The Mindstorm

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

>

The Alumnus: Hello. I was in town, and I wanted to stop in for a visit.

The Visionary: How good to see you! What have you been up to? We’re all interested in hearing what our alumni are doing.

The Alumnus: Well, that would take a bit of explaining. I had a good experience with college.

The Visionary: That’s lovely to hear.

The Alumnus: Yes, and I know that some alumni from our Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, also known as IMSA, didn’t. I got through college the same way I got through gradeschool, playing by the law of the jungle. I stopped and thought about how to approach college. I realized soon that higher numbered courses were easier than lower numbered courses, and how to find professors I could work with. And I understand why one alumna said, “IMSA didn’t prepare me for college. It prepared me for graduate school.” College will not automatically be a good experience for IMSA students, but there are choices the college won’t advertise but could be made.

The Visionary: I wish you could speak to some of our students.

The Alumnus: I’d like the opportunity. There are a lot of things to say—that there’s a normal scale of elementary-junior high-high school-undergraduate-graduate school, and IMSA doesn’t fit on it. It has high school aged students, but it’s not a modified high school; it’s close in ways to graduate school, but there’s something about it that is missed if you put it at any one point on the scale. And this has the result that IMSA students need to realize that when they enter college, they are not going from high school to the next step after high school; they’re going from IMSA to something that was not meant to follow IMSA. But something that has opportunities if they knock on back doors and take advantage of some things the university doesn’t know they need.

The Visionary: If you’re serious about talking to our students, I mean talking with our students, I can introduce you to the appropriate people.

The Alumnus: Thank you. I was mentioning this to lead up to a gem of a class I took, one on what you need to know to make user-friendly computer programs, i.e. usability. There was something that set me thinking, nettled me, when I was reading through some of the jargon file’s Hell desk slang, um, I mean help desk slang. The term “pilot error” meant much the same thing as “ID ten T error”.

The Visionary: I know what “pilot error” means in some contexts, but what does “ID ten T error” mean?

The Alumnus: It’s easiest to see if you write it out.

The Visionary [goes to a markerboard and writes, “I D 1 0 T” ]: Um… I assume there’s a reason you started to say, “Hell desk.” Aren’t they just blowing off steam?

The Alumnus: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the ways many help desk employees have blown off steam is to say, “Ok. If you’ll hold for a minute, I’m going to transfer you to my supervisor. Would you tell her that you appear to have an ‘eye dee ten tee’ error?” And they all gloat over what they’ve gotten the customer to say. No, seriously, you don’t need to keep a straight face.

But what really struck me was the entry for PEBKAC, acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” There was an example given of,

Did you figure out why that guy couldn’t print?

Yeah, he kept canceling the print operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.

This was philosophically interesting.

The Visionary: How?

The Alumnus: In a computer, you get these time wasting messages where a little window pops up and you can’t do any useful work until you click on the button. It becomes noise for the sake of noise; like the boy who cried, “Wolf!”, we have the computer that cries, “Worth your attention.” After a while, the normal thing most people do is click on the button automatically so they can get back to their work. It’s a waste of time to try to decipher the cryptic messages.

So when people go to print, another one of these waste-of-time windows pops up, except that this time, when you do the right thing and click on the button and make it go away, your print job fails. And this specific example is chosen as a paradigm example of PEBKAC.

For a lot of these errors, there is a problem between a keyboard and chair. But the problem isn’t between the user’s keyboard and chair. The problem is between the programmer’s keyboard and chair.

The Visionary: Ouch.

The Alumnus: That course was what led to what I did for my Ph.D.

The Visionary: And that was?

The Alumnus: My discipline of record is philosophy of mind/cognitive science.

The Visionary: “Discipline of record?” I’m curious to hear you drop the other shoe.

The Alumnus: Usability is connected to cognitive science—an amalgam of computer science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, linguistics, and other areas, all trying to understand human thought so we can re-implement it on a computer. It’s a fascinating area for interdisciplinary study, and usability draws on it, just from a different angle: instead of making computers intelligent, it tries to make computers friendly to people who don’t understand how they are built. And a lot of things which are clear as day if you built the system aren’t automatically clear to customers. A system which is usable lets the user have an illusory cognitive model of how the system works that is far, far simpler than how a programmer would understand it. And programmers don’t consciously believe that customers understand the innards of their system, but there’s an assumption that creeps in, an assumption of, “My way of thinking about it is how a person thinks about it.”

The Visionary: That way of putting it makes the programmers sound ego-centric.

The Alumnus: I wouldn’t put it in such crude terms as that; they are thinking in a way that is human.

With languages, there is a lot of diversity. Aside from the variety of languages, there’s a difference between the U.S., where the majority only speak one language, and Sénégal, where it is common for people to speak five or six languages. There’s a difference between Italy, where people speak one national language in a fairly pure form, and India, where English and Hindi are spliced together seamlessly. For that matter, there’s the deaf outlet of speaking with your hands instead of your mouth. But with all these differences, language itself is not something which is added to being human. Language is not a custom that cultures may happen to include. There are exceptional cases where people do not learn a language, and these are tragic cases where people are deprived of a human birthright. The specifics of language may vary, but language itself is not adding something to being human. It is something that is basically human. The details and even diversity of languages are details of how language works out.

And a lot of things are like that. Understanding something that you’re working on is not something added to being human; it’s an interpretation of something basic. How one thinks, about technology and other things, is not something added to being human. It’s something basically human.

One very natural tendency is to think that “I” or “we” or “people like us” are just being human; we just have what is natural to being human. The “them” group has all sorts of things that are added to being human, but “we” are just being human. So we expect other people to think like us. We assume it so deeply and unconsciously that we are shocked by their perversity when they violate this expectation.

The Visionary: Wow. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. Do you think IMSA provided a safe haven from this kind of lockstep thinking for its students?

The Alumnus: I think it provides a safe haven for quite a lot of its students. But getting back to my Ph.D. program—

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: So I began, encouraged by some initial successes, to try and make the first artificial mind. For a while I thought I would succeed, after overcoming some obstacles that couldn’t have been that bad.

The Visionary: What were these obstacles?

The Alumnus: Just a special case here and there, an unrepresentative anomaly. But when I worked, I had a sneaking suspicion dawn on me.

Freshman year, I had a college roommate who was brilliant and eccentric. He turned out stunning proofs in math classes. He was also trying to build a perpetual motion machine. He was adjusting this and that; I listened, entranced, when he traced the history of great experiments in physics, and talked about how across the centuries they went from observing obvious behavior to find subtle ways to trick nature into showing you something you weren’t supposed to see. Think of the ingenuity of the Millikan oil drop experiment. And so he went on, trying to adjust this and that, seeking to get things just right for a perpetual motion machine. There were times when he seemed to almost have it. It seemed there were ten things you needed for a perpetual motion machine, and he had an almost working machine for any nine of them. But that tenth one seemed never to fall into place.

And I had a sneaking suspicion, one that I was going to try awfully hard to ignore, that for a long time I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was expecting. But deja vu kept creeping in. I had just succeeded with a project that met every clearly defined goal I set for it… but I had just found another way not to make artificial intelligence.

The crusher was when I read von Neumann’s 1958 The Computer and the Brain. Then I stopped running from deja vu. Here was crass confidence that in 1958 we discoved the basis for all human thought, and all human thought is add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Here was an assumption in lieu of argument. And here was the air I breathed as a cognitive science.

The Visionary: But I’ve looked at some reports, and artificial intelligence seems to be just around the corner.

The Alumnus: Full artificial intelligence is just around the corner, and it’s been just around the corner since at least the fifties—arguably much longer, because for a hundred years before the brain was a computer, it was a telephone exchange. (I think that’s why we talk about a person being “wired” a particular way.) The brain is always understood as the state of the art technology we’re most proud of.

I hit rock bottom after thinking about how I had convinced myself I was creating a working artificial intelligence by obtaining results and reinterpreting results as success. It’s very seductive, and I was thinking about what some skeptics had said about magic.

What emerged was… The effort to make computers think has found ways that the human mind is much more interesting than we thought. And I began to push in a new direction. Instead of trying to understand human intelligence to make computers more intelligent, I began to try to understand human intelligence to make humans more intelligent.

The Visionary: What exactly do you mean?

The Alumnus: There are a lot of disciplines that teach you how to think. I think scholars in many disciplines see their discipline as the discipline that teaches you how to think, where truly different disciplines are a sort of no-man’s land that doesn’t qualify as “how to think.” But these are a coupled subject matter and how to think about the subject matter. This was, in abstracted, crystalline, and universal form, “How to think.” The analogy I used at the time was that it was the elementary school number line (1, 2, 3, …), abstracted from sets of one physical object, two physical objects, three physical objects…

The Visionary [pausing]: It sounds like you’re pioneering a new academic discipline. Would you like IMSA to highlight this?

The Alumnus: I am working that out. Not exactly whether what I am doing would qualify as an academic discipline—I’m pretty sure of that—but whether going down that route would be the wisest choice. For now, I’d rather wait.

The Visionary: Are you sure you wouldn’t want the prestige? Hmm… on second thought, I can see that.

What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?

The Alumnus [pause]: That question is one of the first ones people ask me. It’s automatic.

In tandem with what you might call my loss of faith in cognitive science, I began to question the cultural place of science. Including that in a question like this, the nearly immediate question people ask is one that assumes the answers are fed by science. Three of the most difficult mental accomplishments I’ve made are learning to think like a scientist, crafting this discipline of how to think, and learning to genuinely ask “How else could it be?” when people automatically go charging in with science.

The Visionary: But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?

The Alumnus: Both your questions, “What are the scientific underpinnings of your discipline?” and “But don’t you think it’s important to understand what’s going on in the body?” are examples of the tendency I’m talking about. Your latter question assumes that “understanding the body” and “study the science of the body” are interchangeable terms; they often are treated that way in Western culture, but they need not be.

The Visionary: But how else could it be?

The Alumnus: In journalism and some writing classes, students are taught a technique of cubing, which asks six questions, one for each side of the cube. The six questions are all “w” words: who, what, when, where, and how.

In most aboriginal cultures, for instance, people ask more than one question, but the big question is, “Why?” The stories provide explanations for why the world is as it is.

In science, the big question is, “How?” Laws and theories provide mechanisms for how things happen. “Why?” isn’t just de-emphasized; it’s something people learn not to ask, something that is subtly stamped out like much of a child’s creativity. Asking “Why?” is a basic error, like asking how much an idea weighs. One philosopher of science I read gave an example of a father asking a teenaged son, “Why is the living room light on?” and getting the answer, “Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, closing the circuit and causing electricity to flow through the bulb.” That isn’t why, that’s how. And if students are taught science without being taught how to be independent from science, or for that matter if they are in a culture influenced by science as ours has been, they’ll come to share the assumption that this is the one and only serious answer to, “Why is the living room light on?”

That puts things too simply, but my point is that science does not represent the full range of inquiry. Science has cast a powerful shadow, not just in that science is scientific (which is as it should be) but in that non-scientific inquiry is not as independent as it should be.

But I’m getting off topic. What I was meaning to say was that I use science, but my discipline is dependent on an independence from science as well.

The Visionary: Could I backtrack a fair distance?

The Alumnus: Sure, to what?

The Visionary: There was something in the back of my mind when you answered my question about IMSA shielding its students from a lockstep environment. May I ask a more specific question?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: Did IMSA shield you from a lockstep environment?

The Alumnus: IMSA was unquestionably a better environment for me than a mainstream school.

The Visionary: You’re being diplomatic.

The Alumnus: Ok. IMSA tries to be a magnet school serving the gifted population. Instead of memorization, it tries to produce critical observers, right?

The Visionary: Yes, and this isn’t just for IMSA. We want to be a beacon of hope, for educational progress to the state and to the world.

The Alumnus: IMSA still doesn’t have a football program, right?

The Visionary: IMSA students still don’t really want one. If there was enough demand, we’d have one.

The Alumnus: What would you say to a football coach who wanted to liberate the tough, aggressive quarterback struggling to get out of every IMSA bookworm?

The Visionary: I think I see where you’re going. Let me play devil’s advocate for the moment. Our society has recognized football as an endeavor for some. But don’t we recognize that education is a goal for all?

The Alumnus: All analogies break down, and I can’t force you to see my point if you don’t want to. My reason for drawing that analogy is that the average mind learns by memorization of given material, and that mind is ill-served by trying to liberate that critical observer just as many bookworms would be ill-served by trying to liberate that hidden quarterback. The kind of student that does well at IMSA doesn’t do so well with the memorization that serves the average student. But it’s a two-way street.

The Visionary: And I think I see a connection to what you said about programmers assume that how they think about a product is how everybody will think about it. And…

The Alumnus: Yes. But there’s something else.

The Visionary: So how do you think IMSA’s outreach should be changed? Should we stop outreach?

The Alumnus: I’d want to give that some thought. That isn’t why I brought this up. I brought up this two-edged sword to make it easier to see another two-edged sword.

The two-edged sword I’ve suggested is that, just as IMSA students tend to be uncomfortable with the instructional methods at most schools, average students would be uncomfortable with instruction that seeks to liberate a hidden critical observer. It’s a bad match both ways. The other two-edged sword has to do with the nature of giftedness. How would you define giftedness?

The Visionary: I try not to, at least in not as strong terms as you do. IMSA is trying to liberate the genius of every child.

The Alumnus: I think your actions are wiser than your rhetoric. How much thought goes into your admissions decisions?

The Visionary: Our admissions staff give a great deal of thought! Do you think we’re careless?

The Alumnus: I would have been disturbed if IMSA made a random choice from among the students whose genius would be nurtured. Are you sure you don’t want to define giftedness?

The Visionary: Every child has some talent.

The Alumnus: I agree, although your words sound suspiciously like words that many IMSA parents have learned to wince at. There are a lot of parents who have bright children who have learned that “All of our children are gifted.” means, in practical terms, “Your daughter will be educated according to our idealization of an average student, no matter how much it hurts her, and we won’t make accomodation.”

But you are, unlike me, an administrator whom everybody blames for problems, and you know that there are many occasions where coming out and expressing your candid opinions is an invitation to disaster. I groused about the administration to no end as a student; it is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the difficult and delicate task of being an administrator, and what kind of performance on an administration’s part lets me focus on my work.

I’m going to put on my suspicious and mistrustful observer cap and read into your actions that it would be politically dangerous for you to say “This is the kind of gifted student we look for at IMSA.” But I am not an administrator. I am more of a private person than you can afford to be, and there are more degrees of freedom offered to me. Would you mind my giving my opinion on a matter where you in particular need to be very careful in what you say?

The Visionary: I’m always open to listen, and I’m not just saying this as an administrator.

The Alumnus: I should also say that because something is politic, I don’t automatically translate “politic” to “insincere.” I believe you’ve been as successful as you have partly because you sincerely want to hear what people have to say. When someone says, “political sensitivity,” I’ve learned to stop being a cynic and automatically hearing, “Machiavellian intrigue.”

But when I teach, I try to have a map that accomodates itself to terrain, both old and new to me. There are surprisingly many things I believe that are human universals, although I won’t discuss them here. But diversity is foundational to how I communicate, and in particular teach.

By “diversity” I don’t just mean “affirmative action concerns.” I read what I can about minority cultures, and how Asperger’s or ADD minds tick. That much is important, and I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon. But diversity doesn’t begin when a student labeled as “minority,” “different,” or “disadvantaged” sits down in your classroom. Diversity begins much earlier. Diversity is every person. I’m fond of books like David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II which explore what temperament and Myers-Briggs types mean for personhood. I want to appreciate learning styles. I absolutely love when students come in during office hours, because then I can see exactly where a student is, and exactly how that student is learning and thinking, and give an explanation that is tailored to the student’s specific situation. I like to lecture too, but I’m freest to meet student needs when students visit me in my office.

