Genius

Why do we shy away from terms such as “genius,” and “talent”? Ours is an egalitarian age, to be sure, and we insist that all be treated equally, but the notion that all are the same is not a claim — moral or otherwise — that can be substantiated. People are not all the same. Some are taller than others, some are faster than others, some are simply better than others — as we can plainly see today. And there are persons with genuine talents that others lack. And there are some, a few, who can lay claim to the title of “genius.”

Consider the fact that Mozart died when he was 35 years of age. By that time he has composed 600 musical works, starting at age 5. He performed before royalty at a very early age and was the darling of his times. But we might also note Honoré de Balzac, the novelist, who wrote 90 short stories, novellas, and novels, including the “Human Comedy,” a host of novels focusing on human foibles and, among other things, drawing attention to the dangers of wealth in the lives of ordinary people. And we must not forget Anthony Trollope who worked full-time for the Post Office in England and still managed to write 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few books on travel. But quantity proves nothing without quality: the works of the men noted above were exceptional by any standards. And some, like Cervantes, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, created fewer works but must also be allowed the title of “genius.” Goethe spent his life writing Faust, regarded as one of the most remarkable works of art ever created by man. The same is true of Edward Gibbon who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In any event,  we need not resort to data to show that some are more prolific than others, some have been touched by the Muse again and again, to argue that some people are simply different from others. Just as there are master criminals and politicians who lie at a record pace, there are also extraordinary human beings, of both sexes, who can legitimately be called “genius.” Such people simply stand out and ought to be regarded as the best of us. We revere the exceptional athletes and even call some of them (too many of them?) GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. We do not hesitate to allow that certain human beings are better athletes, but we refuse to acknowledge that some humans are also better piano players, better composers, better novelists, better human beings — in the case of those among us who can legitimately be regarded as saints (such as Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer).

It is one thing to insist that all humans ought to be treated alike, that fairness is defined by our demand that no one be discriminated against. But we must, at the same time, allow that discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. It allows us to separate the truly great works or art, for example, from the pretenders. It allows us to determine that certain works of music are simply better than others, more complex and more rewarding to the attentive listener. And it allows us to identify the few truly outstanding human beings who stand out among the rest of us.

Moral equality is a good thing. But the notion that discrimination is a bad thing and that all humans are alike in all important respects is simply wrong-headed. And, more to the point, it disguises from us the fact that there are men and women out there who can legitimately lay claim to the title “genius,” folks who set the bar very high for the rest of us, but who make us aware that some of us have achieved in their lifetime — sometimes a very short lifetime — more than the rest of us. These are the people we should hold up as examples of what humans can be, not those who are in the news almost daily working hard to make their way into the Guinness Book of Records or score the most points before their ACL is torn and they must retire from sports.

I recently read a rather self-involved editorial by the skier Lindsey Vonn recounting her many victories on the slopes — along with her many injuries and astonishing recoveries. She is a remarkable athlete and worthy of admiration. But she pales when compared with Mozart, Austen, Balzac, or Trollope who can in all fairness be regarded as geniuses. It is a word that applies to only a few. But we need to remind ourselves who they are and what remarkable things they accomplished in their day.

Because we are not all alike. Some are simply more remarkable than others — both for what they have accomplished and for what they have not.

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Giving Back

Much ink has been spilled and much air has been let out of bloated lungs regarding the decision over a year ago but Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem before one of his football games. Many have attacked the man himself and he has been virtually ostracized by the NFL because of his stand — despite the fact that he is an able quarterback and could help a number of teams who will have nothing to do with him.

I defended him in a post early on and I still think he has been largely misunderstood by those who can only see his actions as insulting to flag and country. But the bottom line, as an article in this month’s Sports Illustrated makes clear, is that he has had a positive impact on the issues he wanted to raise, namely, human rights, equality and fairness — all worthy concerns, indeed.

Kaepernick’s ostracism has already cost him a small fortune in lost salary and endorsements, but he has given $900,000 of the $1 million he has pledged to various charities around the country that focus on repairing some of the damage done by our long-time lack of interest in the plight of those who are chronically disadvantaged. At a time when professional sports figures are pilloried for their lack of social conscience — much of it deserved — it is heartening to be informed that not only Kaepernick himself but numerous other athletes are doing something more than kneeling at sporting events. They are doing what they can to help eradicate social injustice.

Among those who have given of their time and money are the following:

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long who gave $375,000 so far to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, Virginia and has promised more than $650,000 to his “Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign which will help make education more easily accessible to underserved youths.”

Steeler’s Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva is donating proceeds from his jersey sales to “military nonprofits — just as he has done in the previous three years.”

