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Debunking the real myths about genius

Documents are seen on display as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem launches the all-new, expanded Albert Einstein Archives on March 19, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Documents are seen on display as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem launches the all-new, expanded Albert Einstein Archives on March 19, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Collaboration is the new buzzword in public education. No surprise, given that the new paradigm in teacher education and student learning is pivotal on group effort. Just the day before, Joshua Starr, the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools signaled his approval of collaborative learning for teachers. The district, with a burgeoning population of economically disadvantaged students, has embraced group learning as the means of accommodating the needs of students with a wide spectrum of preparedness. Collaboration, it seems in recent years, is the key to a MCPS education.

That’s not all; the collaboration mindset also seems to require an animus against the lone genius. On July 20, 2014, Superintendent Starr rebroadcast Harvard’s Tony Wagner’s missive that the myth of the lone creative genius had been exploded. The Twitter world chimed in, with one claiming that MCPS does “teach kids to collaborate: planning, peer-reviewing projects, plays, Socratic Seminars, SAT practice tests,” etc. Another exulted that the “article aligns nicely against the myth of heroic isolated classroom teacher or principal,” while a few voices also expressed negative opinions about collaborative learning.

The mortal blow “to the myth of the lone creative genius,” it turns out, was delivered by Joshua Wolf Shenk in an opinion piece in the June 19, 2014 edition of The New York Times. Shenk asserts that there is “an impressive body of research in social psychology and the new field of social neuroscience, which contends that individual agency often pales next to the imperatives of a collective.” Keep in mind the word “often.” Correctly observing that “The elemental collective, of course, is the pair,” Shenk goes on to enumerate some of the most successful pairings in history, among them Paul McCartney and John Lennon, to argue the case for creative pairings. Little mention is made of another reality about some of the most successful pairings—they split, as did Lennon and McCartney, and carry on successful careers on their own.

Then, there is the most enduring of all pairings, one that society upholds through the institution of marriage. Putting aside the standard statistic about divorce, if one considers the 2011 Pew Research survey, 36% of adults believe that marriage is “one of the most important things in life.” According to the author of the piece, D’Vera Cohn, women in particular are postponing marriage until they complete their education and establish themselves in the workplace. At least some women do believe that domestic pairing can have a stifling effect on a woman’s career. Clearly, not all pairings result in each member reaching his or her fullest potential. The truth is that individual agency sometimes pales next to the imperative of the collective. The operative word is “sometimes,” and not “often,” as Shenk would have us believe.

Nevertheless, does the success of history’s most successful pairings preclude individual genius, or it does illustrate that genius can take many forms, both individual and collective?

Counterpoint to Shenk’s view is that of Susan Cain’s, expressed in her bestseller “Quiet.” Taking issue with groupthink, which she asserts has progressive roots, Cain pulls no punches in asserting that “Introversion- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we have turned it into an oppressive standard to which most us feel we must conform.” Armed with a quiver of research and interesting anecdotes, Cain proceeds to shoot down the prevailing prejudice that individual ideation is inferior to groupthink.

One doesn’t need Cain’s work to elevate individual effort at least to the level of collaborative contributions. Consider a few examples of genius in its many forms.

Linux, a Unix-like computer operating system developed under the crowdsourcing model. The accomplishments of this collaborative model are prodigious. As of last summer, nearly 95% of the world’s top supercomputers ran some flavor of Linux. But the catalyst for this impressive and ongoing crowdsourcing accomplishment was the first Linux kernel was released by an individual—Linus Torvalds. His subsequent Master of Science thesis, titled “Linux: a Portable Operating System,” is available on the internet, and stands as a stark reminder of an individual’s invaluable contribution to the development of this now-ubiquitous operating system.

We can look to the music world for another example of an individual genius being the cornerstone of the success of a group. Who could ignore the contribution of the scintillating talent of the mercurial Freddy Mercury to the success of the British rock band Queen? Penning enduring hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Somebody to Love,” hits that transcend generations to his credit, Mercury was a prodigious talent, without whom it is hard to imagine the phenomenal success of Queen.

One can also consider Washington, DC’s own son, Duke Ellington. An innovative arranger and bandleader, Ellington had the ability elevate the musicianship of individual band members. Lest you pigeonhole him as the consummate group leader, Ellington’s inimitable partnership with Billy Strayhorn left no doubt that his genius could thrive even in a creative pairing. In other words, Ellington’s genius blossomed in both the collaborative and in the individual realm.

All these examples collectively cry out for the recognition that genius has many facets, takes various forms, and thrives in different environments. By no means do these examples preclude the existence of individual genius.

Cain notes that Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg best summarized contemplative genius in Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented, writing that “Outstanding introverted leaders, such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Patrick White and Arthur Boyd, who have either created either new fields of thought or rearranged existing knowledge, have spent long periods of their lives in solitude. Hence leadership does not only apply in social situations, but also occurs in more solitary situations such as developing new techniques in the arts, creating new philosophies, writing profound books and making scientific breakthroughs.”

These are titillating reminders that genius cannot be easily quantified. Shenk’s work, contrary to any attention getting titles that may be bestowed upon it, is simply an affirmation of creative genius thriving in pairs. No amount of wishful thinking qualifies Shenk’s work as an assassination of the solitary creative genius.

Shenk’s work also fails to highlight a crucial characteristic of successful creative pairs: the fortuitous meshing of personalities. Nothing in the examples cited support the conclusion that a random pairing of any two individuals would lead to the genesis of creative genius, let alone a relationship that lasts.

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