most people don’t want to be an independent thinker, they’re interested in other things.

      • I agree. The trouble starts when the education system is teaching values instead of, or in addition to, technical or functional competency. Historically, organized religion has occupied this role and, as we know, can do damage to any society if unrestrained. Religion in this role works fine for those who choose that approach, but not so much for those who do not choose but are coerced. So, freedom of, as well as freedom from, religion is an important societal value. As we in the West have worked on this, it seems some transference has manifested in the religion of secular or humanist values, which all people should be free to choose, but which has taken a grip on the public education process in America, and this has led to the attitude that government is the path to solve problems. This works against creativity and innovation.

      • “The public education system doesn’t work for dealing with independent thinkers or fostering independent thinking.” I’m not so sure I agree. I mean a kid doesn’t come out of the womb with knowledge of differential calculus, music theory, etc. Etc. Public education serves to introduce concepts and build a foundation of knowledge. It gives you a starting point, in other words. What you do with the knowledge gained is up to you. Obviously there are limits on what can be taught in school, and limits on what teachers know.

        You seem to have public education in your crosshairs, Aziz, but you make no mention of private education, and yet you state explicitly that you believe genius is not taught. So do you believe private institutions are better at cultivating the intellect or fostering an environ for the potential genius?

        • They are better at fostering long term collegial networks and instilling a sense of superiority. They also protect students from children whose father lost his job, and take it out on their class mates. They are generally safer with less random outbursts in class.

          Plus the teachers generally have a desire to teach because they are not dealing with unruly children. Most private schools have a strict entry system and don’t tolerate radicals.

          Trust me. Going to a “Bronx” style public school, you don’t want to be known as a “smart” kid. And 50% of the class time is a teacher berating the idiots who muck up.

          Home schooling and private schooling are far superior. But Public schools do serve as cheap day care centres for working families.

        • @ buddy Rojek. The problem, buddy, is that you are using a few public schools to rail against the entire system – I can point to plenty of private schools that suck ass or were embroiled in scandals. I have been to shitty public schools, so I know what you speak of. The problem, as some have mention here, is corruption and a diversion of funds.

          Not everyone is qualified or capable of home schooling; not everyone can afford private schools. But I guess we should end public education, even if it means throwing the majority of the population under the bus – at least it will prevent your PERCEPTION of govt “Tyranny” from rearing it’s ugly head!

          No doubt you are quite concerned with tyranny with statements such as this: “They are better at fostering long term collegial networks and instilling a sense of superiority.” Yes! Buddy Rojek – the fighter against tyranny from the awful awful poor trying to steal tax funds to get edumacated!!!

  8. What if children were taught to pursue their interests and learn everything they can to support it, then they could provide these goods and services freely on the open market?

    I think we’ll get innovation and happier citizens.

    Turn on, Tune in, Drop out!

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