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has helped raise more than $35 million for “New York March for Babies ” to fight premature birth. And his work with “Tackle Kids Cancer campaign has led to more than $1 million in fund-raising.”

Seattle Seahawk’s defensive end Michael Bennet has pledged half of his jersey sales profits to inner-city garden projects “and all of his endorsement earnings are tabbed for s.t.e.a.m. programs [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] and charities focused on empowering minority women.”

And Cliff Avril, another Seattle Seahawk, has promised to build a house on Haiti for each sack this season — of which he has had 11 1/2 so far this season. “He and a group of NFL players built a dozen homes in the offseason, provided clean water to an orphanage and renovated a school.”

In addition, one of the two “sportspersons of the year,” J.J,. Watt of the Houston Texans has raised over $37 million for hurricane relief after a hurricane ravaged the city of Huston earlier this year. This included a $5 million donation from a billionaire and an average of $177 from over 209,000 donations.

At a time when we hear so many negative things said about professional sportsmen, this is good news indeed. We can only hope this is not a “one-off” as the Brits like to say and that it will continue as we all become more aware that there are people in need and many who are disadvantaged in a country that prides itself on its “greatness.”

Lydia Ko

 Lydia Ko (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Lydia Ko
(Thanks to Wikipedia)

You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits.  In fact, as we are told,

On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.

And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl  like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.

There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number.  As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.

As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events —  women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.

When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.

The Blind Leading….

Readers will recall when recently the football team joined a young man on the University of Missouri campus who was fasting in order to effect change on that campus regarding alleged racism and the unwillingness of the administration to deal with the issue. The football team threatened to refuse to play and the result was the desired resignation of the president. There is no doubt about two things (1) racism is a poison and needs to be stamped out wherever it appears, and (2) a Division I football team refusing to play speaks louder than words.

There was much hullabaloo about the event and a number of articles and posts on social media — including a post by yours truly. One of the better articles attempted to put the event in perspective and led in with a photograph of the football team, with its coaches, after they had their way. A caption under the photo grabbed my attention:

“In just 48 hours a sub-500 football team affected [sic] a change that could have a monumental impact on the world of college athletics — athletes controlling what happens on campus.”

Think about this. The fact that this group of athletes was successful — in light of the fact that previous attempts by football teams failed to bring about change, as in the case of Northwestern’s team that wanted the players to unionize — indicates the power of extortion. There can be no doubt that the threat of non-playing at a time when revenue from TV and attendance is very much at stake had an important impact on the decision of the president to resign. After all, colleges and universities are becoming increasingly about business and profits (just ask the University of Iowa where a businessman with no academic credentials whatever was recently hired as president). But as an educator the thought that festers in my soul is the thought that football players can “control what happens on campus.”

Now, if this refers simply to the elimination of other cases of racism and other forms of bigotry on college campuses, so much the better. That’s as it should be. But if the influence of athletes threatening to withhold their services can effect “what happens on campus” generally one must pause. Clearly, this group of athletes was inspired to do the right thing and they were effective. But the thought of a group of athletes, or a group of students of any stripe whatever, holding a gun to the head of the administration and faculty to effect change in, say, curriculum is worrisome indeed. Such a thing is not totally absurd., as hinted at in the caption quoted above.

If a group of students were to put pressure on the administration and faculty to alter the curriculum — to substitute, say, physical education for physics — this would be anathema to everything higher education stands for. I exaggerate, of course, but interestingly enough, the precedent has already been set, and not by a group of football players at Missouri. It was set in the 1960s when militant students took over the Dean’s office in places such as Columbia University and Berkeley and insisted that there be curricular changes.  In a number of major universities during that period a great many core courses were eliminated completely on the grounds that the students found them “irrelevant.” In a word, if the students didn’t want to study, say, world history, then world history was dropped. The faculty and administration capitulated, possibly out of fear. This started a wave of rejection until within 20 years there were very few core courses on any college campus anywhere in this country. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of college graduates who know nothing about anything except those few items that happen to be of interest to them. Many of them cannot read, write, or speak coherently; they know nothing about the way their government runs (or doesn’t run) or about their history, black, white, feminine or masculine; and they have no idea whatever what science is and why mathematics is integral to the exact sciences. They are increasingly susceptible to the drivel that spews forth from the mouths of public figures who want to sell them left-handed monkey wrenches.

Thus, the thought of the athletes running the show is disturbing on a number of fronts. To begin with, it is simply a sign of a power struggle that has been lost by those who should have shown the way, and secondly it suggests the possibility of further changes in the climate of higher education that will move the students farther and farther away from the goal of true intellectual freedom, which should always be the focus of any education. Students should have a say in what they study, to be sure, but they should not be allowed to rule out whatever doesn’t happen to appeal to them at the moment. While education starts in the schools, it bears fruit later on, after graduation. But it needs a start in the right direction or else it will spin in circles and lead the college graduate into blind alleys.

Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.

Cheap And Mean

I have remarked in previous posts about a pet peeve of mine, to wit, the tendency of wealthy athletes to keep a tight grip on their money and rarely give any of it away to worthy causes.  I  noted exceptions to the rule. But I also made mention of Phil Mickelson’s outrage when confronted by the fact that the state in which he lives — California — had the audacity to pass a law requiring the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. He even threatened to move. Heaven forbid that the money should go to things like education, health care, and police and fire protection! That would be a dangerous precedent indeed.

There are exceptions, as I have noted, though they do tend to target causes that are close to the athlete’s heart — such as Ernie Els’ devotion to the cause of autistic children because he has one of his own. There are also those who seem to be able to see beyond their own noses, such as young Rickie Fowler, the golfer who looks like a cartoon character with flat-brimmed golf caps color-coordinated with his entire outfit, which is almost always in a garish colors, such as bright orange. The young man does seem to want to call attention to himself. But he also wants to do good with his money as he did recently at the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Ft. Worth, Texas when he pledged $100,000 of his own money for tornado relief in Oklahoma. At the time the announcement was made we were also told that a group of five golfers (who will remain nameless out of a sense of decency) pledged $100.00 for every birdie and $200.00 for every eagle they collectively scored at the tournament.

Two things bother me about this latter “pledge.” To begin with, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Birdies are extremely rare and eagles are as well. This pledge is not unlike a person promising $1,000.00 to a charity predicated on his winning the lottery. These five golfers are playing the odds. The chances are very good this “pledge” will cost them nothing. But even if it did, the dollars they have pledged amount to petty cash. For men in their income bracket this is small change, something they could easily reach into their pockets and peel off without blinking an eye. Why would anyone make such a hollow pledge in the face of genuine human suffering? When there are people in real need so many of those who could help seem to turn the other way and check their bank accounts to make sure it hasn’t been diminished in any way by some foolish gesture they might have made after a couple of martinis. It does give one pause, since one might argue that those who are in a position to help others in need have a responsibility to do so. Indeed, I would argue this, which is why this sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine — as you may have guessed.

Alongside the generous, caring athletes like Fowler there are those who seem to have no conscience whatever and who even seem to be mocking those who genuinely care — in a world where and at a time when we need those who care for others more than ever.

Building Self-Esteem

One of the curious notions that permeates education circles in the lower grades these days is the idea that children should be told they are wonderful when, in fact, they have done nothing to deserve praise or even acknowledgement. This notion was recently questioned by a character on the popular TV show “Modern Family” when Jay told his wife, Gloria, that she should be honest with her son and not praise him when he doesn’t deserve it. It made for some light humor, but it is an interesting point.

Educators like to think of themselves as occupying a special branch of social science, but the fact that the social sciences do not support the self-esteem movement doesn’t seem to faze these people. When a school board member in the California school system was confronted by the evidence that stroking children undeservedly doesn’t improve their performance, he was noted to say “I don’t care what the evidence shows, I know it works.” Don’t confuse me with the facts!

Not only do the data not support the theory, they actually fly in the face of this theory and support the position Jay takes in the TV show. Telling kids they are wonderful, or the latest project they made is terrific when, in fact, it is awful, does not build the child’s self-esteem. It actually confuses them and undermines their confidence in adults. Kids know when they are being misled.  This is one of the points I was making in my blog about “Sports Lessons” when I contrasted sports with education. In sports, the athlete — at any age — knows when he or she has done something deserving praise. When the praise comes, in the form of applause or awards, the athlete has a well-deserved sense of pride and accomplishment. When a child in school is told that his science project is great when she knows it took very little time, no imagination, and doesn’t even work, it simply confuses and undermines confidence in the teacher, or the one heaping praise. Moreover, when you think about it, false praise is insulting to the child.

In the TV show, Jay’s son, Manny, is puffed up with the effusive praise his mother heaps on a centerpiece he has made for the dinner table on Thanksgiving. It is awful, and when Gloria is in the other room, Jay takes Manny aside and tells him the piece “is not your best work.” At the same time, he assures the boy that he can do better, and Manny senses that this is true and we have one of those moments that suggest that TV really could be a valuable tool is helping us raise our children if it weren’t preoccupied with sex and violence and selling the sponsor’s products. Jay gives an honest opinion of the project, while at the same time assuring the boy that he can do better: the comment does not tear down the boy’s self-confidence, it redirects his attention away from the false image his mother has created of him and the rather weak effort he has (knowingly) made and assures him that he can do better the next time. It is a character-building moment. Honesty really is the best policy.