A new post by Emily about how talent is overrated here. It's an interesting synchronicity to read that post after reading Peter Railton's recent APA Presidential address, specifically his remarks on the cult of smartness in philosophy:
How did smartness get to be so central in evaluation in a discipline that is supposed to be seeking knowledge and wisdom? And what is it doing t o us as students, teachers, colleagues, and researchers to allow this culture to persist? What are the full costs of this culture, in which we all to some degree participate, even if only passively?
Sarah-Jane Leslie and colleagues (2015) have done research which might tell us something about these costs. Leslie and colleagues polled academics nationwide in disciplines across the university and got evidence that philosophers are at the very high end of the spectrum of disciplines in their answer to the question whether success in their field requires “raw, innate talent” or “a special aptitude that can’t be taught”. Moreover, Leslie and colleagues discovered that, in general, disciplines where such an idea prevails—mathematics, physics, music composition, among others—have lower representations of women and historically under-represented groups than disciplines where greater importance is attached to “effort and dedication” as opposed to “raw ability”. Our ideology of smartness may work against an ideal of inclusiveness. So it’s no longer cute—can we also make it no longer cool?
Railton also makes the point that the kind of divergent thinking that can really aid philosophical creativity is likely to be systematically suppressed by the hegemony of smart.
We’ll never know what this ideology of smartness has cost the discipline over the years in terms of the discouragement of creative minds of all ages who just didn’t, or wouldn’t, fit that mold.
I think this actually ties to Emily's point about hard work.
In my experience I only ever get good at something to the extent that I can overcome my anxieties and embarrassments and be willing to do it badly. When I write a paper or book I have to tell myself that the first draft is going to suck. And sometimes it does. Sometimes the final draft sucks pretty bad or is embarrassing. But (and this applies to everything) if I wasn't willing to work really hard putting out crap, I'd never achieve even basic competence, not to mention maybe achieving real understanding or beauty. The ideology of smart strikes me as a tremendous impediment in this regard.
There are things we can do though. Railton again:
I was speaking with a mathematician the other day—the quintessential field of “smarts”. She has an international reputation and works in a top department. She looked at me in a level gaze. “I always tell my women students that I wasn’t the strongest student in my graduate class. And I wasn’t the second strongest student. But maybe I had better ideas. Or asked better questions. Or cared more about the work.”
Good advice for men too.