An interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal argues that America’s educational system is not paying too little attention to its gifted students; it’s paying too much. This contrarian perspective conflicts with the conventional wisdom, which views child prodigies as precious natural resources. Educators believe that by carefully cultivating gifted children, these youngsters will embody “exceptional human capital” that can eventually be used to address world problems. The author (Jordan Ellenberg) speaks with some authority on this subject, since he was a child genius himself and is now a tenured math professor, nonfiction writer, and novelist.
Professor Ellenberg makes a strong case from his perspective as a mathematician and scientist, but an even more convincing argument can perhaps be made by drawing on the work of Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi. Educational assessments of “genius” place too much emphasis on proficiency in symbol manipulation (i.e. words and mathematical formulae) as a marker of cognitive ability. This is not surprising, since these skills can be tested, measured, and developed relatively easy by educators. These abilities are also clearly valuable for honing and expressing ideas.

However, this perspective reflects a biased view of intellectual development. Knowledge is largely perceived as articulated information and skills that are “produced” and disseminated in formal academic and educational settings. This knowledge is then stored as “capital” in the brains of students, with more adept brains naturally storing a greater quantity of useful knowledge. “Human capital” is thereby tantamount to the transfer of explicitly articulated knowledge from teachers to students, in whom it is then literally embodied. Because proficiency in symbol manipulation increases one’s capacity to retain information, “geniuses” presumably assimilate a disproportionate share of humanity’s stock of useful knowledge and, therefore, are the individuals expected to apply knowledge most productively.

Although educators rarely recognize it, these assumptions reflect a very “top down” perspective on information and knowledge. Friedrich Hayek was one of the certifiable geniuses of the 20th century, and he had a very different view. He emphasized that knowledge is always extraordinarily diffuse and distributed throughout society. He called this “unorganized knowledge…the knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place.” In his paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek writes:

“It is with respect to this (form of knowledge) that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active co-öperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.”

Sometimes the most valuable information for solving practical problems is right in front of our noses, but recognizing this requires being alert and sensitive to the critical details of any particular problem. Minds prone to drifting into the mists of abstraction are likely to miss important, concrete details. Although I can’t prove it, I would wager that these minds belong to an intellectual aristocracy once identified by educators as child prodigies. In contrast, the knowledge of particular circumstances of time and place is extraordinarily democratic, since “practically every individual has some advantage over all others” with respect to knowing, and being in a position to act on, valuable information that is specific to meeting immediate needs.

Michael Polanyi has a complementary perspective to Hayek’s. Polanyi highlights that much of what anyone knows is “tacit” and cannot be explicitly articulated and transmitted in formal educational settings. He also argues that tacit knowledge is the key to a deep understandings of problems, which in turn is necessary for fundamental intellectual advances.

Polanyi believes intellectual discovery can never be reduced to examining a problem’s particular elements, or ‘particulars.’ In The Tacit Dimension, Polanyi writes that “to see a problem is to see something that is hidden. It is to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars.” True insight – in science, commerce or art – comes from a largely intuitive “integration of particulars…(and discovering) intimations of the potential coherence of hitherto unrelated things, and their solution establishes a new comprehensive entity, be it a new poem, a new kind of machine, or a new knowledge of nature.”

It is worth noting that Michael Polanyi was an esteemed chemist whose pursuit of scientific knowledge eventually led him into philosophical questions. His work provides a lens for understanding why “genius” is ineffable and always more than the sum of the “particulars.” True genius involves finding hidden coherence, recognizing unexpected connections, and using these discoveries to develop new forms and innovations. Of course this is an example of creativity, but it is a type of creativity both grounded in material reality and infused with a subjective, personal commitment to understanding reality beyond the self. In Polanyi’s view, excessive attention to the particulars of a problem can actually be the enemy of real genius, yet this is exactly the pedagogical approach that typifies American education, particularly towards the most gifted students.

tacit knowledge