And one very important facet of that diversity is one that is unfashionable today, more specifically IQ.

The Visionary: I remember seeing a report that your IQ was so high it was untestable by normal means. I’ve heard that polite drivers value politeness, skillful drivers value skill, and safe drivers value safety. Is there…?

The Alumnus: If you want to dismiss what I’m saying because of speculation about my motives, there’s a good case to do so. I know that. But please hear and accept or dismiss my arguments on their merits, and if you read books like James Webb’s Guiding the Gifted Child, you’ll see this isn’t just my idea. I accept multiple intelligence theory as a nuance, but I would point my finger to the idea that a single IQ was an adjustment in theory, made by people who started by assuming multiple intelligences.

But with all the debates, and in particular despite the unfashionability of “IQ”, there is excellent reason to discuss giftedness in terms of IQ. IQ may not be the whole story, but you’re missing something big if it is treated as one factor among others.

Several caveats deleted, I would point out that giftedness is not a binary attribute, any more than being tall is binary. There may be some people who are clearly tall and others who clearly aren’t, but regardless of where you draw the line, you can’t divide people into a “tall” group of people who are all exactly 190 centimeters tall and a “non-tall” group of people who are 160 centimeters tall. There is diversity, and this diversity remains even if you restrict your attention to tall people.

The Visionary: So then would you say that most high schools serve an average diversity, and IMSA serves a gifted diversity?

The Alumnus: Umm…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: An average high school breaks at both ends of its spectrum…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: Um…

The Visionary: Yes?

The Alumnus: And IMSA breaks at both ends of its spectrum.

The Visionary: If there are some students who the administration overestimates, this is unfortunate, but—

The Alumnus: That’s not my point. Ignoring several other dimensions of diversity, we don’t have two points of “average” and “gifted” defining a line. Giftedness, anyway, is not “the same kind of intelligence as most people have, only more of it and faster”; it’s a different kind of intelligence. It diverges more the further you go.

Instead of the two points of “average” and “gifted”, there are three points to consider: “average”, “gifted”, and “profoundly gifted.”

I think it is to IMSA’s great credit that you have a gifted education, not a pullout tacked on to a nongifted education. Serving gifted needs isn’t an adjustment; it’s the fabric you’ve woven, and it is impressive.

But “profoundly gifted” is as different from the “moderately gifted” as “moderately gifted” is from “average”…

…and IMSA attracts a good proportion of the profoundly gifted minority…

…and the position of the profoundly gifted at IMSA is exactly the position many IMSA students had in TAG pullouts.

The Visionary: May I say a word in IMSA’s defense?

The Alumnus: Certainly.

The Visionary: IMSA began as a dream, a wild, speculative, powerful, risky vision. From the beginning, its place was tentative; some of the first classes did math problems before the state government because IMSA was threatened with closing. IMSA makes things happen that wouldn’t happen anywhere, and for all we’ve done, there are still people who would remove us from the budget. I’ve talked with alumni, both those who like and dislike the school, and I see something in them which I didn’t see in other places.

The Alumnus: And IMSA is a safe place to learn and grow, and IMSA alumni are making a powerful contribution to the world. All of this I assume. And IMSA seems like the kind of place that could grow, that does grow. IMSA could offer the world certain extraordinarily talented individuals that have been stretched to their limit, who have spent certain very formative years doing things most people don’t even dream of, and doing so not in isolation but guided and supported as powerfully, and as gently for their needs, as IMSA already offers to so many of its students.

The Visionary: If you have any plans, I would like to hear them.

The Alumnus: Before I give the plans as such, I would like to give a brief overview, not just of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted mind, but of the average, moderately gifted, and profoundly gifted spirit. Keep in mind that this is not a trichotomy, but three reference points on a curve.

The average mind is concrete. It deals in practical, concrete matters. There was one study which posed isomorphic problems to people, one of which was stated abstractly, and one of which asked in concrete terms who the “cheaters” were. The average respondent did poorly on the abstract isomorph, but was astute when it was put concretely. The average mind is more practical, and learns by an understanding which gradually emerges by going over things again. The preferred learning style is oriented towards memorization and is relatively slow, concrete, and (on gifted terms) doesn’t make connections. This person is the fabric with which society is woven; a person like this tends to understand and be understood by others. The average mind concentrates on, and becomes reasonably proficient, in a small number of skills.

The moderately gifted mind, around an IMSA IQ of 140, deals with abstractions. It sees interconnections, and this may be related to why the moderately gifted mind learns more skills with less effort. (If this is true, an average mind would be learning from scratch, while a moderately gifted mind would only make adaptations from similar skills.) This person is likely to have a “collection of skills”, and have a low self-assessment in those skills. (Today’s breathtaking performance is, tomorrow, marginally adequate.) Self-actualizing concern for becoming a particular kind of person is much more common. The moderately gifted mind enjoys an advantage over the average mind, and is different, but still close enough to connect. This person learns more quickly, and most of society’s leaders are moderately gifted. (Some have suggested that this is not just because people above that range are much rarer, but because they can easily connect.

There is controversy about how isolated the profoundly gifted person is, with an IQ around 180. Some researchers believe that the greater gap is bridged by the greater ability to connect; Webb suggests otherwise, saying that children with an IQ above 170 feel like they don’t fit in anywhere. He asks what the effects would be if a normal child grew up in a world where most people had an IQ of 50-55. Some profoundly gifted have discussed the feeling that there’s an instruction manual to life that everyone but them has. The unusual sense of humor that appears in the moderately gifted is even more pronounced in the profoundly gifted. Average people tend to believe some tacit and naively realistic philosophy. Moderately gifted people tend to believe some conscious and creative reinterpretation of realism. Profoundly gifted people tend to believe an almost automatic anti-realism. The realism assumed by most people doesn’t resonate with them. And I need to explain what I mean by “believe” here. I don’t mean that someone engaged them in a discussion and are convinced by logic or eloquence that an anti-realist philosophy is true. I mean something close to experience, as we believe that a radiator is hot after we touch it. Realism is obvious for someone of average intelligence. For someone profoundly gifted, coming to that perspective represents a significant achievement.

Furthermore, where the moderately gifted person has a “skill collection”, the profoundly gifted individual has what might as well be magic powers—

The Visionary: You mean is involved with the occult or psychic phenomena?

The Alumnus: Not exactly. Profoundly gifted individuals have been known to do things like reinventing the steam engine at age six. Some of them can walk into a room and in an instant infer what kind of presentation is going to be given, and what kind of organization is going to give it. They have been known to make penetrating observations of connections between vastly different disciplines. Some have written a book in a week. Others remember everything they have read. Verbatim. Another still has invented a crude physics and using it to solve problems before she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely plausible for a profoundly gifted individual to think for a few hours about a philosophical school he’s just read about, and have a better grasp of the assumptions and implications surrounding that school than scholars who have studied the discipline for years. Many accomplishments are less extreme than that. Some are more extreme. I said that they might as well be magic powers because they are no more believable to many people than levitation or fairies granting wishes. Moderately gifted achievements are envied. Profoundly gifted achievements are disbelieved, and one social lesson the profoundly gifted learn is that there are certain accomplishments that you don’t talk about… which feels the way most people would feel if people were shocked and offended when they tried to say, “I can read,” or for that matter, “I can breathe.”

These people do not think of themselves as having magic powers. Their impressive abilities are no more breathtaking or astonishing to them than our impressive abilities of walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book are to us—and if you don’t believe that walking through an unfamiliar room or understanding a children’s book is an astonishing mental feat, just spend a year in artificial intelligence. Artificial researchers know what kind of achievement is represented by these “basic” tasks. The rest of us misunderstand them as mundane. If you can understand how you can be better at understanding emotions than any computer in the world, and not think of yourself as gifted, you have a good start on understanding what it’s like to feel that it’s natural to tinker with your hands, imagine who you’re going to be when you grow up, enjoy cooking, and have dreams where your brain creates languages on the fly.

It’s a commonplace that the gifted can have a rough time of school. What IMSA does is place the profoundly gifted in the position of fixed pace classes designed for people significantly less intelligent than them.

It’s easier to criticize than it is to give a positive alternative; let me give a positive alternative.

First of all, profoundly gifted students can pick things up much more rapidly even than most IMSA students. Something like a factor of four speedup can happen again and again. Many of these students would tear through textbooks if you let them.

The Visionary: But at IMSA we don’t dump textbooks on students. We provide an environment where they can discover things for themselves.

The Alumnus: They will discover things for themselves. But if you look at learning styles, the profoundly gifted are some of the most able to understand a crystallized abstraction, and the most likely to work ahead in their textbooks.

IMSA may have a dozen or so profoundly gifted individuals at any one time.

The Visionary: And we’ve provided accommodation for a bright sophomore physics class.

The Alumnus: Yes, it is possible for students to lobby for accommodation on a specific point.

But it’s possible to go further, as IMSA has gone further than TAG pullouts.

There could be a small number of people who serve as tutors, in a sort of tutorial system as can be seen in Oxford’s and Cambridge’s history. They would be like thesis advisors, less responsible for knowing what the students need to learn than offering direction and referrals.

The Visionary: What would you have them do if they tear through IMSA’s curriculum sophomore year?

The Alumnus: Students that bright are likely to have their own axes to grind—good axes, axes which they should be encouraged. I really have trouble imagining a student flying through IMSA’s normal curriculum and then wanting to watch TV for two years. The problem of motivating these students is like the problem of defending a lion: the first thing is to get out of the way.

The teachers themselves should offer the kind of individualized instruction that is basic to special education, and deal with the “magic powers” that the main curriculum doesn’t know how to deal with.

The Visionary: Would the teachers have to be profoundly gifted?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. I would place more emphasis on understanding profoundly gifted students than necessarily being profoundly gifted oneself.

Furthermore, as well as standing in need of conceptual education, profoundly gifted students could benefit from personal development to help them meet the rest of the world. I don’t know whether it would be correct to say that average education should be about knowledge, gifted education should be about how to think, and profoundly gifted education should be about personal development. I think the idea is worth considering. And I would try to develop some things that aren’t needed in average education and less needed in moderately gifted education, such as how to bridge the gap and meet the rest of the world.

The Visionary: I’ll think about that. I would be delighted to say you’ve shown me how to solve this problem.

The Alumnus: I’d be surprised if I’ve shown you how to solve this problem. If I were asked what I could guarantee for this model, it would be that some part of it is wrong. I would ask you to consider what I’ve presented you as a rough draft. In my opinion it is a rough draft worth revising, changing course in midstream if need be, but it is a rough draft.

The Visionary: This is all very well for office hours, but how do you teach a class? You don’t try to individualize a lecture twenty different ways, do you?

The Alumnus: I believe what I said about diversity as foundational, but I also believe there are things that are common. I believe there are significant commonalities as well as significant differences.

What would you say is the dominant educational philosophy at IMSA?

The Visionary: There are several philosophies we draw on, and several things vary from teacher to teacher. But if I were to pick one school, it would be constructivism.

The Alumnus: Does constructivism see the student as an empty pot, to be filled with knowledge?

The Visionary: Quite the opposite. Constructivism sees the students as agents, trying to actively construct their models of the world, not as empty pots to be filled, or as formless clay for the teachers to shape. We see the teacher as supporting the student in this active task.

The Alumnus: And I agree that students should be active and encouraged by teachers. A related question—do you believe mathematics is something that research mathematicians invent, or something that they find out?

The Visionary: Well, the obvious answer would be that it’s something constructed.

The Alumnus: I disagree with you, at least about the “obvious” part.

The Visionary: Then I’ll trust your judgment that it’s something mathematicians discover. You’ve probably thought about this a lot more than I have.

The Alumnus: You don’t need to agree with me here. There are a lot of good mathematicians who believe mathematics is something invented.

The Visionary: Are you saying I should believe mathematics is constructed?

The Alumnus: No. There are also a lot of mathematicians who understand mathematics and say mathematics is something that’s found out.

The Visionary: Now I’m having trouble seeing where you’re going.

The Alumnus: There’s a debate among mathematicians as to whether mathematics is invented or discovered, with good mathematicians falling into either camp. The word ‘discover’ itself is ambiguous; one can say “I discovered the TV remote under the couch” and have “discover” mean “dis-cover” or “find out,” but one can also say, “I discovered a way to build a better mousetrap,” and have “discover” mean “invent”. “Invent” derives from the Latin “invenire,” which means “come into”, i.e. “find,” so that it would be more natural in Latin to say “I just invented my car keys” than “I invented a useful tool.”

The Visionary: I think I see what you are saying… Are you saying that there is a single reality described both by discovery and invention?

The Alumnus: Yes. Now to tie in with constructivism… What are students doing when they are constructing models?

The Visionary: They are shaping thought-stuff, for lack of a better term, in a way that’s different for each learner.

The Alumnus: And this is to break out of the Enlightenment/Diderot encyclopedia mindset which gives rise to stuffing the learner with facts?

The Visionary: Absolutely.

The Alumnus: Where would you place Kant? Was he a medieval philosopher?

The Visionary: He was one of the Enlightenment’s greatest philosophers.

The Alumnus: And Kant’s model of ideas was unchanged from Plato.

The Visionary: Um…

The Alumnus: Yes?

The Visionary: What Plato called “Ideas” and Kant ‘s “ideas” are two different things. For Plato, the Ideas were something strange to us: a reality outside the mind.

The Alumnus: Um… Plato and Kant would equally have affirmed the statement, “Ideas are internal.”

The Visionary: I don’t think so. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests that the Ideas are part of something that is the same for all people.

The Alumnus: If I may digress for a moment, I think that famous passage should be called “the Allegory of the Television.” I appreciate your limiting the place of television at IMSA. But back to the topic, for Plato the Ideas were internal, but were not private.

The Visionary: Huh?

The Alumnus: Kant was a pivotal figure in our—the Enlightenment’s—idea that the only real stuff outside our head is matter. When Kant says “internal,” he says “private,” and when we say “internal,” we say “private.” If you think this way, then you believe that thought is something done in a private corner. This privacy may be culturally conditioned, but it is privacy. And yet, however self-evident this seems to us, a great many philosophers and cultures have believed otherwise.

There is a private aspect to thought, but my research into how to think has led me to question the Enlightenment model and believe that we all think on the same contoured surface. We can be on different parts and move in different ways, but in thinking we deal with a reality others deal with as well. And I’m going to sound like a kooky philosopher and say that you have a deficient cosmology, and therefore a deficient corollary understanding of how humans are capable of learning, if you believe that everything is either inside the mind or else something you can kick.

The Visionary: But we’re questioning the Enlightenment model, and rejecting parts of it that have problems!

The Alumnus: I know you are. And I would encourage you to question more of it.

The Visionary: How does this belief affect teaching for you?

The Alumnus: Most immediately, it helps me say ways to identify with students—connect with their thought. There are some things that pay off long term. But in the short run, when a student makes a mistake, the student is not bad, nor is the mistake is not an anomaly to push away. A mistake is an invaluable opportunity for me to understand how a student is thinking and draw the student to a better understanding.

In terms of base metaphor, if you look at Dewey’s foundationalism, what it is that bothers many IMSA teachers and IMSA teachers are working to change, the basic idea is that the teacher is building up knowledge, from its foundations, in the student’s mind. If I were to try and capture it in a metaphor, I would say that the student is an empty lot, and the teacher is building a house on it. The teacher is actively doing teaching to the student.

