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Cultivating Genius

The first pattern that becomes clear is the benefit of human mixing. It’s no accident that past talent clusters were all commercial trading centers, which allowed a wide diversity of people to share ideas. (Urbanization makes this mixing easier.) The same logic still applies: Research indicates that in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production. Open immigration policies are a feature, not a bug.

Another recurring theme is the importance of education. All of these flourishing cultures pioneered new forms of teaching and learning. Medieval Florence saw the rise of the apprentice-master model, which let young artists learn from veteran experts. Elizabethan England made a concerted effort to educate its middle-class males, which is how William Shakespeare—the son of a glover who couldn’t sign his name—ended up getting free Latin lessons. We need to emulate these ingenious eras and encourage rampant experimentation in the education sector, whether it’s taking the Khan Academy mainstream or expanding vocational training. As T. S. Eliot once remarked, the great ages did not contain more talent. They wasted less.

The last meta-idea involves the development of institutions that encourage risk-taking. Shakespeare was lucky to have royal support for his odd tragedies, while Renaissance Florence benefited from the willingness of the Medicis to support new artistic forms, such as the use of perspective in painting. Many of these ventures failed—Shakespeare wrote several bad plays—but tolerating such failure is the only way to get a Hamlet.

This might seem like an impossibly ambitious agenda. It’s not. Bill James, the pioneer of Moneyball-style statistical baseball analysis, points out that modern America is already very good at generating geniuses. The problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes. As James says, this is largely because we treat athletes differently. We encourage them when they’re young, chauffeuring our kids to practice and tournaments. We also have mechanisms for cultivating athletic talent at every step in the process, from Little League to the Majors. Lastly, professional teams are willing to take risks, betting big bucks on draft picks who never pan out. Because of these successful meta-ideas, even a small city like Topeka, Kansas—roughly the same size as Elizabethan London, James points out—can produce an athletic genius every few years.

My dad gave me this article to read, and then of course AZspot puts it up. Because everything he posts is gold.

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    My dad gave me this article to read, and then of course AZspot puts it up. Because everything he posts is gold.
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