Science, literature, medicine, art… When did we stop producing geniuses?

One of the most disappointing aspects of our time is that the explosion of knowledge has not led to the multiplication of geniuses. The population is growing rapidly. Mass education has taken over all countries. The dissemination of knowledge has become universal thanks to the Internet. The ability to share ideas, regardless of origin, gender, or skin color, should have blown up the potential number of geniuses. Look at the evolution of Pluto’s knowledge. The image put online by NASA in 1994 is just a group of gray pixels. A quarter of a century later, we have access to extremely detailed maps of the dwarf planet. What normally awakens the vocations of budding astronomers.

It is true that genius does not obey any definition. Also, it is often retrospective, contemporaries don’t always know how to measure it. It is the great History that chisels the legend afterwards. However, the few quantitative analyzes of literary, musical or scientific geniuses, such as that of Holden Karnofsky, testify to a reduction in the number of great men and women in relation to the population of a time of production of ideas, works or discoveries.

Thinking out of step with peers

“Everything would have been discovered” is one of the most used arguments to explain the cultural and intellectual exhaustion of the world. It is true that many things have already been imagined in each of the specialties, but wonderful discoveries await at the crossroads of two disciplines. My two brightest scientific friends each master two disciplines, one chemistry and biology, the other physics and electronics. This is what makes them think out of step with their peers who only understand one area.

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The other theory that is usually formulated on the subject is that material life would definitely have prevailed over intellectual life. Entrepreneurship would have supplanted the sciences and the arts, attracting the most creative brains. The hypothesis can be considered, since I have been able to meet businessmen who had the characteristics to be brilliant researchers, artists or intellectuals. But he does not resist the number. Entrepreneurship remains a miniscule opportunity in proportion to each generation. It is unlikely to cause this change on its own.

All eyes are on the school system. Dozens of studies have tried to drill down on the best educational practices at the scale of a country, but also between several countries. They compared learning methods, teacher recruitment and recognition, class size, access to computer tools, taking care to neutralize the socio-professional or financial impact of background.

The observation is relentless: all this does not matter much. Studies show that winning the lottery to attend the so-called best school in town has no impact on the ultimate academic and professional performance of lucky people in Chicago, New York, or China. Children who failed a selection test for an elite school by a few points will have similar results to those who passed it by a few points and gained access to the precious sesame.

The benefits of mentoring

The most interesting thesis on this subject is defended by the neuroscientist Erik Hoel. For him, the mode of genius production is mentoring. Mentoring was the mode of education of the aristocracy for centuries and consisted of exposing young children individually and permanently to an adult tutor, expert in their field, instructing them but also involving them in intellectual discussions without seeking the reward of a predetermined exercise. . These brilliant minds also served as role models.

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Obviously, this extremely expensive mode of education was reserved for an elite. By industrializing education, we created a system of mass production that improved the lot of the vast majority of people individually, and the world as a whole, but we would have lost the craftsmanship that shaped the finest and sharpest minds. Updating tutoring would be attractive, but at what cost…


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