The constructivism that resonates with many IMSA teachers doesn’t like the idea of the teacher being active and the student being the passive receptacle of teaching. It’s fine for the teacher to be active, but they don’t believe the student is passive because they were quite active learners themselves. Constructivist writers don’t refer to ‘students’ so much as ‘learners;’ they emphasize that the learner is active. The basic idea is that people are actively trying to build their own unique understandings of the world, and a constructivist teacher is trying to support learners in this endeavor. If foundationalism is crystallized in the image of a teacher building a house on an empty lot, constructivist learning theory is crystallized in the image of learners picking up what they can to build their own private edifices of thought, their interior castles.

The Visionary: What do you think of those?

The Alumnus: I think we’re comparing a hammer with a screwdriver. If you read debate on the web, you’ll see people who think constructivism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of foundationalism, and people who think foundationalism is a hazy and incomprehensibly bad version of constructivism. The truth is neither; good foundationalist teaching like Direct Instruction is doing one thing well, and good constructivist learning is doing another thing well, and different people learn differently.

The Visionary: But do you have an alternative?

The Alumnus: Yes, and it is again suggested by basic metaphor. Instead of building a house, or helping learners construct their private models, I would suggest looking at a single word, katalabein. I am using a Greek word without an exact English equivalent, because it ties together some things that are familiar—part of the shared inner human reality which we can recognize. It can be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘understand’, and it provides for a basic metaphor in which what is understood is actively acquired, achieved even, but it is not necessarily idiosyncratic and private. We still have an active learner, and implications for how a teacher can support that active learner…

The Visionary: Go on.

The Alumnus: But it’s different. I was fascinated with one constructivist learning page that recast the teacher as a sort of non-directive counselor. They facilitated learning experiences, but they realized that students came in with beliefs, like “Weeds are not plants because they don’t need to be nurtured,” and what really fascinated me was that some of them found themselves in an ethical quandary about the appropriateness of using a science class to influence student beliefs, say to agree with a botanist that dandelions are plants.

The Visionary: None of the IMSA teachers are that squeamish about influencing student beliefs.

The Alumnus: One alum made a comment that “looney liberals” seemed to him to offer a similar service to coal miner’s canaries. It wouldn’t be fair to accuse most liberals of their excesses, but it was still worth keeping an eye on them: they could be a warning that it was time to rethink basic ideas. Even if those web pages may fall more into the “canary” category than anything else…

The Visionary: But what do you have instead of helping students build private world-pictures?

The Alumnus: Instead of helping students build private world-pictures, helping students grapple with, in the overcoming that is understanding and the understanding that is overcoming, the katalabein of material. And this is material that always has a personal touch, but is understood to be internal in a way that is not simply how one has arbitrarily exercised privacy, but connects with a sort of inner terrain that is as shared as the outer terrain. No two people are at—no two people can be at—the exact same place in the external, physical world, nor can two people see the same thing, because their personal bodies get in the way. But that does not mean we inhabit our own private physical universes. I can tell you how to drive to my house because to get there, you would be navigating some of the same reality as I navigate. But somehow we believe that our bodies may touch the same doorknobs and our shoes may touch the same carpets… Somehow we believe that when we turn inside, the “reality” becomes impenetrably private, influenced by culture perhaps but shared to so little an extent that no two people shares the same inner sun and moon.

The Visionary: But that’s the external world! You’re not talking about when people can make up anything they want.

The Alumnus: Hmm… As part of your job, you field criticism from people who want IMSA to be shut down, right?

The Visionary: Yes.

The Alumnus: And a good portion of that criticism comes from people who are certain you’ve never considered the objection they raise, right?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my mail!

The Alumnus: And how many years has it been since one of those letters contained a criticism that was new to you?

The Visionary: You’ve been reading my… um… [pause] Wow.

The Alumnus: The introduction to the Handbook of Special Education tries to make a point by quoting the opening meeting of the International Council for the Education of Exceptional Children. The meeting had in all respects a typical (for today) discussion of how one should define special needs children. And the meeting was in 1923. The point was made that special educators assume they’re the first people to address new issues, when neither the issues nor their thoughts are new. An old internet denizen, writing about “the September that never ended”, talked about how each year in September new college students would flood newsgroup discussions with “new, new, new” insights that were, in the denizen’s words, “exactly the same tripe” that had been posted the previous year.

There is really not that much that is new, and this is tied to another observation. There is really not that much that is private. There is some. Even in the outer world there are some things that are private to each person. But in the inner world—and I am not talking aboutyour inner world, or mine, but a real world, the inner world, a place that has contours of its own and laws of its own and terrain of its own and substances of its own which are no more the subject of an idiosyncratic private monopoly than the outer world’s sun and moon. Perhaps it has a private dimension, but to assume that an inner world is by definition someone’s most private possession is almost like answering the remark “The Atlantic Ocean is getting more polluted,” with “Whose Atlantic Ocean?”

The Visionary: Is there a way to integrate the inner world with the outer world?

The Alumnus: I am guilty of a rhetorical fault. I have spoken of the outer world as if it were separate from the inner world, and the inner world as if it were separate from the outer world. The real task is not one of integration but desegregation, and that is a lesson I’ve been wrestling with for years. The biggest lesson I took from my Ph.D. thesis, where I achieved a fascinating distillation of how to think from learning as we know it, is that how to think cannot be distilled from learning, and learning cannot be distilled from the rest of life. It is all interconnected. It’s like a classic plot in fantasy literature where a hero is searching for a legendary treasure, and goes to strange places and passes amazing trials. We’re there learning with him, until there is an end where “nothing” happens, but by the time that “nothing” takes place, we’ve been with the hero all along and we have been transformed just as much as he is, and we see through the “nothing” to recognize the treasure that has been all around the hero—and us—all along.

The real world has an internal and an external dimension, and there is nothing like trying to crystallize purer and purer internal knowledge to see the interpenetration of the internal and the external. I learned that the internal is not self-contained.

The Visionary: Is there anything that has been written which deals with this connection?

The Alumnus: Are you asking me if you can borrow a truckload of books? There are some cultures where it’s hard to find material which doesn’t relate the connection in some form.

But let me tie this in with education. Postmodernism is fragmented, so much so that postmodern scholars tend to put “postmodern” in ironic quotes and add some qualifier about whether it’s even coherent to talk about such a movement. From the inside, there isn’t a single postmodern movement; talking about a postmodern movement is like talking about a herd of housecats. But this is not because talking about being “postmodern” is meaningless; it’s because one of the characteristics is fragmentation, and so if there is anything called postmodern, then it will be much more of a grab bag than something called modern.

Constructivism is postmodern, not in that anything called postmodern must resemble it, but because it can be placed on a somewhat ad hoc spectrum. It is internally fragmented, in that it is not helping students navigate the world of ideas, but in trying to reckon with learners’ development of private models of the world. In typical postmodern fashion, the movement shows exquisite sensitivity to ways in which student constructed models are parochial, and does not inquire into ways in which students may be grappling with something universal. (At best learners’ constructs are culturally conditioned.)

In what I am suggesting, learners are active, but students are working with something which is not so much clay to be shaped in the privacy of one’s mind. I am aware of the parochial dimension—as a culture, we’ve been aware of it to death—but I’m trying to look at something we don’t pay as much attention to today. I suggest, instead of a basic metaphor of learners constructing their own models, learners struggling to conquer parts of the world of ideas. Conquer means in some sense to appropriate; it means in part what we mean when we say that a mountain climber physically conquered an ascent and mastered its terrain. And this is not a cookie cutter, but it provides serious place for something that doesn’t have soil to root itself in in constructivism.

I suspect that this is a lot less exotic than it sounds. Would you say that IMSA teachers often understand their students?

The Visionary: I think they often try.

The Alumnus: I think they often succeed.

Communication in general draws on being able to identify with the other. It says, “Even if I disagree with you, I understand what it means that you believe differently from what I do.” You know what it’s like when someone is talking with you and simply cannot identify with where you are coming from. It feels clumsy. Good communicators can identify with other people, and even a partial understanding is much better than no understanding at all.

I think the teachers I had at least showed something wiser than constructivism. Read something like Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and you will see appreciation of incommensurability and a communication divide between opposing camps; unlike the later Kuhn, you will also see that this claim of incommensurability, where opposing sides invariably argue past each other in debates, is applied to both major and minor paradigm shifts. Now if we look at a constructivist approach, where this kind of thinking is applied to individual peoples’ models as well as models that are shared across a camp, then we have an excellent reason not to teach.

We have an excellent reason to say that teachers’ and students’ models are not only conflicting but incommensurable, that the teacher may have more power but in a fair debate they would argue past each other, and that the basis for the teacher understanding and therefore successfully influencing the student is at very least questionable. In the end, we have something which affects the concept of teaching more profoundly than the observation that students will see things that teachers don’t realize. If you look at Kuhn, you will see a remark that the winning side of a scientific paradigm shift will naturally view the shift as progress. This contributes to an account for people thinking science progresses without science actually progressing. Science shifts. But the shift is not a step forward from less developed science to more developed science. It is a step sideways, from one reigning paradigm to another. And in like fashion, if you follow a natural constructivist path, you have an alternative to saying that the teacher knows more about science than the students. The teacher is more powerful, but there is a way out for someone who wants to deny that the teacher has more desirable knowledge that the students should learn. Not only can we argue that “teaching” communication is impossible, but we can argue that “teaching” communication is undesirable even if it were possible.

The Visionary: But that can’t be what our teachers believe! You have to be misunderstanding constructivism. That’s not how it works out.

The Alumnus: I agree with you that that can’t be what many IMSA teachers believe. It is only what they say. And what they think they believe.

The Visionary: You mean…

The Alumnus: Foundationalism is a bad account of how most IMSA teachers learn. They learn actively, and IMSA students learn actively. And constructivism offers a compelling metaphor for active learning. But teachers at IMSA don’t believe all its implications. Like the character in a George MacDonald book who was fond of saying, “Marry in haste, repent at leisure,” and had married in haste, but hadn’t really thought about repenting, even though she’d had plenty of leisure in which to repent. If constructivism may undercut the possibility of communication, and the possibility of the teacher drawing students to join her in expert practice, this is not yet a problem. In practical terms, teachers believe they can communicate, and they have something to share. And they do this. There may be problems where this goes down the road, but in practical terms IMSA teachers live a philosophy with communication that is often excellent.

And, as far as metaphors go, I think that the katalabein metaphor offers something valuable that the constructivist metaphor doesn’t. In particular, the fact that teachers can communicate, and leave students better off, doesn’t just happen to be true; it’s something that one can delve into. You don’t just take the metaphor into consideration when you communicate on a basis that doesn’t come from the model; the metaphor itself gives you a basis to communicate. And it’s different enough to compete in an interesting way. Or complement constructivism in an interesting way. Even if it’s not perfect.

The Visionary: Yes, I know. Do you regret the fact that it’s so messy?

The Alumnus: I regret the fact that it’s not messy enough.

When we describe a rainbow, we say that the colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But those aren’t the colors of the rainbow. If you pick a color at random on the rainbow, there’s a zero percent chance that you will exactly pick one of those colors. A rainbow is a spectrum, and if you have a wavelength for each of those colors, you have seven reference points for a spectrum with infinitely many colors. And a reference point can help you understand a spectrum, but a reference point is not a spectrum.

I’ve done, I think, a decent job of describing one reference point on a spectrum. But teachers rarely follow one educational theory in pure form; they tend to draw on several, and this is intended not to be a complete theory, but a reference point in a pluralistic theory. Most theories are a single point. This theory is meant to be a spectrum, but isn’t there yet.

And as much as a robust theory of education needs to be pluralistic, sensitive to the diversity that is every student, there also also needs to be a sensitivity to the diversity of knowledge. English is cursed to only have one word for knowledge.

The Visionary:But we have well enough established division of knowledge into subjects. In fact that’s what we’re trying to teach our students to get past.

The Alumnus: That’s not quite what I meant.

In most of the languages I know, there’s more than one word for knowledge. In French, there is savoir, which is the knowledge one has about facts, and connaissance, which is the knowledge one has of a person. It’s a different kind of thing to know about a fact and to know of a person, and this is reflected in different words. Conscience is not simply the French word for conscience; it means consciousness, and some of the more ethereal and personal aspects of knowledge. The Latin eruditio and notitia have other nuances. In English we do have “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “information,” which are as different from each other as an apple, an orange, and a pear.

And this is without treating ways of thought. One of the things I learned was that knowledge and ways of thought could be distinguished but not separated. If you look at Eastern ways, whether they are religions like Hinduism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or martial arts like Kuk Sool Won or Ninpo, you will find quite a different pedagogy from what we assume in the West. Instead of trying to open the mind and dump in knowledge, they begin by training the body, in actions, and then this begins to affect the soul and transform the spirit.

The Visionary: Isn’t constructivism more like that?

The Alumnus: It is. But instead of reinventing experiential learning, Eastern ways preserve a Tao, or for a Western word, a matrix. Most recently in the West, Matrix is the name of a trilogy where each movie was better than the next. But before that, a matrix was a mathematical construct, and are you familiar with what “matrix” meant before that? It was the Latin word meaning “womb.” And this concept of a womb, or a matrix, is something which has become alien to Western thought. A matrix is the medium in which you move, the air in which you breathe. It has the authority of your culture and your mother tongue. It is a very different kind of authority from the authority of a single leader, or a written rule; a matrix does not consciously command you, but provides you with the options which shape your choice. And the Eastern ways all preserve a matrix, a way, that provides their pedagogy. In a sense the difference between constructivist experiential learning and Eastern experiential learning is the difference between non-native speakers trying to speak a language and a community of native speakers continuing to use their language. Except to make the comparison more fair, constructivists are trying to construct a language, and put together something that works, and Eastern pedagogues have inherited something that works. The difference is kind of like the difference between an experimental kind of baseball glove that someone is trying out and a glove that is not only traditional but already broken in.

The Visionary: Um… I’ll have to think about what you have said about a “matrix.” Ok, you’ve given me a lot to think about. It would be premature for me to respond now. I’m going to need to think about what you’ve said. But let me change the susbject. What other ideas do you have about teaching, especially concrete ones?

The Alumnus: It’s a bit like a light—it makes other things easier to see. But let me talk about other ways of teaching, such as listening.

The Visionary: I know how you can listen if a student asks a question, but how do you listen when lecturing?

The Alumnus: Listening is about trying to understand the other person as a basis for communication. Apart from the feedback that’s in student questions—if you look for it—a person’s face is a window to what is going on inside, and a teacher sees student faces frequently. I know the ominous silence when the class is so lost that students are afraid to ask questions. I don’t just charge on because it’s important to cover the remaining material. I try to stop, back up, and help the students to genuinely understand, and then proceed from genuine understanding. Homework offers implicit feedback on what I succeeded in communicating, and what I did not succeed in. And there’s an implicit listening mindset behind trying not to inundate students with too much information at once.

There’s a book of little stories, and in one of them, a sage was asked, “What is your name?” He pondered for a moment and said, “My name used to be… Me. But now it’s… You.” I didn’t like that story at first, because I didn’t understand it. Now I understand enough of it to see that it has a profound truth. Talking is about “me”, and listening is part of a lifelong journey of learning to think in terms of “you.” Listening has far more to offer a teacher than a better understanding of student questions.

There are a lot of things I like about how IMSA works—your belief that the needs of the mind cannot be met if the needs of the body are neglected. How this you fit this in with Arbor food service is not clear to me—

The Visionary: Thanks, Dear…

The Alumnus: Any time. But I really like the understanding you have of the human person as interconnected on multiple levels, including the body and mind. I also take that as axiomatic, and teach so that students will understand concepts and preferably their connections, and many other things. Just as I haven’t read what I just said about listening in anything that came out of IMSA, but the teachers I had at IMSA were all examples of good listening.

