Critical Concepts


some ambiguities attaching to the concept, and the dangers of these

The crucial point is not to be victimized by an elementary but easy confusion between two completely different senses of the term "can" (and its cousins, like "ability"). Talent is one thing. Active skill is quite another. While not having the first means that we won't ever develop the second, it is not true that not having the second means that we don't have the first. Take any sport -- or mechanical task (like driving a car) or musical instrument (guitar or flute) -- that you're good at. Then take one you know you're inept at. Does that ineptness mean you've no talent for it? Now for a thought experiment: ask yourself how good you'd be at the one you're decent at if you'd never played or done it before. If asked to do it, in the absence of your history of practice, would you botch the job? Now ask: would your being unable not to botch the job, under such circumstances, mean that you had no talent for it? If you can see that the answer is "No way!" then you have also seen that the answer is exactly the same for whatever sport (or musical instrument or practical activity) you picked as one you're currently "no good at."

This just shows that (1) we can't infer, from not being able to perform well in physics (for want of the requisite knowledge and skill), that we are inherently unable to do well at it. It also reminds us that (2) if someone does perform well in physics, we can infer that she possesses the requisite skills and knowledge, and of course that (3) if one has the active skill to do something well, then one has the talent to do that thing well! But do we have any good grounds for (4) inferring, from our talent to perform well at physics, that we have the talent to perform well at, say, interpreting literature, or making sense of a dispute about history, or making management decisions? If we did, then we could be confident, once we had demonstrated a specific set of talents (by demonstrating, in performance, the skills that presupposed them), that we had the requisite capacity for developing the skills required for competent performance in some other activity. But do we have any such grounds?

I am convinced we do. But they lie in experience. As such they are much more available to older than to younger individuals, more evident to teachers than to students, and more evident still for teachers from different specialties who have discussed the issue among themselves. On the basis of my own experience, as a formal and informal student of a fair variety of academic discipline, as a teacher in the humanities, and as one who has discussed these matters repeatedly over the years with people in math, physics, biology, computer science, history, political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, law, and philosophy, I am fully persuaded that the intelligence called upon by these different fields is completely general. If you can in actual fact perform competently in any one of these, you can in principle learn to perform competently in any of them. [1]

Why then is the belief so widely held among students that one of one's most crucial tasks is to discover what one's special talents are, so that one can focus on developing these (and not waste time trying to do something that is simply beyond ones capacities)?

There are several factors behind this mythology. One is that many teachers themselves take it for granted. They see an important part of their task to be the discrimination between the fit and the unfit. And part of the service they see themselves rendering, as members of a helping profession, is guiding students to discover where there particular talents lie. This entails tactfully prompting them to notice where their particular talents don't lie. Within their own field of academic specialty, they see part of their mission as recruiting for that specialty. In doing this they can be led to tell a favorite student that he or she seems to be especially cut out for whatever that field of study happens to be. Teachers should certainly reward students for demonstrating they have taken in whatever they as teachers see themselves as undertaking to convey. But teachers can be tempted to issue this reward in the wrong currency . To flatter the talents (as distinct from commending the accomplishments ) of those students who seem to validate one's own worth as a teacher can be a way of paying oneself the complement not of having had the appropriate competence, but of having been born into some presumed elite. And teachers, being human, can give in to this temptation.

But the most immediate encouragement for students to buy into the myth of special talents has to do with their own experience of suffering and gratification in their studies. Being asked to do things that one isn't competent to do is highly frustrating. (And since except in private tutoring this happens in front of one's classmates, it can be embarrassing as well.) Success in a task is intrinsically gratifying, but it's even more so when it comes as a relief from a stiff dose of frustration and embarrassment. (This fact may even be seized upon by teachers of a sadistic bent as an excuse to up the dose of misery they administer.) It is thus natural to want to focus on those matters in which we first break through into insight, and to avoid those in which we are still stumbling around in the dark.

But it is deeply unfortunate to interpret our doing so as based on self-knowledge about our capacities. What sort of activity one happens to first experience a break-through in is a matter of the accidents of one's personal history. It has to do with who happens to be around to encourage you. It has to do with whether you happen to be standing in the right place at the right time and paying attention when crystallizing move happens to be presented -- the move that, given where you mentally are at, at the moment, will make a host of other things you've picked up suddenly fall into place. It does not have to do with which "special talents" you have or lack.

Finally we might consider whether our society as presently constituted may function more smoothly under widespread acceptance of the myth of special intellectual talents. This is not anything special with our society, since it is also true of almost every other society that is or has been, so far as I am aware. But it does contradict some important other beliefs that Americans like to hold about themselves.

For one thing, it fosters a passive conformity on the part of the citizenry, by convincing them that they cannot pretend to a competence in matters outside their own narrow occupational specialty. If I'm no good at anything but the thinnest slice of the overall range of possible human activity, I had better keep my nose out. Otherwise I'll be embarrassed and humiliated by the people who do really know their own turf. And I can't really have anything worthwhile to contribute anyway.

This means that when it comes to judging public policy, foreign and domestic, I'm going to restrict myself to the safest clichés bandied about in the mass media, where I at least have the cover of a whole herd of others to make my choice (arbitrary as it may be) "respectable." I am not going to presume to develop well-grounded opinions about what factions the State Department and World Bank are siding with in Russia, or whom the Special Forces are training in Peru, or whether the C.I.A., in the aftermath of World War II massively and clandestinely bribed the legislatures of "democratic" Europe and Japan. I am going to confine myself to looking for representatives I can "trust" -- and letting them hire the requisite PhDs in political science and economics to decide what policies are in the interest of the People whose trust they hold. I will be inclined to believe what officially sanctioned experts say on policy matters, and to regard private citizens who try to put across different perspective as a little cracked -- loudmouths, malcontents, fools. Meanwhile I can give myself a permanent holiday from the trouble of developing informed perspectives on a whole host of matters. I can focus pretty much exclusively on my private life -- my immediate family, my friends, my hobbies, decorating my pad, choosing a place to spend the holidays.

