Monday, February 13, 2012

The Genius Fallacy

An interesting post this morning on the phenomenal website Free Technology for Teachers featured a short movie about Thomas Edison and his accomplishments. While the video is factual, it goes to considerable length to stress the notion that Edison stole most of his ideas from others, and while he was definitely a bright individual who accomplished a lot, he does not deserve credit for most of the things that we give him credit for.

By coincidence, one of my colleagues mentioned this afternoon that she had found some site online about George Washington for her son who is interested in history and, as it turns out, "George Washington was not as great a person as we think he was."

Now, on the one hand, both of these resources seem to be examples of the current trend to move away from the "Great Man" approach to history, which sees history as being propelled forward by a few all-knowing, all-capable, and often infallible individuals (usually men) who made wondrous discoveries and inventions, successfully fought valiant battles, and invariably made the correct decisions and predictions in difficult situations. Human beings are obviously far more complex than that, and it is of course true that Washington owned slaves and Edison borrowed (to be generous) some of his ideas from others and touched them up a bit before presenting them to the public.

Yet at the same time, such information only means that these individuals were not perfect - it does not necessarily take away from their greatness. I have always felt that Edison's genius lay not in inventing the light bulb, but in founding the power company that allowed people to use the bulb. While it is true that Washington won precious few battles, there is a reason that he was chosen to head the army and that he would have easily served a third term had he not made the precedent-setting (until FDR) decision to step down in an effort to prevent the presidency from turning into a monarchy. Clearly both men were great - just not in the way that we often lazily define greatness.

I bring this up not because the Edison video bothered me, but because this issue speaks to how we teach our children to aspire for greatness. I am hard-pressed to think of an individual in the history of the world who came from nothing to be great without any help. Most scientific inventions and discoveries did not occur to someone in a flash in the middle of the night, but rather were the result of much trial-and-error, and often one person built off of the work of another until a truly groundbreaking idea was hatched, the result of a painstaking and incremental process. Genius is a wonderful gift to possess, but it does not guarantee accomplishment - that usually comes as the result of countless hours of hard work. Michael Jordan worked harder than any other player in the NBA. The difference between a smart guy in shiur and a Rosh Yeshiva is thousands of additional hours spend poring over seforim.

In a sense, the Edison video seems to me to be Rav Aharon Kotler's fears realized to their fullest. In an essay written in 1935, Rav Kotler spoke against the trend of portraying the Avot (forefathers) as flawed human beings, fearing that such an approach would ruin the faith of Jews everywhere. The bias in the Edison video would seem to bear out this fear - if we insist on focusing too much on the flaws in people who we hold up as models then we lose the reverence that we want to convey as well. With regard to Edison, the stakes are not that high - I don't think it really matters whether or not I revere Edison - but when it comes to pillars of a faith or religion there is an obvious an apparent risk involved.

However, Rav Kotler's view was preceded by a counterview offered by Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch. Rav Hirsch notes that the Torah does not shy away from describing the errors of the ways of our Biblical heroes, and that we should not try to cover up what the Torah has laid bare for us. By doing so, Rav Hirsch notes, the Torah has presented us with human characters that we can relate, people that we are capable of emulating if we would desire to, individuals that "we all should copy because we all could copy."

Why is this important to convey to our students? If greatness is a God-given gift, then there is really no point in striving for it. Either you have it or you don't, and time will let you know what the answer is. However, if greatness is something that is there to be grasped by anyone willing to put in the effort, if it is something achieved by effort and toil and occasional failure, then we can teach our students how they, too, can achieve greatness.

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