The Visionary: Thank you.

The Alumnus: You’re welcome.

But another part of the Enlightenment I reject is its depersonalization of knowledge and teaching. Have you read any Polanyi?

The Visionary: Not yet. Should I put him on my reading list?

The Alumnus: I don’t know. He writes hefty, if understandable, material. It takes time to understand him, but he’s worth understanding.

Michael Polanyi was a philosopher of science, and his big work was on tacit and personal knowledge. The core idea is that scientific knowledge (I would say knowledge in general) is not a set of dessicated constructs that can be understood without reference to people; it is enfleshed in people who know it. He talked about how competing swimmers inhale a little more air and exhale a little less, so they always have more air in their lungs and therefore buoyancy than we would, but this knowledge is never thought of in so many words by the coach or by the student who “picks it up” from the coach, wordlessly. I don’t know if it’s a fair reading to say that the knowledge we can articulate is the just tip of the iceberg, but what I do think is a fair reading is to say that the knowledge we can put into so many words is not the whole picture. I think he would have liked IMSA trying to avoid teachers mindlessly regurgitating material so students can learn to mindlessly regurgitating material.

In tandem with the Enlightenment depersonalization of knowledge, is a depersonalization of the concept of teaching and a teacher. About two thousand years ago, one teacher tried to demote teachers from being human gods (who were superior to everyone else) to being human like the rest of us. Then, in connection with the Enlightenment there came a second demotion. A teacher was no longer someone responsible for initiating those in their care into humanity, but only a part of a person imparting a skill to another partial person.

That is an illusion; no matter how much keep our mouths shut on certain matters, we are humans teaching. The question is not whether or not teachers will be an ethical force; the question is whether, given that teachers will be an ethical force, whether they will be a positive force or a negative force. Because students are affected by what kind of people their teachers are—as well as what they say—a teacher should try to be a positive force. This means things like a humility that listens and appreciates other people, and caring, and is willing to listen both to “I don’t understand partial differentiation,” and “I’ve had a lousy week.”

This means that a teacher who sees past the present, and sees students as the concert pianists, research scientists, and ballerinas they can become, will by that very respect help make that potential a reality.

The Visionary [looks at watch]: Thank you. I need to be somewhere in a few minutes; do you have any closing comments?

The Alumnus: I think that one aspect of how we speak of teaching is unfortunate. We speak of the active teacher who teaches, and the presumably passive student who is taught. Nothing of this manner of speaking suggests a dialog, a two-way street—but if teaching succeeds, it must be because of a cooperation between student and teacher. Even with constructivist understanding of learning, we’re just looking at what the teacher can do.

I spend most of my time thinking about how I can see to my end of the partnership, not how students can handle their job. But there is something I would love to say to students, reinforced by a handout, on the first day of class, some toned-down version of:

Steal knowledge.

Prometheus stole fire. Your job is to steal knowledge.

The wrong way to think is that my job is to teach you, and you just sit there and be taught, and after enough teachers have taught you, you’ll be educated.

You will get a much better education if you think that whatever I do, however well or poorly I teach, is simply the baseline, and you can start from there and see what you can do to take as much knowledge as you can.

Listening in class and asking questions is one way to steal knowledge. Is there something I said that doesn’t quite make sense? If you just let my teaching wash over you, you’ve missed an opportunity to steal knowledge.

If you listen to my words, that’s good. It’s even better if you think about why I would say what I am saying. There may be a clue, maybe a little whisper in your intuition that something more is going on than you realize. That is a key that you can use to steal knowledge.

When you read the textbook, it will tell you more if you push it harder. Look at the problems. What are they asking you to know? What are they asking you to think about? There’s a powerful clue about what’s important and what’s going on, if you’re adept enough to steal it.

What do I assume about the material? I make assumptions, and some of those are assumptions I make because of what I know. If you’re willing to ask why I assume something, you may steal knowledge of how people think when they understand the material.

My office hours are meant for you. Come in and discuss the material. If I see you make a mistake, that’s good. It means you’re learning and I have an opportunity to clarify. If you don’t understand something, and all of us don’t understand things from time to to time, it will cost you points to wait until the test to find out that you don’t understand it. It won’t cost you anything if you come in during my office hours, and I’ll be glad you visited. And you might steal some knowledge.

Steal knowledge. There’ll be some days when you’re a little tired, and you can’t look for all the extra knowledge you can steal. That’s OK; just try to take the knowledge I clearly set out before you. But steal knowledge when you can.

You’ve gotten into IMSA, which is one of the best and one of the worst places in the world. Take advantage of opportunity. Learn to steal knowledge. And when you graduate from IMSA… Steal knowledge.

The Visionary: I definitely have some food for thought to take into the meeting. Do come and visit again! Goodbye!

The Alumnus: That I shall. Goodbye!

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

An Author’s Musing Memoirs: Retrospective Reflections, Retracings, and Retractions

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Taking a second look at some of what I wrote

Dear Reader,

Years back, when I was a math grad student, I wrote a short essay entitled, Why Study Mathematics? The basic thought was connected with the general education math class I was taking, and it is not really an article for why to specialize in mathematics through intensive study, but why a more basic knowledge of math can be a valuable part of liberal arts education. Much like how I taught my class, I did not speak favorably of memorizing formulas—pejoratively called “mindless symbol manipulation” by mathematicians—but spoke of the beauty of the abstractions, the joy of puzzles and problem solving, and even spoke of mathematics as a form of weight lifting for the mind: if you can do math, I said, you can do almost anything. I was sincere in these words, and I believe my obscure little piece captures something that a lot of math students and faculty sensed even if they did not explain their assumption. Since then, there are some things I would say differently. Not exactly that I was incorrect in what I said, but I worked hard to climb a ladder that was leaning against the wrong building.

One famous author in software development, who wrote a big book about “software engineering”, had said, “What gets measured gets improved,” and began to express second thoughts about his gung-ho enthusiasm for measurement. He didn’t exactly take back his words of, “What gets measured gets improved,” but he said that the most important things to understand are rarely things that are easy or obvious to measure: the mantra “What gets measured gets improved,” is a mantra to ruthlessly optimize things that often are less important than you might think. His second thoughts went further: the words “software” and “engineering” have been joined at the hip, but however hard software developers have tried to claim to be engineers, what they do is very different from engineering: it’s an apples and oranges comparison.

I would pretty well stand by the statement that if you can deal with the abstraction in math, you can deal with the abstraction in anything: whether chemistry, analytic philosophy, engineering, or sales, there isn’t much out there that will call for more abstract thinking than you learn in math. But to pick sales, for instance, not many people fail in sales because they can’t handle the deep abstraction. Sales calls for social graces, the ability to handle rejection, and real persistence, and while you may really and truly learn persistence in math, I sincerely doubt that mathematical training is a sort of industrial strength preparation for social graces and dealing with rejection. And even in engineering, social graces matter more than you might think; it’s been said that being good at math gets you in the door, but social influence and effectiveness are what make a real superstar. I would still stand by a statement that if you can handle the abstraction in math, you can probably handle the abstraction in anything else. But I’m somewhat more wary of implying that if you have a mathematical mind, you just have an advantage for everything life may throw at you. That’s simply not true.

There are some things I have written that I would like to take back, at least in part, but even where my works are flawed I don’t believe mass deletions are the best response. I would rather write what might be called “Retractions and retracings” and leave them available with the original works. Why study Mathematics?, whatever its flaws, gives a real glimpse into the beauty that draws mathematicians to mathematics. I may be concerned with flaws here, but they are not the whole truth. However, there are some things I would like to comment on, some flaws to point out. In many cases, I don’t believe that what I said is mainly wrong, but I believe it is possible to raise one’s eyes higher.

HOW to HUG

Mathematics may be seen as a skill, but it can also be how a person is oriented: jokes may offer a caricature, but a caricature of something that’s there. One joke tells of a mathematician who finds something at a bookstore, is delighted to walk home with a thick volume entitled HOW to HUG, and then, at home, is dismayed to learn he purchased volume 11 of an encyclopædia. And I mention this as a then-mathematician who wrote A Treatise on Touch, which may be seen as interesting, may be seen as deep, and may have something in common with the mathematician purchasing a book so he could know how to hug.

Part of what I have been working on is how, very slowly, to become more human. This struggle is reflected in Yonder, which is at its most literal a struggle of philosophers to reach what is human. There is an outer story of disembodied minds set in a dark science fiction world, who are the philosophers, and there is a story within a story, an inner story, of the tragic beauty of human life. When I showed it to a science fiction guru, he suggested that I cut the philosophical dialogues down by quite a bit. The suggestion had a lot of sense, and quite possibility a traditional publisher would want to greatly abbreviate the sections that he suggested I curtail. But I did not follow his advice, and I don’t think this was just author stubbornness. When literature builds up to a success, usually the path to success is filled with struggles and littered with failures. This is true of good heroic literature, and for that matter a lot of terrible heroic literature as well. (Just watch a bad adventure movie sometime.) Yonder is a story that is replete with struggles and failures, only the failures of the disembodied minds have nothing to do with physical journeys or combat. They begin stuck in philosophy, mere philosophy, and their clumsy efforts to break out provide the failures, and therefore to greatly abridge the philosophical discussion would be to strip away the struggle and failure by which they reach success: a vision of the grandeur of being human. Like much good and bad literature, the broad sweep was inspired by The Divine Comedy, opening with a vision of Hell and building up to a view of our painful life as a taste of Heaven, and you don’t tell The Divine Comedy faithfully if you replace the Inferno with a brief summary stating that there are some gruesome images and a few politically incorrect ideas about sin. The dark science fiction world and its mere philosophy provides the vision of Hell that prepares the reader to see the humanness of Heaven and the Heaven of humanness. The inner story can be told by itself; it is for that matter told independently in A Wonderful Life. But there is something in Yonder, as it paints the stark, dark, disturbing silhouette of the radiant, luminous splendor and beauty of human life.

While I was a math undergrad, I read and was deeply influenced by the Tao Te Ching; something of its influence may be seen in The Way of the Way. That work has its flaws, and I may have drunk too deeply of Taoism, but there was a seed planted that I would later recognize in fuller forms in the Orthodox Way. I had in full my goals of studying and thinking, but I realized by the way that there was some value to be had in stillness. Later I would come to be taught that stillness is not an ornament to put on top of a tree; it is the soil from which the tree of life grows.

After I completed my studies in math, and having trouble connecting with the business world, I took stock, and decided that the most important knowledge of all was theology. I had earlier planned to follow the established route of being a mathematician until I was no longer any good for mathematics and then turning out second rate theology. My plans shifted and I wanted to put my goal up front and, I told my pastor, “I want to think about theology in community.” (If you are wincing at this, good.) So, in this spirit, I applied to several schools and began the study of academic theology. If you are an astute reader, I will forgive you if you ask, “But isn’t this still a mathematician looking for a book on how to hug?” The goal I had, to teach at a university or even better train Orthodox priests at a seminary, was a laudable enough goal, and perhaps God will bless me with that in the future. Perhaps he wants the same thing, but perhaps God first wants to free me from the chain of being too much like a mathematician wanting to learn how to hug by reading a book.

During my time studying theology at Cambridge, I was received into the Orthodox Church. I am grateful to God for both a spiritual father whose lenience offered a corrective to my legalistic tendencies, and for a godfather who was fond of reading Orthodox loose cannons and who helped me see a great many things that were invisible to me at the time. For instance, I asked him for help on some aspect of getting my worldview worked out correctly, and I was caught off guard when he explained, “You aren’t being invited to work out the Orthodox worldview. You’re being invited to worship in the right glory of Orthodoxy, and you are being invited to walk the Orthodox way.” In that sense Orthodoxy is not really a system of ideas to work out correctly that, say, a martial art: there may be good books connected to martial arts, but you learn a martial art by practicing it, and you learn Orthodoxy by practicing it. And in that response, my godfather helped me take one step further away from being a mathematician trying to find a book that will teach him how to hug. (He also gave me repeated corrections when I persisted in the project of trying to improve Orthodox practices by historical reconstruction. And eventually he got through to me on that point.)

Becoming Orthodox for me has been a matter of becoming really and truly human, or at least beginning to. There is a saying that has rumbled down through the ages in different forms: in the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.” I have not read this in much earlier sources, but I have read many later phrasings: “God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that man and the sons of man might become gods and the sons of God.” “The divine became human that the human might become divine.” “The Son of God became a man that men might become the sons of God.” And one real variation on this has been quoted, “Christ did not just become man so that I might become divine. He also became man that I might become a man.

If Christ became man that I might become human, this is manifest in a million ways in the Orthodox Church. Let me give one way. When I was preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church, I asked my godfather some question about how to best straighten out my worldview. He told me that the Western project of worldview construction was not part of the Orthodox Way: I had been invited to walk the Orthodox Way but not work out the Orthodox worldview. If there is in fact an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from worldviewish endeavors: it arises out of the practices and life of the Orthodox Church, much in line with, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his perfect righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Not just corrections, but being caught off-guard by effectively being told, “Here are some of many rules; there is no need for you to know all of them. They are important, and you need to strive for strict excellence, but you are not treating them in the right spirit if you hold them rigidly and legalistically. (Work out with your priest how you will best bend them.)” The Orthodox Church’s nature as essentially an oral tradition has helped cure me of silly things like meticulously studying ancient texts to put my mind to an antiquarian reconstruction and answer the question, “How should we live?” (The Orthodox Church is ancient, but it is not really infected with antiquarian reconstruction efforts.) The rhythm of the liturgy and its appointed seasons, the spiritual housecleaning involved with preparing for confession, the profoundly important community of the faithful: all of these are part of how it works out in the Orthodox Church that God became man not only so that I might become divine, but also so that I might become more truly man.

Part of this becoming human on my part also has to do with silence, or as Orthodox call it, hesychasm. Part of the disorder of life as we know it is that our minds are scattered about: worrying about this, remembering that pain, and in general not gathered into the heart. Mathematical training is a training in drawing the mind out of the heart and into abstract thinking. The word “abstract” itself comes from the Latin abstrahere, meaning to pull back (from concrete things), and if you train yourself in the habit of abstraction you pull yourself back from silence and from what is good about the Tao Te Ching.

In Silence: Organic food for the soul, I all but closed with the words, “Be in your mind a garden locked and a fountain sealed,” which speaks about having a mind that is gathered together and is in the fullest sense mind: which is not when abstract thinking is its bread and butter. Perhaps some of the saints’ wisdom is abstract, but it does not come from building an edifice of abstractions.

The terms intellect and mind mean something very different in Orthodox classics than they do in today’s English. The difference is as great as the difference between using web to mean a physical object woven out of spider’s silk and web to mean interconnected documents and media available over the internet. Today you might say, “The intellect is what an IQ test measures.” An Orthodox saint who had been asked might have said, “The intellect is where you meet God.” The mind is an altar, and its proper thought flows out of its being an altar: in Within the Steel Orb, a visitor from our world steps into a trap:

“And your computer science is pretty advanced, right? Much more advanced than ours?”

“We know things that the trajectory of computer science in your world will never reach because it is not pointed in the right direction.” Oinos tapped the wall and arcs of pale blue light spun out.

“Then you should be well beyond the point of making artificial intelligence.”

“Why on a million, million worlds should we ever be able to do that? Or even think that is something we could accomplish?”

“Well, if I can be obvious, the brain is a computer, and the mind is its software.”

“Is it?”

