Particularly in mathematics, the cult of genius is pervasive. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. Mathematics, the cultural norm dictates, is about innate talent. Just consider the Fields Medal: the “Nobel prize of mathematics” which can only be given to mathematicians under the age of 40. It’s supposed to be encouragement to inspire that mathematician to do more. …because they are a genius and we need them to participate!
There’s a great post over on MathBabe which introduces a study published in Science about the necessity of “genius” and the lack of women in certain fields. The study shows that within STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) fields as well as the non-STEM fields, necessity of genius is correlated with a lack of female participation.
Female students may feel discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees in fields that consider brilliance crucial. Male students, on the other hand, will not experience this same feedback, leading to a gender disparity in the discipline.
There is at least one very famous mathematician right now, Terence Tao, who is working to change this idea. First you need some background on Dr. Tao. He won the Fields Medal in 2006 when he was 31 years old. He’s really famous. Normal famous people will not impress mathematicians. No mathematician will freak out about a Kardashian on campus; they are too wrapped up in their Superintegrable Hamiltonian systems to even notice. But, let me tell you, my whole math department entered an alternate state of being when they engaged in a Kardashian-fan level of frenzy the week Terence Tao spent a few days on my university campus.
I bring upTerence Tao because he could be the image of the “cult of genius”: I mean, this man can talk to almost any graduate student about his/her research and that alone is super impressive! But, unlike his predecessors, Terence Tao doesn’t believe in the cult of genius. Here is the evidence from his own blog which very clearly says that
One does not need some sort of magic “genius gene” that spontaneously generates ex nihilo deep insights, unexpected solutions to problems, or other supernatural abilities. -Dr. Tao
Personally, I think the culture of mathematics in moving in the right direction. We are starting to teach people that the mind is muscle. We are beginning to believe that (no matter your gender!) you can improve the feats your mind can attain. Certainly, in my education, I learned that hard work and patience is just as valuable as genius. (I say this because I’m not at all convinced that I have that mathematical “genius” gene.) In my education I saw that hard work paid off and that I could improve my scores by asking questions, practicing and thinking.
I am optimistic that we can continue to improve the percentage of elementary math teachers who say, “Math is cool!” instead of “Oh, I hated math too!”. I’m optimistic we can eliminate bogus ideas inspired by Barbie… I’m also optimistic that we can have college teachers who continue to offer credit for completing your homework– this encourages the idea that you have to work to understand, it’s not innate genius which allows you to pass Calculus. And finally, I’m hoping that there won’t be articles like this in 50 years.