Too smart for their own good? Genius is a great trait until it infringes on having a great life. (culture in context).
Even with this handicap, though, the whiz kids have been moving to the front of the class at Hollywood High. Last year Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind took home four Oscars for the story of Nobel laureate John Nash's tragedy and triumph. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's 1997 film Good Will Hunting introduced us to a math genius janitor and garnered nine Academy Award nominations. And Geoffrey Rush took home a golden statuette for his 1996 portrayal of a piano prodigy in Shine.
In smaller films John Turturro turned in a brilliant performance as a chess virtuoso in an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's The Luzhin Defence, Bill Pullman proved to be a quirky but crackerjack crime solver in Jake Kasdan's Zero Effect, and Sean Gullette explored the borderland between genius and insanity in Darren Aronofsky's dark sci-fi thriller Pi.
Brainiacs have been popping up on TV as well. Martin Sheen is a Nobel laureate economist president on The West Wing. Tony Shaloub plays a kind of Rain Man detective on Monk. Vincent D'Onofrio is a homicide cop with a Holmesian I.Q. on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Dominic Purcell is an amnesiac brainiac who helps cops solve crimes while searching for his long-term memory on the new series John Doe. And Maury Chaykin has brought Rex Stout's orchid-growing superbrain sleuth back to life in The Nero Wolfe Mysteries.
Hollywood has long loved to cast geniuses as detectives or evil masterminds. Ever since Basil Rathbone and George Zucco brought Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity to the screen, audiences have loved the cat-and-mouse play between these good and bad brainiacs. This is the sort of cerebral play that kept a generation glued to the adventures of Ellery Queen and Perry Mason and attracted their children to the likes of Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect on Mystery.
And when the whiz kids weren't playing crime fighters or archfiends on screen, they were often cast as loveable, absent minded folks who needed a keeper to get them through the day. Unkempt and lacking the practical knowledge or common sense possessed by ordinary folks, these charming eggheads had a sort of childlike quality about them.
A NUMBER OF RECENT FILMS AND TV SHOWS, HOWEVER, portray geniuses as emotionally stunted, lonely, asocial prodigies who don't know how to enjoy life. These folks aren't just forgetful. You get the sense that somebody stole their childhood, or at least all their recess periods. Maybe they could do algorithms at 4, but nobody ever taught them to color or play marbles. Like Data on Star Trek, their emotional chip is unplugged, rendering them incomplete. They have no heart-smarts. Kids need a sense of joy, wonder, and awe, and somebody took theirs away. Life happened while they were cramming for a trig exam.
Dustin Hoffman may have set the course for these dysfunctional geniuses in Rain Man with his portrayal of an autistic idiot savant who can beat the house in Las Vegas but can't cross a street alone or tolerate missing an episode of The People's Court. Unlike the child prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Hoffman's Rain Man will never grow up or have much fun or learn to love somebody else. There is something profoundly sad about his paralysis.
In Ron Howard's film, mathematician John Nash may have A Beautiful Mind, but it's also one crippled by schizophrenia and paranoia. Arrogant, asocial, and emotionally immature, this is not a child who "works and plays well with others." Matt Damon's genius janitor in Good Will Hunting can humiliate MIT professors, but he's about as grown up as the average schoolyard bully. And in Shine, Geoffrey Rush's prodigious gifts at the piano don't cover up the psychic scars of a childhood of terror and degradation. These are not just "absent-minded" professors in need of a housekeeper, but intellects chained to tortured souls.
And though the tone is lighter, Shaloub's Adrian Monk is also a dysfunctional genius. Traumatized by his wife's murder, Monk's obsessive compulsive tendencies have exploded, rendering him unfit for regular police duties. He can only function under the care of a personal nurse, who serves as his Watson and mommy.
THIS VIEW OF WHIZ KIDS NOT JUST AS geeks but as psychologically damaged goods could be part of our cultural ambivalence about genius. In America every minivan bears a bumper sticker boasting about honor roll children, and every parent wants to believe their kids are above average.
But we are also suspicious of great intellect. It seems undemocratic and raises the specter of elitism. Frasier and his brother Niles got all the good grades, were admitted to the best schools, and found a full-time perch on the honor roll. But our sympathies are with their blue-collar father, who hates opera and wishes his boys had played sandlot ball. Our politicians and pundits often echo this populist anti-intellectualism, ridiculing ivory tower academics who don't understand the real world.
But it's also possible that this dark view of genius reflects a growing discomfort with the price we can end up paying for stressing good grades and academic success. While we have always suspected that "C" students often did a great deal better in life than some of their 4.0 classmates, Daniel Goldman's book Emotional Intelligence (Bantam) has underscored the fact that academic success is no guarantee of emotional maturity, happiness, or success in relationships. Indeed, overstressing good grades and test scores can often undermine our efforts to grow up into happy, competent, and caring adults.
In America we prize intellect as a key to success. Smart kids get good grades, which get them into good schools and great jobs. Smart kids become doctors and lawyers and scientists and make lots of money. By commercializing the intellectual life, by reducing it to its market value, though, we teach our children to prize the commodities and incomes that high test scores will bring them, not the sense of wonder they will find in learning or the rich interior life that will come from habit of study, inquiry, and reflection. We cheapen intelligence by asking only what it will buy for our children, and not how rich it will make them. So we end up wanting smart, but not necessarily wise, children.
This focus on academic achievement also threatens to rob many of our daughters and sons of large parts of their childhood. If the race to academic and fiscal success begins when our children are in grade or middle school, we reduce their childhood to a training ground for adult competition.
But children are not little adults who need to get a leg up in the race to the good life. They are little people who need to experience and cherish the joys and pleasures of childhood, to learn about wonder and curiosity and play, to develop a rich interior and emotional life, full of imagination, creativity, and awe. Tomorrow has enough woes of its own. We need to let them be children at least once.
Recent films and TV shows portraying geniuses as emotional cripples should not discourage us from encouraging genius or intellectual development in our children. We already have enough anti-intellectualism in our society. But they might serve as a reminder that the full development of our human intelligence requires that we grow up emotionally as well.
My own favorite genius movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, teaches this lesson quite nicely. For in this tale about a chess prodigy whose coach and dad get a bit too focused on the boy's success in tournaments, we learn that it is more important for a child to learn to master play than it is to play like a master.
By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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