“What else could the mind be?”

“What else could the mind be? What about an altar at which to worship? A workshop? A bridge between Heaven and earth, a meeting place where eternity meets time? A treasury in which to gather riches? A spark of divine fire? A line in a strong grid? A river, ever flowing, ever full? A tree reaching to Heaven while its roots grasp the earth? A mountain made immovable for the greatest storm? A home in which to live and a ship by which to sail? A constellation of stars? A temple that sanctifies the earth? A force to draw things in? A captain directing a starship or a voyager who can travel without? A diamond forged over aeons from of old? A perpetual motion machine that is simply impossible but functions anyway? A faithful manuscript by which an ancient book passes on? A showcase of holy icons? A mirror, clear or clouded? A wind which can never be pinned down? A haunting moment? A home with which to welcome others, and a mouth with which to kiss? A strand of a web? An acrobat balancing for his whole life long on a slender crystalline prism between two chasms? A protecting veil and a concealing mist? An eye to glimpse the uncreated Light as the world moves on its way? A rift yawning into the depths of the earth? A kairometer, both primeval and young? A—”

“All right, all right! I get the idea, and that’s some pretty lovely poetry. (What’s a kairometer?) These are all very beautiful metaphors for the mind, but I am interested in what the mind is literally.”

“Then it might interest you to hear that your world’s computer is also a metaphor for the mind. A good and poetic metaphor, perhaps, but a metaphor, and one that is better to balance with other complementary metaphors. It is the habit of some in your world to understand the human mind through the metaphor of the latest technology for you to be infatuated with. Today, the mind is a computer, or something like that. Before you had the computer, ‘You’re just wired that way’ because the brain or the mind or whatever is a wired-up telephone exchange, the telephone exchange being your previous object of technological infatuation, before the computer. Admittedly, ‘the mind is a computer’ is an attractive metaphor. But there is some fundamental confusion in taking that metaphor literally and assuming that, since the mind is a computer, all you have to do is make some more progress with technology and research and you can give a computer an intelligent mind.”

That litany of metaphors summarizes much of my second master’s thesis. Which is not really the point; but my point here is that on an Orthodox understanding, intellect is not something you measure by an IQ test and a mind is not the spitting image of a computer. The mind, rightly understood, finds its home in prayer and simple silence. The intellect is where one meets God, and its knowing flows out of its contact with God and with spiritual reality. And, in the metaphors of the Song of Songs, the mind as it is meant to be is “a garden locked, a fountain sealed”, not spilled out promiscuously into worry, or grudges, or plans for the future that never satisfy. And this gathering together of the mind, this prayer of the mind in the heart, is one that was not proposed to me by my mathematical training.

Now I should mention that I have a lot to be grateful for as far as math goes. There are a lot of people who gave of themselves in my training; there are a lot of people who gave of themselves in the various math contests I was involved in. And, not to put too fine a point of it, I have a computer job now which is a blessing from God and in which I build on a strong mathematical foundation. It would be silly for me to say, “I am not grateful for this” as God has provided me many blessings through math. But I need to place things like “I have a lot of math awards” alongside what a monk said to a maid and to me: she was fortunate in the job she had, as manual labor that allowed her mind to pray as she was working in inner stillness, while I as a computer person was less fortunate because my job basically required me to be doing things with my mind that don’t invite mental stillness. My job may be a profound blessing and something not to take for granted. But he was pointing out that the best jobs for spiritual growth may not be the ones higher on the pecking order.

A streak of escapism

There is a streak of escapism in much of my work. If you read Within the Steel Orb, I believe you will find insight expressed with wonder, and I would not take back any of that. But the wisdom, which is wisdom from here and now, is expressed as the alien wisdom of an alien world that panders to a certain escapism. Wisdom and wonder can be expressed without escapism; Hymn to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and Doxology both express wisdom and wonder in a way that does not need to escape from a disdained here and now. But there is a thread of escapism in much of my work, even as I have sought to reject it.

During or shortly after I was in high school, I wrote a note in an online forum arguing that Terminator 2 had shot itself in the foot. The movie had a scene with two little boys angrily playing with toy guns and the voiceover complained about how tragic this was, and at the end the message was made even more explicit: “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.” But the movie was an action-adventure movie, meaning a movie whose attraction was built on glorified violence with guns blazing. In terms of a movie that would speak out against violence, contrast it with a movie idea I had, for a movie that would rush along at an action-adventure clip for the first few minutes and then slow down like a European art film; from Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art:

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

By contrast, it may be clearer what might be called shooting yourself in the foot in the Terminator 2 syndrome, and as far as escapism goes, I have a couple of pieces that shoot themselves in the foot with something like a Terminator 2 syndrome. In The Voyage, the miserable young Jason is an escapist and, when he meets an old man, asks the old man’s help in an escape he doesn’t believe is possible. The old man deftly opens Jason’s eyes to the beauty of this world, the beauty of the here and now, that are simply invisible to him. I stand by everything I wrote in that regard. But the closing line, when thanks to the old man Jason triumphs over escapism, is, “And Jason entered another world.” Which is to say that the story shot itself in the foot, like Terminator 2.

There may be a paradoxical link between escapism and self-absorption. Self-absorption is like being locked in your room and sensing that it is constricting, and so you wish that you could be teleported up to a spaceship and explore the final frontier, or maybe wish for a portal to open up that would take you to the Middle Ages or some fantasy world. And maybe you can get a bit of solace by decorating your room like someplace else and imagining that your room is that other place, and maybe you can pretend and do mind games, but they don’t really satisfy. What you miss is what you really need: to unlock the door, walk out, visit a friend, go shopping, and do some volunteering. It may not be what you could arrange if you were controlling everything, but that’s almost exactly the point. It may not what you want, but it is what you need, and it satisfies in a way that a quest to become a knight, at least in your imagination, cannot. And my own concerns to escape self-absorption and escapism play out in my writing: The Spectacles is more successful than The Voyage in telling of an escape from the Hell of self-absorption and escapism; I’ve been told it’s my best short story. But it still has the imprint of self-absorption even as it tells of someone finding way out of self-absorbed escapism. And something of that imprint affects my writing: there are some good things about my fiction, but I have been told that my characters are too similar and are only superficially different. I do not think I will ever receive the kind of compliment given to Charles Dickens, that he envisions a complete universe of different characters. People may say that my satire like Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary shows a brilliant wit and is bitingly funny, but you can be pretty full of yourself and still write good satire. By contrast, it takes humble empathy to make a universe of characters worthy of Dickens.

A door slammed shut:

God’s severe mercy

I earned a master’s in theology, and entered into a doctoral program. I thought for a long while about how to say something appropriate about that program, and I think the best I can do is this:

I’ve been through chemotherapy, and that was an experience: overall, it was not as bad as I feared, and I enjoyed life when I was going through chemotherapy. I still cherish The Spectacles, the first piece written after a long dry spell because I was drained by illness. I’m not sure it is a nice thing to have powerful cytotoxins injected into your body, and the rough spots included the worst hour of (purely physical) pain in my life, but on the whole, a lot of progress has been made in making chemotherapy not as bad as it used to be, and I had good people to care for me.

And then there are experiences that, to put it politely, put chemotherapy into perspective. My entering this doctoral program and trying to please the people there was one of those experiences into perspective: during that time, I contacted a dean and wrote, “I found chemotherapy easier than dealing with [a professor I believed was harassing me],” and received no response beyond a secretary’s brush-off. After this ordeal, my grades were just below the cutoff to continue, and that school is not in any way going to give me nice letters of reference to let me finish up somewhere else. I suppose I could answer spam emails and get a diploma mill Ph.D., but I don’t see how I am in a position to get the Ph.D. that I wanted badly enough to endure these ordeals.

And if I ask where God was in all this, the answer is probably, “I was with you, teaching you all the time.” When I was in middle school, I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and I found it obvious then that this was because God wanted me to be a mathematician. For that matter, I didn’t go through the usual undergraduate panic about “What will I major in?” Now I find it obvious that God had something else in mind, something greater: discipleship, or sonship, which may pass through being a mathematician, or may not. Not straying too far from this, I wanted a Ph.D., and I thought that this would be the best way to honor him with my abilities. Again I was thinking too narrowly; I was still too much of the mathematician looking for a book to teach him how to hug; again the answer seemed to be, “That’s not the issue. Aim higher and be my servant.” As it turns out, I have four years’ graduate work in theology; that has some use in my writings, and even if it didn’t, the issue is not whether I am a good enough achiever, but whether I am faithful.

During this time I read quite a lot of medieval versions of the legends of King Arthur. There were a couple of things that drew me to them, both of them rather sad. The first was pride, both pride at thinking I was going to be an Arthurian author, and pride at sometimes reading medieval legends in the original.

But the second reason I kept reading them was that compared to what I was covering in theology class, reading the legends almost seemed like I was actually studying theology. (At least by comparison.) Whether a course in theological foundations that assumed, “We need to work from the common ground that is shared by all the world’s religious traditions, and that universal common ground is Western analytic philosophy,” or reading that theologians are scientists and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called “hard sciences” like physics, or a course in “philosophy and contemporary theology” that was largely about queer matters and such topics as ambiguous genitalia, the whole experience was like “Monty Python teaches Christian theology.” And it would be a funny, if tasteless joke, but it was really something much more tragic than a Monty Python riff on theology. And in all this the Arthurian legends, which are really quite pale if they are held next to the grandeur of Christian theology, none the less seemed to give respite for me to study.

In the light of all this, there are three basic things that I wrote. The first is the Arthurian book I wanted to write out of all the medieval books I was reading:

The second thing is a group of pieces that were written largely as rebuttals to things I ran into there. (The university was a “Catholic” university, so they were generous to us Orthodox and treated us like liberal Catholics.) I’ve had enough contact with Catholics outside that university; those pieces are not written just in response to being at a “Catholic” university.

I believe there is some merit in these pieces, but not that much: if they say something that needs to be said, they are limited to winning an argument. Theology can win an argument and some of the best theology is meant to win an argument, but the purpose of real theological writing is to draw people into the presence of God. These pieces may say something valuable, but they do not really do the job of theology: beckon the reader to worship before the throne of God.

But that leaves the third group of pieces written in the wake of that un-theological theology program, and that is precisely pieces which are written to draw the reader to bask in the glory of God. The ones I would pick as best are:

So where does this leave me now?

I think I’ve made real progress but I still have a lot in common with that mathematian who bought a book so he could learn how to hug. Be that as it may, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I had my heart set on completing my program, but in 2005 I started a Ph.D. program that was estimated to take eight years to complete. And since then, the economy tanked. And in this, a gracious and merciful God didn’t give me what I wanted, but what I needed. Actually, more than that. In the aftermath of the program, I took some anthropology and linguistics coursework which on the one hand confirmed that I was already good at learning languages (the woman who scored the MLAT for me said, “I’ve scored this test for thirty years and I’ve never seen a score this high,”) and on the other hand, paradoxically provided good remedial understanding of things I just didn’t get about my own culture. And there’s something I’d like to point out about that. God provided academic coursework to teach me some things that most people just pick up as they grow, and perhaps studying academic theology was what God provided to help me get on to something that is at once more basic, greater, and more human: entering the Orthodox Church, and entering real, human theology.

But back to after the anthropology courses. Then the economy took a turn for the worse, and I found a good job. Then the economy got worse than that, and my job ended, and I had my fast job hunt yet and found an even better than that. There’s no way I’m entitled to this; it is God’s gracious providence at work. These are blessings covered in the divine fingerprints.

I still have failings to face: rather spectacular failings which I’d rather not detail. And it God’s grace that I am still learning of my clumsiness and my sin, and realize I really need to face ways I don’t measure up. But that is really not the issue.

Does God work with flawed people?

Who else does he have to work with?

He has glorious, majestic, awesome, terrifying holy angels. But there is another glory when God works in and through flawed people.

Even the sort of mathematician who would read a book on how to hug (or maybe write one). The worst of our flaws is like an ember thrown into the ocean of God’s transforming power.

And the same God wills to work in you, whatever your flaws may be.

Much love,
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward

A Four-Dimensional Maze

The maze is a hypercube; in the same sense that a diagram might represent a three dimensional structure by showing some two dimensional slices one above the other, this maze represents a four dimensional structure by a grid of two dimensional slices.

In eighth grade, when I first wrote this, I was very interested in higher dimensions, and I tried to learn to visualize in four dimensions; I never really succeeded, but I did learn to visualize the shifting three dimensional cross sections of hypercubes passing through three-space at a couple of different angles. Visualizing higher-dimensional objects is hard (impossible, by some sources), but doing math or programming in higher dimensions is not by nature more difficult than doing things in two dimemsions.

Does the maze look flat? Is it really four-dimensional? Let me ask you a question. What can you see that doesn’t look flat? All the images you see are two-dimensional. A movie or a 3D game doesn’t look flat because it represents a three-dimensional area in a two-dimensional way, and you learned as a child to perceive that as three dimensional. This maze also represents a four dimensional maze, just like a flat schematic diagram represents something three-dimensional. The picture on your screen is two dimensional, just like every other picture on the web, but the maze that’s represented is four-dimensional.


Why Study Mathematics?

One question which is raised by many people is, “Why should I study mathematics?”. The question is usually asked from a perspective that there is probably no good and desirable reason for the speaker to study mathematics, but he will tolerate the minimum required because he has to, and then get on to more valuable and important things.

I readily acknowledge that there are many math classes which are drudgery and a general waste of time, and that many people have had experiences with mathematics which give them good reason to hold a distaste for the discipline. However, it is my hope that I may provide readers with an insight that there is something more to mathematics, and that this something more may be worthwhile.

Let’s begin by looking at the reasons that the reader may already have come across for why he should study mathematics:

  • There are certain basic computational skills that are needed in life. People should be able to figure out whether a 24-pack of their favorite soda for $3.89 is a better or worse deal than a 12-pack for $1.99.
  • It builds character. I suffered through mathematics for such-and-such many years. So should you.

Of course, nobody explicitly says the second reason, but it may very well seem that way—like one of the hush-hushed truths that the Adult Conspiracy hides from students the same way it hides the fact that there is no Santa Claus from little children. And the first reason is something that many non-mathematical administrators believe.

But those are not the real reasons that a mathematician will give for why a nonmathematician should study mathematics, and what kind of mathematics a nonmathematician should study.

The first question which should be addressed is, “What is mathematics really about?”

The answer which many nonmathematicians may have is something along the lines of, “Mathematics, at its heart, is about learning and using formulas and things like that. In gradeschool, you learn the formulas and methods to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; then in middle school and high school it is on to bigger and better formulas, like the formula for the slope of a line passing through two points. Then in college, if your discipline unfortunately requires a little mathematics (such as the social sciences requiring statistics), you learn formulas that are even more complicated and harder to remember. The deeper you go into mathematics, the more formulas and rote methods you have to learn, and the worse it gets.”

The best response I can think of to that question is to respond by analogy, and my response is along the following lines:

A child is in school will be taught various grammatical rules, sentence diagramming, and so on. These will be drilled and studied for quite a long while, and it must be said that this is not the most interesting of areas to study.

An English teacher who is asked, “Is this what your discipline is really about?”, will almost certainly answer, “No!”. Perhaps the English student is proficient in grammar, but that’s not what English is about. English is about literature—about stories, about ideas, about characters, about plots, about poetic description, about philosophy, about theology, about thinking, about life. Grammar is not studied so that people can suffer through learning more pointless grammar; grammar is studied to provide students with a basic foundation from which they will be able to use the English language. It is a little drudgery which is worked through so that students may behold an object of great beauty.