If enough citizens of a formally democratic polity adopt such a point of view (it need not be explicitly, tacitly will do), self-recruiting powerful elites will have a more or less free hand in shaping national policy to conform to their interests. They will of course quarrel among themselves, usually within a fairly defined band of consensus. And they will have to suffer the expense and inconvenience of periodic elections. But these nuisances can be lived with. The citizenry may feel disaffected and powerless (such feelings would after all have a firm basis in reality), and may from time to time lend themselves to campaigns to "throw the bastards out." But so long as alternative candidates with realistic prospects are recruited from the same community of the elite, or those willing to serve it, nothing fundamentally threatening to business as usual will come about. Sufficient money will be at hand to hire public relations experts and advertising firms to paint the next round of candidates as, finally, worthy of trust. At least people who are thoroughly alienated from the charade will stay home from the polls and thus abstain from meddling with what, from the point of view of the natural superiors, they are right to regard (despite the ritual rhetoric) as none of their business.

The result is what might be called "nursery democracy." It has also been called "a nation of sheep." It is not inevitable, but it can have a lot going for it. My point here is its prospects are considerably enhanced by the myth of special talents. (Of course I'm not claiming here that that is the only factor working in its favor.)

But the myth supports the status quo in a deeper way as well. To the degree that I regard myself as intrinsically incompetent to hold practically any well-paying job, it is logical for me not to waste my energies developing such competence. And what, indeed, would happen if huge numbers of actively competent and confident individuals were to put themselves on the job market with which we are familiar? Would there be enough jobs of these sorts to go around? (Query: are there now?) What would happen to the compensation that has heretofore attached to the more desirable among the jobs, as competition for them increased? (Consider, for example, that fully competent Mexican engineers supervising production at the Ford Motor plant in Chihuahua earn $1000 a month.) As for those with demonstrated competence who find themselves driving taxis or stocking grocery shelves: would they be likely to interpret their condition as a just reflection of their differential ability to contribute to society? Can we imagine that certain well-ingrained postulates (fortunes have been spent to teach us these truths) about the justice of the market as a distributor of goods and services might come under serious -- and socially destabilizing -- challenge? If mostly everyone is intrinsically capable of doing most anything that needs to be done, and the difference is going to lie in the investment society makes in certain individuals' special education, for the sake of getting certain special tasks done, why shouldn't garbage collectors be paid as much as people who get to do physics? If people want to practice medicine because it feels good to help others (rather than as a way of building an investment portfolio), why shouldn't we invest in more doctors, and let them work less feverishly, for less?

To the degree, on the other hand, that the unemployed, the marginally employed, the dissatifyingly employed are reconciled to their condition as basically just (in view of their limited talents), this upsetting conflict need never arise. The more students in primary school, in secondary schools and even in college who eventually draw the conclusion that "I can't do anything intellectually sophisticated," the more the rest can enjoy what's left in peace (though what's left seems to be shrinking in a distressing way). Our consciences will be less troubled. Our less fortunate neighbors will settle for disappointment rather than outrage. We will be spared the difficult business of forging some alternative consensus on the nature of social justice.

The myth of special talents has a lot going for it, inasmuch as it is an important ideological factor in staving off the crises predictable for "over-educated societies." Now there's a phrase worth thinking about! [2]

Meanwhile: if you can make sense of something so complicated as a series of downs in a football game, you have demonstrated that you have the intellectual talent to do history, science, philosophy, law, and more. Whether you go on to turn that talent into the specific active skills you need for competence in these activities is a different matter. It will depend, among other things, on whether you believe the myth. Beyond that, it will depend on whether you have, or develop, a versatile intellectual appetite. (Of course that presupposes you invest the provisional faith that you can succeed in things you may never have tried, or in which up to now you have encountered little except frustration.)


[1] This is not to say that one can become an expert in all of them. Few have the time to do so in more than a couple. But one can make it a reasonable goal to become decently conversant in a wide variety of such specialties. And indeed it is difficult to see how any reasonably respectable democratic society is possible if large numbers of citizens to not make this one of their central priorities. [Back to text at footnote 1]

[2] College students today would do well to reflect on the meaning of the following puzzle. Today we hear that the only solution to the job shrinkage in store as more production is transferred overseas, where wages are "more rational," is investment in education. We also hear that balancing the state and federal budgets must take priority over spending on education. (Guaranteed student loans, to take just one instance, are slated to be cut.) Do we hear any discussion, under either approach, of how large the population is for whom completing college is presumed to be completely out of the question? What is the plan for these future neighbors? How is the quality of life envisioned for them anticipated to impact on the quality of life of those who get "quality work"? And, on the other hand, is college worthwhile if it is not going to result in better jobs for graduates? Does it makes sense for society to invest in fostering a situation which calls into question the prevailing norms of calculating return on investment? (Should economic efficiency be the supreme standard for guiding a society's decisions? That is, if it is, will we end up with the best sort of society? with a society that is even tolerable? or, if tolerable, then to whom? to what sort of folks, living in what sorts of conditions?) [Back to text at footnote 2]

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  This page last updated 24 August 2001.