Defining Genius — Or Not


We live in an age where we overuse labels for folks whose works really don’t warrant it under any circumstances. “Beautiful” is one. “Off da hook” is another. But one that really gets under my skin more than any other is “genius.” Given the mediocre rot that is prevalent in our world, we are way, way too quick to anoint someone as a genius when at best, they’re brilliant. Maybe. Or have shown a flash of brilliance, exhibited shrewdness, or played the game in their profession like a violin or fiddle.

We need a reality check, though. Genius may well be relative, but it’s not that relative. For instance, would someone stand out as a genius if they were using their genius as one of the last two people on the planet? Or is it more obvious among six and a half billion people than it is among a few?

I’ve been hearing so-called authority figures in their fields or in general describing others as geniuses nearly all of my life. Some labeled as “genius” — like Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Yo-Yo Ma, even Michael Jackson and Prince — are obviously so. Part of their genius is that their work is unquestionably beyond the grasp of most people, universally brilliant and, at times, hopelessly complicated. Genius is harder to translate than define, and while all of these artists have enjoyed overwhelming popularity, their work has at times suffered because genius tends to go into uncharted territory, places where even their most avid supporters can’t follow. I can’t stand Miles Davis, but I recognize his genius. Was Jesus a spiritual genius? Was Gandhi? One could make that argument, I suppose. Madam Curie and Anna Julia Cooper were so brilliant and profound that their genius literally bordered on insanity. That fine line between genius and insanity might be the best way to know the difference between someone who’s brilliant and someone who’s a genius.

On the other hand, there are cases, far too many for my tastes, where using the term “genius” bumps into other terms, like “hyperbole” and a “bold-faced lie.” One vivid example of this was in high school. At various times, I heard my teachers describe our eventual Class of ’87 valedictorian and salutatorian as geniuses. Geniuses? Really? Now, I’m not taking away anything from the two people in question. They were virtually straight-A students with weighted GPAs of 5.45 and 5.17 respectively. They were both much more involved in school and community-related activities than I was or could’ve been in those years. But geniuses? I don’t think any of us approached “brilliant” in our Humanities years, much less genius. You could argue, though, that some of us were on the verge of non-genius insanity.

Another more vivid example was during my second year of grad school at Pitt, the spring of ’93. Four of us were lucky enough to serve as grad student liaisons on a academic search committee. The History Department was hiring for an assistant professor in Modern European history. It came down to two choices. One was a recent PhD from the University of Michigan whose research examined socialist movements in five European countries in the 1930s (France, Germany, Italy, UK, and Sweden). The other was another “freshly minted PhD” from a lesser known history program whose work concentrated on some aspect of twentieth-century Italian history. We attended the job talks for all four original candidates. We went out to lunch or dinner with them. We read all of their doctoral theses. While I can’t speak for my former colleagues, I didn’t see any of them as especially brilliant, and certainly not geniuses.

At the faculty hiring meeting — where we were allowed to attend, but not speak — a huge debate erupted over the top two candidates. The University of Michigan candidate, a White male with a background in German who also managed to pick up Swedish, French and Italian for his archival work, was labeled a”genius” by a few of my former professors. Yeah, right! I take nothing away from a man who was somewhere around proficient or fluent in five languages. But his research on socialist movements seemed rather pedestrian. His final chapter — the last thirty pages of a 600-page dissertation — took a combination of several theories to explain what happened to each nation-state’s socialist movements during the 1930s. His conclusion, based on on all of this research and theoretical application, was that the different trajectories of the socialist movements in these nation’s occurred by chance.

Despite one professor singing the praises of this candidate for the “depth and breadth of his knowledge” and language skills, if this dissertation was an example of “genius,” then I was a writing genius at the age of eleven. In the end, after a couple of impassioned speeches by senior professors in the department — including one where a professor said he wouldn’t “vote for any of the candidates” — the female candidate with the thesis on Italian history was hired.

It’s not that I don’t think that there aren’t geniuses among us, whether in the world of academia or in music or other places. I just think that the word shouldn’t be reserved for White guys who look like Clark Kent or for people who have doctoral degrees. Some of the least intellectually curious people I’ve ever met have PhDs, including two of my former advisors. I’ve met folks whose analytic abilities approached genius who never finished high school or college, much less a PhD program. There are barbers in barbershops from Mount Vernon to Pittsburgh to Chicago and Atlanta whose intellectual capacities would rival the best in academia, if they had the same platform for using theirs.

Genius is about much more than pure analytic ability or learning more than one or two languages. It’s about producing works, ideas, materials of such brilliance that others have to wear sunglasses in order to begin to see and understand the details. I think Toni Morrison, Nick Lemann and Eric Schlosser are writing geniuses. That Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice and Joe Montana were football geniuses, as was Jordan and Magic for basketball, Gretzky and Lemieux for hockey, and Navratilova in tennis. That Coltrane was as much as genius as Miles, and both as much as Mozart and Beethoven, if not more so. Like God, genius is no respecter of persons, or academic degrees, for that matter.

All I know is that I’ve met few actual geniuses in my life, and all of them were “outside the box” kinds of people, as eccentric and weird as they were normal and abundantly gifted. Genius, real, true genius, is rare. As much as we rush to confer the status of genius on to other, we should all take a deep breathe and put the term back in our pocket for the right person and the right moment.

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