This is the function of the formulas and rules of mathematics. Not rules and formulas so that the student is prepared for more rules and formulas, but rules and formulas which are studied so that the student can go past them to see what mathematics is really about.

And what is mathematics really about? Before I give a full answer, let me say that it is something like what English is about.

The one real glimpse that someone who has been through high school may have had of mathematics is in the study of geometry. There are a few things about high school geometry that I would like to point out:

  • In geometry, one is given certain axioms and postulates (for example, the parallel postulate—given a line and a point not on the line, there is exactly one line through the given point which does not intersect the given line), definitions (a circle is the set of points equidistant (at an equal distance) from a given point), and undefined terms (point, line). From those axioms and postulates, definitions, and undefined terms, one begins to explore what they imply—theorems and lemmas.
  • In geometry, rote memorization is not enough—and, in fact, is in and of itself one of the least effective approaches to take. It is necessary to understand—to get an intuitive grasp of the material. Learning comes from the “Aha!” when something clicks and fits together—then it is the idea that remains in the student’s memory.
  • Geometry builds upon itself. One starts with fundamentals (axioms, postulates, definitions, and undefined terms), and uses them to prove basic theorems, which are in turn used along with axioms and postulates to prove more elaborate theorems, and so on. It is like a building—once the foundation has been laid, beams and walls may be secured to the foundation, and then one may continue to build up from the foundation and from what has been secured to the foundation. Geometry is an edifice built on its fundamentals with logic, and the structure that is ultimately built is quite impressive.
  • Geometry is an abstract and rigorous way of thinking. (More will be made of this later.)
  • Geometry is about creative problem solving. The aforespoken edifice—or, more specifically, what is in that edifice—is used by the geometer as tools with which to solve problems. Problem solving—figuring out how to prove a theorem or do a construction (which is a special kind of theorem)—is a creative endeavor, as much as painting, musical improvisation, or writing (and I am writing as one who does mathematics, paints, improvises, and writes).

Imagine a dream where there are many pillars—some low, some high—all of which are too high to step up to, and all of which are wide enough to stand upon.

Now imagine someone dreaming this dream. That person looks at one of the pillars and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar?” Then one of the Inhabitants of his dream answers, “No, nobody has been on top of that pillar.” Then the person looks at another of the pillars, which has a set of stairs next to it, and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar over there?”. The answer is, “Yes, someone has, and has left behind a set of steps. You may take those steps and climb up on top of the pillar yourself, if you wish.”

And this person continues, and sees more pillars. Some of them stand alone, too high to step up to, and nobody has been to those. Others have had someone on top, and there is always a set of steps which the person left behind, by which he may climb up personally. And the steps go every which way—some go straight up, some go one way and then another, some seem to almost go sideways. Some are very strange. Some pillars have more than one set of steps. But all of them lead up to the top of the pillar.

The person dreaming may well have the impression that one gets atop a pillar by laying down one step, then another, then another, until one has assembled steps that reach to the top of the pillar. And, indeed, it is possible to climb the steps up to the pillars that others have gone to first.

But that impression is wrong.

And the person sees what really happens when the guide becomes very excited and says, “Look over there! There is a great athlete who is going to attempt a pillar that nobody has ever been atop!”

And the athlete runs, and jumps, and sails through the air, and lands on top of the pillar.

And when the athlete lands, there appears a set of stairs around the pillar. The athlete climbs up and down the stairs a few times to tidy them up for other people, but the stairs were produced, not by laying down slabs of stone one atop another, but by jumping.

Then the guide explained to the dreamer that the athlete had learned to jump not only by looking at the steps that others had left, but by jumping to other pillars that already had steps, instead of using the steps.

Then the dreamer woke up.

What does the story mean?

The pillars are mathematical facts, some proven and some unproven.

The pillars that stand alone are mathematical facts that nobody has proven.

The pillars that stand with steps leading up to them are mathematical facts that have been proven.

The steps are the steps of proofs, the little assertions. As some of the steps are bizarre, so are some proofs. As some pillars have more than one path of steps, so some facts have more than one known proof.

The leap is a flash of intuition, by which the mathematician knows which of many steps will take him where he wants to go.

As the steps appeared when the leap was made, so the proof appears when the flash of intuition comes. The athlete then tidied up the steps, as the mathematician writes down and clarifies the proof, but the proof comes from jumping, not from building one step on another.

The athlete was the mathematician.

Finally, the athlete became an athlete not only by climbing up and down existing steps, but also by jumping up to pillars that already had steps—one becomes skilled at making intuitive leaps, not only by learning existing proofs, but also by solving already proven problems as if there were no proof to read.

As one philosophy major commented to me, “Mathematicians do proofs, but they don’t use them.”

That flash of insight is the flash of inspiration that artists work under, and in this sense a mathematician is very similar to an artist. (What do a mathematician and an artist have in common? Both are pursuing beauty, to start with…)

This character of mathematics that is captured in geometry is true to geometry, but the actual form that it takes is largely irrelevant. Other branches of mathematics, properly taught, could accomplish just the same purpose, and for that matter could just as well replace geometry. Two other disciplines which draw heavily on applied mathematics, namely computer science and physics, have essentially the same strong points. I would hold no objections, for that matter, if high school geometry classes were replaced by strategy games like chess and go.

Mathematics is about puzzle solving; I would refer the reader to works such as Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Colin Adams’s The Knot Book: an Elementary Introduction to the Mathematical theory of Knots. There are many people to whom mathematics is a recreation, consisting of the pleasure of solving puzzles. If mathematics is approached as memorizing incomprehensible formulas and hoping to have the good luck to guess the right formula at the right time, it will be a chore and a torture. If it is instead approached as puzzle solving, the activity will yield unexpected pleasure.

My father has a doctorate in

physics and teaches computer science. He has said, more than once, that he would like for all of his students to take physics before taking his classes. There is a very important and simple reason for this. It is not because he wants his students to program physics simulators, or because there is any direct application of the mathematics in physics to the computer science he teaches. There isn’t. It is because of the problem solving, the manner of thinking. It is because someone who has learned how to think in a way that is effective in physics, will be able to think in a way that is effective in computer science.

This applies to other disciplines as well. Ancient Greek philosophers, and medieval European theologians, made the study of geometry a prerequisite to the study of their respective disciplines. It was not because the constructions or theorems would be directly useful in making claims about the nature of God. Like physics and computer science, there was no direct application. But in order to study geometry, one had to be able to think rigorously, analytically, critically, logically, and abstractly.

Thinking logically and abstractly is an important discipline in life and in other academic disciplines that consist of thinking—it has been said that if you can do mathematics, you can do almost anything. The main reason mathematics is valuable to the non-mathematician is as a form of weight lifting for the mind. Even when the knowledge has no application, the finesse that’s learned can be useful.

To the non-mathematician, mathematics is a valuable discipline which offers practice in how to think well—both analytic thought and problem solving. Mathematics classes will most profitably be approached, not as “What is the formula I have to memorize,” but with ideas such as those enumerated here. The nonmathematician who approaches a mathematics class as an opportunity for disciplined thought and problem solving will do better, profit more, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy the course.

It is my the hope that this essay have provided the nonmathematician with an inkling of why it is profitable for people who aren’t going to be mathematicians to still study mathematics.

Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh: A Look at Profound Giftedness Through Orthodox Anthropology

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

A look at profound giftedness through Orthodox anthropology

Thesis Statement

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are emblems of Christ’s kingship, divinity, and suffering respectively, applying to humans as Christ’s image, studied in the profoundly gifted.

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to look at the features of Christ confessed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as features playing out in humans, and exploring what concrete shape this playing out takes in the so-called “profoundly gifted.” (Kingship, divinity, and suffering play out in equally significant ways for other populations, but the scope is primarily limited to a segment of the stated population.) “Profound giftedness” is used a standard psychological technical term, if a quite flattering label for a more ambivalent experience.

Profound giftedness is explored as one of many experiences that looks different from the inside and from the outside; paradoxically, what looks different from the inside and outside is in large measure its particular expression of human commonalities. (This could be said for many other populations as well.) Profound giftedness as an expression of being human is explored, in the (royal and) divine image, in particular the rule over Creation through work, alongside a particular expression of suffering, while being attentive to the fact that profoundly gifted people both suffer and cause others to suffer. Suffering is explored in light of Orthodox experience before the essay closes by applying lessons learned in looking at profoundly gifted difference to human difference as such. Profound giftedness experience combines extremes, including both privilege and marginality. This study looks at the profoundly gifted experience of being human, and owes a considerable debt to studies of the human experience of the marginalized, while drawing from other traditions including the Orthodox.

Profound giftedness is not described as exception to the normal human rule but as the univocally applied human rule given further specification that could be given different further specification for other populations.

Symbols, humans, and Christ

There is an understanding of symbol/image that plays out in this paper’s treatment of the image of God and the symbolic character of the magi’s gifts. If we look at the question, “Does a symbol represent and embody or represent only?” an Orthodox perspective is that a symbol or image both represents and embodies.[1] A proper symbol is neither arbitrary nor detached but connected to what it represents. Hence Kallistos Ware answers the question of whether Orthodox pay undue devotion to wood: “The icon is… a symbol; the veneration shown to the images is directed, not to stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted.”[2] We shall see in a moment that the person is in turn a symbol of Christ, but the immediate point is the understanding of symbol that undergirds such a position. It is the same understanding of symbol that says that the Gifts of the Magi were not given arbitrary imputed symbolism, representing without embodying. Not only do they both represent and embody, but there are layers of symbolic resonance, and that resonance informs this paper as does the precedent in Ephrem the Syrian, a poet of the first rank,[3] treating a fluid rather than inflexible treatment of the symbols’ precise meaning.

It is a deceptive understatement to call Christ a norm to humanity. To be human is to be made in the image of God, classically understood as “in the image of the Trinity,”[4] as Ware attests, and this image specifically includes the image of Christ. Part of this image plays out in treatment of others: Ware writes “Monastery guests, as St Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.550) wrote in his Rule, are to be received ‘as Christ himself.’ In similar terms, the fourth-century Egyptian Abba Apollo insisted, ‘We should bow down before those who come to see us, for we are bowing down not before them but before God.'”[5] This principle is in no sense unique to monastery guests: in Mt 25.31-46 the righteous are separated from the wicked in the last judgment according to how they treated Christ through their treatment of the downtrodden, with no distinction being made for religious persuasion. One’s treatment of another is one’s treatment of Christ tout court. Christ lies at the heart of humanity and his image in every human reaches the point that one cannot do good or ill to another human, Christian or not, as someone detached from Christ because there is no such thing as someone detached from Christ. This is tacitly tied to a norm in a much deeper sense than a norm extrinsically imposed de jure, whether or not it fits a person originally independent of that arbitrarily imposed norm. One can have something to do with Christ without encountering Christianity: the relevance of Christ does not enter the picture only in relation to explicit identification with Christianity.

As a limitation of scope, this paper looks at the image of Christ as it is expressed in the profoundly gifted. “[God] doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels.”[6] The image of Christ is specified equally but differently in other human populations, and other papers might look at other populations. The scope of this paper is to offer analysis and description for the profoundly gifted and talk about how the image of Christ in the human constitution plays out specifically in this locale. If the profoundly gifted are explored as connected to Christ and the Theotokos or Mother of God, this is intended as an exploration of something common with other populations rather than a specific distinction that applies to the profoundly gifted and not others. Then why focus on the profoundly gifted? Human basics can be further specified in exploring the particularity of their expression in different populations, and this paper is intended to offer specific characterization and thick description for the group in its focus, a methodology one would expect to be able to apply to any number of groups. (Other papers with different focuses might give comparable specification to the human rule through thick description of other populations.)

Chrism, frankincense, and myrrh

Chrism was not “mere” oil but a sacramental emblem of the Holy Spirit. Cyril of Alexandria compares aromatic holy oil, or chrism, which produces “the advent of deity,”[7] to consecrated bread that has become the Body of Christ,[8] and Cyril does not mean this as extrinsic and arbitrary symbolism but understands symbol along the lines outlined above. Oil is an emblem of the Holy Spirit so that anointing with oil may be hard to disentangle from anointing with the Spirit,[9] and oil carried rich resonances: Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes: “Most important for early Christians were the ideas of priesthood, kingship, and prophecy as offices of sacred activity conferred through an anointing with holy oil. Early Christians applied these concepts to the figure of Christ, as well as themselves as his followers. [emphasis added]”[10]

Ashbrook Harvey mentions a “universal patristic exegesis”[11] of gold as emblematic of Christ’s kingship, frankincense of his divinity, and myrrh of his suffering. In patristic sources this exegesis can be tersely stated,[12] but at other times there is fluidity and resonance: in Ephrem the Syrian myrrh intercedes for swords used in aggression, gold intercedes for treasures plundered from King Hezekiah, and frankincense appeased divinity.[13] The three basic meanings are here cast in a touching light of reparations for the magi’s ancestral offenses against Mary’s ancestors. This paper’s method is informed by how in Ephrem the three gifts were not limited to a single rigid meaning but could be flexibly applied in different ways.

Frankincense was a complement to anointing oil; Ashbrook Harvey writes, “…incense took its base meaning from its identification with sacrifice. Incense served as a medium for human initiative towards the divine, and its fragrance marked the process of human-divine encounter. Holy oil, by contrast, represented divine initiative towards the human.”[14] Incense could signify human approach to divinity, or divinity itself.[15]

Myrrh was associated with suffering and death. Concordance search results for “myrrh,” “spices,” or “ointment” (in the RSV) reveal an overwhelming number of Gospel references explicitly connected to the passion: the Gospel reference to myrrh, spices, ointment, etc. pave the way for the Fathers to tie myrrh to suffering and death.

Gold is less thoroughly explained in Ashbrook Harvey and seems to be one of those objects of study poised to slip through the cracks of what is considered “doctrinally significant:” prior research to support an argument appears scanty, leaving primary sources the best available resource. Kittel[16] and Fitzgerald[17] lack entries for “chrysos”/”gold.” This may be a difficulty, but it does not stop one from looking at the other two gifts, and patristic treatments of kingship can presumably illuminate gold as an emblem of kingship.

Chrism is almost a fourth gift besides the three, and in a way is prior: it cuts deeper, and we call Christ “the Christ,” meaning anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. The oil and the Holy Spirit are paradigms for each other.[18] Anointing was important in baptism[19] and some sources make baptism more a matter of oil than water.[20] John the Baptist announced one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,[21] and perhaps oil rather than water explained baptismal anointing, with the Holy Spirit and with fire, to make little Christs. Not only myrrh for suffering, but gold for kingship and frankincense for divinity, are basic to being human and constituted by the image of Christ. The anointing with the literal-and-more-than-literal chrism that makes prophet, priest, and king applies to Christ and Christians. It is not only the pre-eminent gift of chrism that is connected with what it means to be human. The Gifts of the Magi are ultimately gifts to humans who bear Christ’s image.

Gold and frankincense in human work

The gifts have something to say about the human person. It is the Last Adam[22] who received frankincense, gold, and myrrh, and this Last Adam is tied to the First Adam: Genesis 1.26-8 (RSV) reads:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [emphasis added for words relating to human rule]

Genesis 1 ties the divine image to human rule. The language used is of an idol image of a deity that carried the deity’s essence and through which the deity’s work was accomplished.[23] Furthermore, a good portion of the words in Genesis 1.26-8 are devoted to the relationship between the human and the rest of material Creation. To cite one patristic example, Basil of Caesarea can spiritualize rule over animals by discussing rule over oneself,[24] but alongside an a fortiori implied argument, “Let them rule over the fish. We were, in the first instance, given power over animals who live elsewhere. [God] did not say, Let them rule over domestic animals, but over fish:” humans have a powerful authority over the animals that goes beyond domestic animals to even effectively apply to fish.[25] Our relation to the natural world is a relation as royalty made to rule. Anestis Keselopoulos explains this point: “[St. Symeon] has a strong feeling for the fact that man was created to function as king of creation.”[26] Gold and frankincense do not begin to describe humanity in Christ’s shadow. They already describe the divine image in Genesis 1.

