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Where Have All the Geniuses Gone?

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: academic life, genius



Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Florida State University and the author, most recently, of Divine Fury: A History of Genius, published this month by Basic Books.

Speaking at the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2003, the year before his death, Jacques Derrida invoked an "untenable word, that no one these days would still admit holding to." "This noun 'genius' ... makes us squirm," he said, adding that "in according the least legitimacy to the word 'genius,' one is considered to sign one's resignation from all fields of knowledge."

Consider Derrida what you will—charlatan, great philosopher—he was an astute analyst of the language of homo academicus. And about the current academic fortunes of genius, Derrida had a point. Genius does make us squirm. When we consider it at all, we're inclined to deny it, deconstruct it, or explain it away as an "ideology of genius." Geniuses of the past seem to have been perched on their pedestals so that we might drag them down. "People love to come up with reasons for saying Shakespeare was not a genius," Ann Donnelly, a former curator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust museum, has pointed out. Far from lavishing praise on genius, scholars are more inclined to scoff.

Something of this same reflexive dismissal and discomfort can be heard in department halls when the MacArthur foundation announces, as it did several weeks ago, its annual "genius" fellows. Although the foundation avoids the term, the news media flaunt it, with predictable results. University administrators gloat about the "geniuses" in their midst, trade publishers fawn, salaries (and egos) swell. Meanwhile, colleagues, more than a little jealous, speak of the new "geniuses" with scare quotes, mocking with their fingers a word that can be used only ironically, if at all....

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education


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