The Trouble with Geniuses

fromOUTLIERS, The STORY of SUCCESS”- Malcolm Gladwell
The University of Michigan law school, like many elite US educational institutions, uses a policy of affirmative action when it comes to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Around 10 percent of the students Michigan enrolls each fall are members of racial minorities, and if the law school did not significantly relax its entry requirements for those students admitting them with lower undergraduate grades and lower standardized-test scores than everyone els eit estimates that percentage would be less than 3 percent. Furthermore, if we compare the grades that the minority and non minority students get in * To get a sense of how absurd the selection process at elite Ivy League schools has become, consider the following statistics. In 2 0 0 8 , 2 7 , 4 6 2 of the most highly qualified high school seniors in the world applied to Harvard University. Of these students, 2,500 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading test and 3,300 had aperfect score on the SAT math exam. More than 3,300 were rankedfirstin their high school class. How many did Harvard acceptAbout 1,600, which is to say they rejected 93 out of every 100 applicants. Is it really possible to say that one student is Harvard material and another isn’t, when both have identicaland perfectacademic recordsOf course not. Harvard is being dishonest. Schwartz is right. They should just have a lottery.
law school, we see that the white students do better. That’s not surprising: if one group has higher undergraduate grades and test scores than the other, it’s almost certainly going to have higher grades in law school as well. This is one reason that affirmative action programs are so controversial. In fact, an attack on the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program recently went all the way to the US Supreme Court. For many people it is troubling that an elite educational institution lets in students who are less qualified than their peers.
A few years ago, however, the University of Michigan decided to look closely at how the law school’s minority students had fared after they graduated. How much money did they make How far up in the profession did they go How satisfied were they with their careers What kind of social and community contributions did they make What kind of honors had they won They looked at everything that could conceivably be an indication of real-world success. And what they found surprised them.
“We knew that our minority students, a lot of them, were doing well,” says Richard Lempert, one of the authors of the Michigan study. “I think our expectation was that we would find a halfor two-thirds-full glass, that they had not done as well as the white students but nonetheless a lot were quite successful. But we were completely surprised. We found that they were doing every bit as well. There was no place we saw any serious discrepancy.”
What Lempert is saying is that by the only measure that a law school really ought to care about how well its graduates do in the real world minority students aren’t less qualified. They’re just as successful as white students.
And why Because even though the academic credentials of minority students at Michigan aren’t as good as those of white students, the quality of students at the law school is high enough that they’re still above the threshold. They are smart enough. Knowledge of a law student’s test scores is of little help if you are faced with a classroom of clever law students.
Let’s take the threshold idea one step further. If intelligence matters only up to a point, then past that point, other thingsthings that have nothing to do with intelligencemust start to matter more. It’s like basketball again: once someone is tall enough, then we start to care about speed and court sense and agility and ballhandling skills and shooting touch.
So, what might some of those other things beWell, suppose that instead of measuring your IQ, I gave you a totally different kind of test.
Write down as many different uses that you can think of for the following objects:
1. a brick 2. a blanket This is an example of what’s called a “divergence test” (as opposed to a test like the Raven’s, which asks you to sort through a list of possibilities and converge on the right answer). It requires you to use your imagination and take your mind in as many different directions as possible. With a divergence test, obviously there isn’t a single right answer. What the test giver is looking for are the number and the uniqueness of your responses. And what the test is measuring isn’t analytical intelligence but something profoundly different something much closer to creativity. Divergence tests are every bit as challenging as convergence tests, and if you don’t believe that, I encourage you to pause and try the brick-and-blanket test right now.
Here, for example, are answers to the “uses of objects” test collected by Liam Hudson from a student named Poole at a top British high school:
(Brick). To use in smash-and-grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, turn and throw no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles.
(Blanket). To use on a bed. As a cover for illicit sex in the woods. As a tent. To make smoke signals with. As a sail for a boat, cart or sled. As a substitute for a towel. As a target for shooting practice for short-sighted people. As a thing to catch people jumping out of burning skyscrapers.
It’s not hard to read Poole’s answers and get some sense of how his mind works. He’s funny. He’s a little subversive and libidinous. He has the flair for the dramatic. His mind leaps from violent imagery to sex to people jumping out of burning skyscrapers to very practical issues, such as how to get a duvet to stay on a bed. He gives us the impression that if we gave him another ten minutes, he’d come up with another twenty uses.*
Now, for the sake of comparison, consider the answers of another student from Hudson’s sample. His name is Florence. Hudson tells us that Florence is a prodigy, with one of the highest IQs in his school.
(Brick). Building things, throwing.
(Blanket). Keeping warm, smothering fire, tying to trees and sleeping in (as a hammock), improvised stretcher.
Where is Florence’s imagination He identified the most common and most functional uses for bricks and blankets and simply stopped. Florence’s IQ is higher than Poole’s. But that means little, since both students are above the threshold. What is more interesting is that Poole’s mind can leap from violent imagery to sex to people jumping out of buildings without missing a beat, and Florence’s mind can’t. Now which of these two students do you think is better suited to do the kind of brilliant, imaginative work that wins Nobel Prizes?
* Here’s another student’s answers. These might be even better than Poole’s: “(Brick). To break windows for robbery, to determine depth of wells, to use as ammunition, as pendulum, to practice carving, wall building, to demonstrate Archimedes’ Principle, as part of abstract sculpture, costh, ballast, weight for dropping things in river, etc., as a hammer, keep door open, foot wiper, use as rubble for path filling, chock, weight on scale, to prop up wobbly table, paperweight, as fire harth, to block up rabbit hole.”
That’s the second reason Nobel Prize winners come from Holy Cross as well as Harvard, because Harvard isn’t selecting its students on the basis of how well they do on the “uses of a brick” test and maybe “uses of a brick” is a better predictor of Nobel Prize ability. It’s also the second reason Michigan Law School couldn’t find a difference between its affirmative action graduates and the rest of its alumni. Being a successful lawyer is about a lot more than IQ. It involves having the kind of fertile mind that Poole had. And just because Michigan’s minority students have lower scores on convergence tests doesn’t mean they don’t have that other critical trait in abundance.

About Abdul Rahman Alieh

I use this space to share interesting videos and snippets from articles and books I come across. I hope you find this blog interesting. Can't wait to read your comments! Abdul Rahman

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