That the texts above connect to work is foundational to John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.[27] He argues, “Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work,”[28] making subduing the earth and human rule the bridge between the imago dei and work. The royal, divine image expresses itself in work—perhaps not only work, and perhaps “work” needs to be more broadly understood than “remunerated labor,” but on the Genesis 1 account the one holy day of rest is only achieved after the six days of the Creator himself working. One can scarcely ask for a higher valuation of work than to say the world was created by God’s work (perhaps over billions of years), and as the Father works, so does the Son (John 5.17). Work is a defining feature of humanity (although not the only important feature). Work is part of human glory, part of the gift of gold and frankincense. The archetypal command to rule Creation is a command to work, and to be king is to rule through work.

Properly understood, work is at the core of what Keselopoulos gives great moral weight, one’s “relationship with the things in creation.”[29] Work is the outward operation of the image of God, and relating to the world virtuously is partly a matter of loving work. Madeleine l’Engle describes service that is close to the heart of work: “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve.”[30] The artist does not take first initiative but responds by serving an as yet unformed Creation that needs to be loved into its full being. We will further explore this image later.

Conceptualization of profound giftedness

I am wary of using the term “genius” for several reasons. Of all the common terms in psychological literature, “genius” is most problematic. It is difficult to say “genius” and only imply a claim of ability; invariably there are half-conscious associations evoked which approach being a morally separate class of creature who has a higher calling and is not bound by the same rules as mere mortals, much like the pathological conceptualization of the “exceptional man” critiqued in Crime and Punishment.[31] “Genius” comes with a mystique, or, to be more precise, is largely a mystique.

“Profoundly gifted” is not a synonym for “genius,” and I will use the imperfect “profoundly gifted” not because it is perfect (it isn’t), but to avoid forcing readers to deal with my own invented term when a standard term exists. “Genius,” even besides its connotations, denotes someone who leaves behind work of enduring value, and I believe it is possible for profoundly gifted to make no such achievement, and for that matter to do poorly at certain ordinary achievements like economic self-sufficiency. The narrow technical term “profoundly gifted” overlaps the term “genius” (if the latter is stripped of its mystique), but the overlap is incomplete, with one neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure the other. Having considered what amount to limited options, all of which have drawbacks, I will use the term “profoundly gifted” as being the least problematic, even if it is a flattering way of describing an ambivalent condition.

While the language of “giftedness” has Biblical origins,[32] I am using technical terms which depart from the Biblical usage and which I treat as having important differences from the Biblical way of framing gifts. Theologically, the quite different Biblical conceptualization is to be preferred, and I will use psychological terms even if it might be theologically preferable to have another terminology besides that of giftedness to refer to this particularly obscure form of human giftedness. I Corinthians 12 never speaks of “gifted” (as opposed to “non-gifted”) people, and in the parable of the talents,[33] the servants admittedly differ in how much they receive, but they do not differ in having at least one substantial “talent” entrusted to them, meaning at least sixty-five pounds[34] of precious metal.[35] It is not only the profoundly gifted who have a place and a quite significant gift for the greater, common good, nor does one need to be psychologically labeled as “gifted” to count as a human being. Furthermore, this discussion is limited in its scope and does not treat other forms of giftedness even if one departs from the Biblical baseline that true talent and giftedness are for all, not a few. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ[36] is controversial,[37] but Goleman takes a look at one of several of the intelligences treated by multiple intelligence theory, and at very least makes a significant argument of exactly how success may be more a matter of emotional intelligence than the specific type of intelligence treated within the scope of this paper.[38] Even broader would be a serious attempt to treat not only intelligences but the broader category of aptitudes, which seem practically infinite in variety.

Profoundly gifted work at a young age

Work is a defining feature of humanity and can be neither limited to nor centered on the profoundly gifted, but there is something that shines in the work of the profoundly gifted. But before I go further about that, I need to explain a feature of traditional psychological research in this domain. Leta Hollingworth, who was highly influential in how psychology subsequently came to approach giftedness and was the founder of gifted education,[39] expressed concerns that Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius[40] identified gifted people by established adult reputation, after interventions no longer help much.[41] She suggested that one shift focus to gifted children, which has left a curious lacuna in the psychological research: study of gifted people is first and foremost study of gifted children. Therefore, the research that is available deals primarily with gifted children and I will be looking at children.

Hollingworth describes “child L” in middle school:[42]

He was relatively large, robust, and impressive, and was fondly dubbed “Professor.” His attitudes and abilities were appreciated by both pupils and teachers. He was often allowed to lecture (for as long as an hour) on some special topic, such as the history of timepieces, ancient theories of engine construction, mathematics, and history. He constructed out of odds and ends (typewriter ribbon spools, for example) a homemade clock of the pendular type to illustrate some of the principles of chronometry, and this clock was set up before the class during the enrichment unit on “Time and Time Keeping,” to demonstrate some of the principles of chronometry.

Coming from a slightly different angle, Martha June Morelock offers analysis for Michael Kerney:[43]

The Plato Phenomenon

Mr. Kearney reports that since Michael was very young, he has seemed to spontaneously manifest both factual knowledge and conceptual comprehension that no one has taught him. He recalls an incident when Michael was three years old . . .

Mr. K: Michael at three coming up to me—when I came up to me and he said “Dad, Dad! I’ve got to show you this, got to show you this!” And he showed me the commutative rule of algebra. And I said “Michael! That’s great! Where did you learn that?” “I don’t know. I just made it up!” And then he goes “Wait, Wait! There’s more! There’s more!” And then he showed me the associative rule.

In searching for an explanation for this phenomenon, Mr. Kearney has considered a number of possibilities—including an analogy to Platonic philosophy . . .

Mr. K: Just in terms of some of his mathematical ability—some of the cognitive abilities. Some of the fact knowledge that he knew. But we didn’t look at those as telepathy or spiritual things. It was more platonic. I think our experience, if anything, would be related to Platonic Forms. He seemed to be able to go in and take things out of another dimension and apply them—things that you wouldn’t normally know, he knew. I mean, I don’t think the issue was whether or not anyone taught him or not. It was that they were available to him and on occasion, he could dip into a location and bring things up. He has a cognitive ability to see things whole.

There is a sense in which a staggering intelligence is the baseline of being human: the most important sense of intelligence is not any of the intelligences on a multiple intelligence scale and in fact not something that some people have more of,[44] but something like embodiment that is simply part of the baseline of being human: this sense of intelligence forms a necessary context to achievements like the above which, taken out of context, suggest that there is a very occult phenomenon manifest in a very few, showing “ordinary” intelligence to be trivial. That would be a deep misunderstanding of intelligence in all parties. The intelligence described in the above quotation is in fact something spiritual, along with “ordinary” intelligence, but there is something easier to see in this kind of achievement even if one has grown insensitive to ordinary intelligence as a spiritual feature of the divine image at work. Profound giftedness exists in continuities with broader human intelligence: artwork in a gallery, at its best, need not dazzle in a way that “shows” that nothing outside the gallery is beautiful; one can visit an art gallery and have one’s eyes opened not only to the art but the world the art is drawn from.

If the royal, divine image expresses itself in profoundly gifted work, the expression of the image in work is not an ontologically distinct faculty that the profoundly gifted have that not everybody else has. There is, however, a qualitative difference, suitable for thick description. This quality would not be rightly identified in any sense as an exclusive or even primary shadow of the Theotokos in the Annunciation, but among many polarities and many kinds of difference work for the profoundly gifted resembles the Annunciation in one among many ways.

Before identifying the specific contours that might place the work of the profoundly gifted in the shadow of the Annunciation in a particular way, it may help to clarify one Eastern understanding of the Annunciation that I am using as a framework:[45]

The incarnation was not only the work of the Father, by His power and by His spirit, but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the Immaculate, without the agreement of her faith, the plan was as unrealizable as it would have been without the intervention of the three divine Persons Themselves. It was only after having instructed her and persuaded her that God took her for His Mother and borrowed from her the flesh, that She so greatly wished to lend Him. Just as He became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and with her full consent.

The Annunciation of the Theotokos,[46] in the Eastern Tradition, is not understood as a message the angel spoke, but was when the Theotokos gave her full cooperation to the divine initiative, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”[47] The Theotokos offers the perfect creaturely response to the divine initiative, and the most enduring works of profound giftedness are in its shadow. (There are many other points on the spectrum of human experience that are in its shadow, too.)

Creative work, and much of the serious work of the profoundly gifted, is a minor incarnation and the fruit of a minor annunciation. Madeleine l’Engle writes, “The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.”[48] It is the bearing of a Creation that comes to one initially unformed, not yet given concrete shape, and one gives to it out of one’s nature, loves and serves it into being; one gives it one’s own flesh until it has become enfleshed and ready to meet the world. There are other dimensions to the connection—perichoresis or interpenetration of bearer and gift, and a spiritual discipline l’Engle calls “almost identical with adoring the Master of the Universe in contemplative prayer”[49]—and the process, meditated on throughout Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water,[50] is not unique to the profoundly gifted, who are not correctly understood if they are viewed simply in terms of differences without attention to human commonalities.

But it is the textured shape taken by the human gold and incense for many profoundly gifted.

Myrrh and the suffering of the profoundly gifted

Suffering is a basic part of human life. It takes different forms, perhaps, but it is constitutive of human experience. Furthermore, there are a great many human experiences that are different from the inside and from the outside. If this is explored with regard to the profoundly gifted, this is not as something that sets the profoundly gifted apart, but exploring further the concrete human form of human universals that are given further specification one way for the profoundly gifted and are given further specification other ways for other populations.

Giftedness as studied in this paper does not automatically include emotional intelligence, but it does not leave emotional life unaffected: for the entire range of giftedness, and not only the profoundly gifted, “giftedness has an emotional as well as a cognitive substructure: cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth.”[51] This has a marked positive aspect; it makes it easier to have a rich inner life and to experience joy, but “[i]ntensity, in particular, must be understood as a qualitatively distinct characteristic. It is not a matter of degree but of a different quality of experiencing:”[52] it is as if at an age where children of a particular bent are given toy power tools, the range of gifted children are left to contend with real power tools, leaving more positive possibilities but also more ways of getting hurt that for many children simply aren’t an issue. This kind of inner life is a mixed blessing when it comes to experiencing difficulties.

What is school like for the profoundly gifted? What is do they experience when they are in a situation which people assume is entirely oriented around them and their interests, where they have life easy and do not need to apply themselves like other people? This is what it meant for two boys:

He would go to school from 8 to 2 and you would think that would be enough. Nope. Cause when he got home at 2 o’clock, he goes “Mom, I want work. They didn’t give me any work.” It’s like “You did all that stuff at school?” “Oh, that’s easy stuff.[“] He used to complain “Mom, they’re making me write “cat” and “dog” and all these three letter words.” So I went to the school and I said “He doesn’t like to write these things, and why are you having him read cat and dog books? He reads far beyond that level.” And they said it was because they wanted his hands—because he was so young and his motor skills had to be developed, that they wanted him to read this little easy book so that he could write. Well, he was like, “Well, let me read the big books and I’ll write.”[53]

Ian completed Grade 3 in a quiet fury of anger, intellectual frustration and bitterness. His verbal and physical aggressiveness returned in full spate; however, as he was now 2 years older than he had been in Grade 1, he was able to maintain a tighter control on his emotions while at school, and his teachers remained quite unaware of the emotional toll levied on him. At home, however, he released all of his frustration and resentment and became, in Brock’s words, “almost impossible to live with.” In addition, he began to experience severe headaches, bouts of nausea, and stomach pains. [longer emphasis added][54]

This experience is a hint of the dark side of the profoundly gifted experience. Profound giftedness offers real advantages, and no account of it is complete without accounting for what seem almost like magic powers. Giftedness is a privilege, the more the better, or is commonly assumed to be such kind of unqualified privilege so that saying that giftedness is painful comes across like saying that riches are painful. Yet if it is a privilege, it is a privilege that includes an experience that can be painful enough to cause depression, escape through street drugs, and suicide.[55]

The analogy to wealth could be refined: profound giftedness seems to be like wealth in an odd currency that makes it easy to buy luxuries but difficult to acquire some necessities. The characteristics described under “Gold and Frankincense” are quite significant and a source of joy. In general the profoundly gifted experience is an experience of extremes, where few things are moderate. But there are things some others wouldn’t guess at, such what such differences mean for difficulties finding and obtaining steady work, let alone a normal environment experienced as hostile enough to induce nausea in a young boy. Being significantly above average is an advantage, but it must be understood that the “moderately” gifted whom one is tempted to assume are “mediocre gifted” are in fact no such thing: they are almost what giftedness should be like, significantly above average and yet escaping certain problems.[56] “Moderate” giftedness coincides almost entirely with what has elsewhere been called the range of “socially optimum intelligence,”[57] and it resembles the classical image of moderation or a via media which not simply avoids two extremes but in its balance has something positive that both extremes lack. This is a different phenomenon from another range where birth trauma and brain damage seem close to a majority phenomenon,[58] is part of why scholars will speak about “the ‘syndrome’ of profound giftedness.”[59] It’s still classified as giftedness, but it not just a further enhanced form of the advantages in moderate giftedness. Doreen Freeman suggests of disability, “How often we hear people say they would ‘rather be dead than disabled’ yet the suicide rates of the disabled do not reflect this pessimistic view.”[60] Disability is a different condition viewed from the inside and the outside, and so is giftedness, for which the suicide rates are apparently higher. We are aware that stereotypes can affect a true appreciation of other groups, which includes race and disability, and also include profound giftedness as an experience difficult to judge from the outside. (Not that the profoundly gifted experience is unique in looking different from the inside versus the outside: there are any number of human experiences that are different from the inside and the outside, and this is not a distinction for the profoundly gifted but only how the phenomenon plays out for them.)

Aharon Lichtenstein writes as he concludes an article on suffering as having a profound place within Judaism:[61]

In conclusion, I return to the sinking feeling that much of what has been said here might fall on deaf ears… any attempt to cry up the purgative nature of suffering might be viewed, especially after the Holocaust, as trite, platitudinous, and—what is worst—callous…

I can understand such a reaction—and indeed, up to a point, share it. But only up to a point… Response to suffering cannot be divorced from the totality of religious experience…

Suffering, and the use of suffering, have a place within religion.

John Behr’s central mystery is “life in death” for his appropriately titled The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.[62] The cross is central: “This scriptural reflection on the Passion of Christ began by the apostles and evangelists was continued, expanded and deepened in the work of subsequent theologians, shaping every aspect of their theological vision.”[63] This expands into meaning not only that Christ bore his Cross but we are to bear the Cross: what is normative is for “everything [in our lives to be] encompassed in [Christ’s] economy.”[64] “Life” is used in terms of the divine life,[65] and “death” holds far more than a merely biological meaning:[66] the mystery of “life in death” is a mystery of “frankincense in myrrh.”

There have been people who have found in joy in suffering. Peter and other apostles, after being beaten,[67] left the council “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”[68] Ware’s closing examples in an article on martyrdom tell of martyrs’ joy.[69] This puzzling behavior is difficult to understand but plays out what is said in the Sermon on the Mount, in a passage that is part of the Orthodox Church’s main liturgy:[70] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil falsely against you for my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[71] I cite these not because I expect it to be self-evident how people could respond this way, but precisely to suggest that there’s something in their version of suffering that is hard to appreciate today.

Even if it is hard to see how, these texts indicate that there is something that may not be obvious about innocent suffering. Hebrews and I Peter elaborate and clarify: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering,”[72] If Christ himself was made perfect through suffering then it would seem incongruous to say that suffering may have perfected Christ but should not apply to people in his shadow. “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But when you do right and suffer for it and take it patiently, you have God’s approval:”[73] God’s approval can be on the innocent sufferer even if the suffering is not externally labeled as suffering in the Lord’s name.

To say that Christ “the pioneer of their salvation” was made perfect through suffering transforms our understanding of Christ and even more suffering. Elsewhere people learn from Christ, but in Hebrews we read shocking words: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”[74] (This is the only New Testament text where the Son is said to learn obedience.) In Hebrews 11.28, suffering is tied to faith, “portrayed as force sustaining God’s people in times of opposition and affliction, enabling them to overcome fear and temptation and fulfill his purposes for them,”[75] which is the context to how Moses “considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward.”[76] It may seem that such Biblical statements about suffering in the name of Christ only speak to the case of confessors and martyrs narrowly understood, but I Peter 2.19-20 forestalls such a reading and orients our understanding of innocent suffering as such. After describing Christ’s voluntary suffering as normative and monastic living as a manifestation of martyrdom, Ware writes, “What has just been said about Christ, about the martyr and the monk, is also true in a certain measure of every Christian without exception,”[77] specifically in the sufferings of life. There are different forms of martyrdom which do not always include violence and death, but to be Christian is to be called to martyrdom.[78]

This is not resignation. Paul uses paschw of “his readers, Christians in general,”[79] and can have a very active ring, meaning “‘to fight,’ perhaps ‘to fight an enforced fight,’… not ‘to be helplessly exposed or subject to alien pressure,’… ‘to prevail’. [emphasis added]”[80]But the understanding that filters into the gift of myrrh is not simply a temporary measure for when the problem cannot be properly addressed yet. Cases of truly difficult suffering are not an exceptional case that this teaching also applies to; they are the central case under this view. This view of suffering applies from relative inconveniences up to major suffering including poverty and hunger, the death of loved ones, illness from cancer to depression, and many other cases. If the profoundly gifted are no unique center to the Biblical teaching because they are in no sense the only ones to suffer, that does not make their suffering trivial. Suffering increases as one approaches sainthood, and while suffering does not confer any automatic sainthood, Orthodox hagiography details a number of people with unusually difficult lives—the saints who are canonized as unusually good at living a normal human life—and some of their relics are said to miraculously stream, significantly enough, with myrrh.[81] To see profoundly gifted suffering as outside the bounds of normal human life and to try an activist solution to bring it into the bounds of normal human life is to fail to realize that profoundly gifted suffering is a unique opportunity to live the normal Christian life, a life where gold and incense cannot be separated from myrrh.

The reality of myrrh is a reality of suffering made positive in a context where suffering is no longer the last word, and it is not separate from gold for kingship and frankincense for divinity. Those saints who are fragrant with myrrh are fragrant with Heaven’s incense. There are some theologians who talk about humanity as the priest of Creation,[82] and the massive repositories of skills acquired by the profoundly gifted can be a legitimate exercise of kingship—humans properly exercise kingship in the image of God’s kingship not only, and perhaps not primarily, when kingship is exercised over other people.[83] There is a kind of joy and pleasure to learning and acquiring skills, and this may not always be situated within an explicit ecclesial setting, but then it no less constitutes part of what is normal and the gift of gold for kingship.

Profound giftedness in its potential to harm others

Profound giftedness is both a gift from God and something whose use is not always good. Without going too far into the word “holy” (Hebr. qds, apparent etymological meaning, “separate”),[84] I would like to talk some about what it means, and why we should not make too facile an identification of holiness with moral goodness. Holiness consists less in the creature’s relationship to the Creator than the Creator’s relationship to the creature.[85] Giftedness is not unique in this regard, but it is giftedness that is not based on merit but is simply given by the Creator. It may not be achieved by being morally good, and it is misunderstood if it is treated as an accidental arrangement of cognitive faculties. And that lends to something paradoxical: the greater the gift, the greater the potential for evil in the use of that gift, even in the attempt to do good.

Where there is untold human suffering, it may well be related to profoundly gifted plans to improve the world. Stfane Courtois’s The Black Book of Communism[86] tells of millions who starved to death under Marx’s plan for a better world.[87] One can name Adam Smith and the fathers of the Industrial Revolution as creating a masculinist vision to improve the world, a vision that on the ground left things worse for a number of people, and in particular women: Bob Goudzwaard’s Aid for the Overdeveloped West[88] argues that the economic system that some profoundly gifted have helped build in the West is in fact not good for humans qua humans. Much of the industrialization that has led from wives working in adult company to housewives working in solitary confinement, destroying conditions that some feminists would like to reclaim, is transformation of society that stems from profoundly gifted people’s “good ideas” to make a better world.[89] It is perfectly coherent to say that a profoundly gifted person will persuasively argue for a vision of a better world that practically results in incalculable human suffering.

Thick description of myrrh: interdependent terms of human weal or woe

There is another feature of human life that gives a shape, allowing thick description, to what myrrh is; and this is not just for the profoundly gifted: this feature is a specific trait of interdependence. How one experiences this specific trait depends greatly on how it is received: if it is approached with joy and acceptance, can be experienced as suffering that is almost Heavenly in how full it is and how deep its grounds for joy,[90] or can be wrongly experienced as vanity, meaningless suffering that approaches dukkha.[91] The story is told of someone who saw Hell, in which wretched pandas were surrounded by rice but miserable and starving because their three foot long chopsticks made it impossible for the pandas to feed themselves. Then the visitor was taken to Heaven and saw pandas surrounded by rice, delightedly feeding and being fed by each other with their three foot chopsticks. The difference between Heaven and Hell is a difference that lies in how one is capable of experiencing the realities one is in. It is not just true in the next life that we can experience certain things as joyful or as meaningless dukkha. It is also true of this life, and more specifically of certain features of human interdependence, and the impossibility of independence, that are perhaps never completely avoidable but seem harder to even pretend to avoid in the profoundly gifted experience. It appears that some profoundly gifted may have no way to present their gifts in a way that a job recruiter will interpret as believable competence.[92] Paradoxically, an unusually impressive list of achievements may not be accompanied by much opportunity to be self-supporting and perhaps not other “necessities.”

In the work of Arthurian criticism Arthurian Torso,[93] Lewis discusses Virgil in Charles Williams’ Taliessin through Logres:[94]

It is Virgil himself who died without reaching the patria, who saw ‘Italy’ only from a wave before he was engulfed forever. It is Virgil himself who stretches out his hands among the ghosts ripae ulterioris amore, longing to pass a river that he cannot pass. This poet from whose work so many Christians have drawn spiritual nourishment was not himself a Christian—did not himself know the full meaning of his own poetry, for (in Keble’s fine words) ‘thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given’. This is exquisite cruelty; he made honey not for himself; he helped to save others, himself he could not save.

…The Atonement was a Substitution, just as Anselm said. But that Substitution, far from being a mere legal fiction irrelevant to the normal workings of the universe, was simply the supreme instance of a universal law. ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save’ is a definition of the Kingdom. All salvation, everywhere and at all times, in great things or in little, is vicarious. The courtesy of the Emperor has absolutely decreed that no man can paddle his own canoe and every man can paddle his fellow’s, so that the shy offering and modest acceptance of indispensable aid shall be the very form of the celestial etiquette. [emphasis original]

Lewis is summarizing Williams, and Williams’s point has strong theological relevance. Ware introduces one topic of discussion as “what Charles Williams calls ‘substituted love’, ‘coinherence’, or ‘the way of exchange’,”[95] founded precisely on the above “law of the canoe.” Profound giftedness is not a help for making honey for oneself but making honey for others, and this is not because the profoundly gifted are any more altruistic: whether one is selfish or generous, profound giftedness helps paddling others’ canoes much better than it helps paddling one’s own.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals argues that dependence is constitutive of human nature.[96] Self-understanding as being independent requires sweeping acknowledgment of our dependence under the rug: true independence is probably impossible and certainly undesirable. If some people have difficulty achieving even a more relative independence, that is not an exception to how humanity normally works. It is continuous with large segments of humanity besides the profoundly gifted having more difficulty achieving a measure of independence. A few profoundly gifted experience worldly success—perhaps great—while many more experience surprising struggles.[97]

Lewis calls the law “exquisite cruelty,” and it is even crueler if a definition of justice in terms of paddling one’s own canoe is applied to the world, and one begins to suspect that even the Lawgiver, God, does not meet that standard of justice. But there is something in that picture that is not cruel, something that hinges on being willing to give up that standard of justice and accept the “law of the canoe” as terms of joy. If the profoundly gifted experience has extremes in its glories and difficulties, this form of interdependence is a difficulty that can and should be a glory, even if profoundly gifted may rarely be able to experience it as a particular form of human blessing.

Comparable remarks could be made for other populations and communities.

Conclusion

It seems a strained reading of Midas’s tale to argue that whatever Midas said, the king consciously thought he would retain the usual human ability to touch things without changing them into anything else, and in addition have the option to turn things to gold by touch when he so desired. Perhaps that would have been a far wiser thing to ask for. Despite this lack of foresight, it appears that when the king said that he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold, the “everything” he envisioned of course did not include his food and wine, and absolutely did not include his only daughter. It seems that Midas’s desire was for a fantasy version of a gift, and he was shocked when he received the real thing.

Profound giftedness is not a curse like Midas’s. It offers much better prospects of living to old age, not to mention any number of other benefits. But it is, like any number of other human experiences, different from the inside than from the outside.

There is another king associated with gold—in fact, six billion such royalty on one account, and Midas’s gold for his greed is in fact a base metal next to that gold that is from the same fountainhead as frankincense and myrrh. Human difference is not a matter of some people being at the human baseline, with everyone else starting from the same baseline but with added modifiers. In that sense everybody is on the baseline: it is mistaken to say that a profoundly gifted person is an “as modified by” representative of the majority, and neither more nor less mistaken than the opposite claim that most people are “as modified by” versions of the profoundly gifted, or comparable pairs of remarks spanning other human differences. Differences can be a chasm—sometimes requiring a great leap to bridge,—but when one can and does bridge the chasm, one may learn not of one more adjustment that can be made to a baseline centered on one’s own group, but a deeper understanding of what the baseline is and is not.

In that sense there is nothing distinctive about profound giftedness being different from the inside and from how one would imagine it from the outside. It is illustrative of the human.

Partly Annotated Bibliography

(The annotation is geared primarily towards profound giftedness as a theological reader may be expected to understand the theological literature better than the literature on giftedness.)

Ashbrook Harvey, Susan, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press 2006.

Buttrick, George, The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press 1952.

Carson, D.A. et al. (eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press 1994.

Clark, Stephen, Man and Woman in Christ, Ann Arbor: Servant 1980.

Courtois, Stephane et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Boston: Harvard University Press 1999.

If one wishes to take seriously that profound giftedness and good intentions can cause incalculable suffering, this text covers something that is better not ignored.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment, New York: Random House 1956.

L’Engle, Madeleine, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Wheaton: Shaw 1980.

In my argument about gold and kingship, I have talked about a profoundly gifted accent to work. Giftedness as such is incidental at best to Madeleine l’Engle’s focus, but this is a perspective on artistic work, a work that is close to contemplation, and if it does not have a profoundly gifted focus it still has a profoundly gifted perspective as the basis to explore artistic work as a whole.

Feldman, David, “A follow-up of subjects scoring above 180 IQ in Terman’s ‘Genetic Studies of Genius'”, in Exceptional Children, vol. 50 no. 6 1984, 518-523.

This study makes the briefest passing mention that one of Terman 1925’s very few profoundly gifted subjects “took his own life,” without the briefest passing suggestion of any way this tragedy might be something to learn from, might be something related to the profoundly gifted experience, or could even be preventable. (Statistical analysis is impossible for a small sample, but if one person in a twenty-nine person sample committed suicide, this is hundreds of times higher than the population at large, or even demographics like those suffering from major depression.) This feature is symptomatic of a broader tendency in Feldman to be a generic summary without insight, and this is part of why I prefer the more qualitative studies such as Hollingworth 1975 or Morelock 1995.

Freeman, Doreen, “A Feminist Theology of Disability”, in Feminist Theology 29 (2002), 71-85.

Fitzgerald, Allan, Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999.

Galton, Francis, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences, London: Macmillan 1892 (1869).

From the introductory chapter Galton takes positions offensive even in his own day, and, to pick one example, his stand for intelligence-centered eugenics as a moral duty earns Galton’s vile reputation today. His study seems to be less concerned about describing or studying genius in the sense offered by other sources than making a minimal study of his subjects sufficient to move on to his real interest, identifying whether genius is hereditary enough to bolster the eugenics he advocated. On a more positive view of the study of giftedness, Galton can be read as indicating how far the study of giftedness has come since Galton’s approach. Too much of Galton’s attitude lingers in later literature, but Webb 1980 bases his argument on a completely different footing: when he appeals for reform and cites a statistic that gifted education is part of special education but receives per capita less than three cents on the dollar compared to other special needs populations,[98] the argument is not that gifted people are entitled to better treatment because they are superior. The argument is that special needs should be treated in proportion to the need. He places giftedness as a greater special need than most people realize.

While acknowledging that the gifted population may be one of few special needs populations which is envied, one may hope that future literature may shift further away from Galton in the direction of recognizing the gifted population as having legitimate if perhaps unanticipated special needs, and given proportionate treatment to the form of special needs.

Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, New York: Bantam 1995.

This controversial book treats one of several important aptitudes besides those studied here. The reason this article studies only one type of giftedness out of many is not because it’s the only interesting kind of intelligence (emotional intelligence may be more important), but a limitation of what can reasonably be treated in a single paper.

Goudzwaard, Bob, Aid for the Overdeveloped West, Oshawa: Wedge 1975.

Gross, Miraca, “The Early Development of Three Profoundly Gifted Children of IQ 200,” in Klein, Pnina; Tannenbaum, Abraham (eds.), To Be Young and Gifted, Norwood: Ablex 1992, 94-138.

This article is probably the best short sampling that offers a sense of human encounter through thick description of profoundly gifted children, and may serve as an orientation to the terrain of profoundly gifted children before tackling Hollingworth 1975 and Morelock 1995.

Gross, Miraca, “Factors in the Social Adjustment and Social Acceptability of Extremely Gifted Children,” Ohio Psychology Press 1994 as seen online at http://www.gt-cybersource.org/Record.aspx?NavID=2_0&rid=10586 on 1 January 2007.

Rather than thick description this article provides an analysis of social issues surrounding the profoundly gifted and why their position requires them to deal with social challenges that are not as much of an issue for others.

Hayward, Jonathan, Artificial Intelligence, AI as an Arena of Magical Thinking for Skeptics: Cognitive Science, and Eastern Orthodox Views on Personhood, Master’s Thesis (Cambridge University), 2004.

A study of the significance and power of basic human intelligence that can sometimes be overlooked in the study of giftedness.

Hollingworth, Leta, Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development, New York: Arno Press, 1975 (1942).

A classic study offering thick description of profoundly gifted children. Hollingworth has not been superseded.

Honderich, Ted (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.

Howard, Pierce, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research, Austin: Bard 2006.

Also readable as “A layperson’s introduction to the culture and prejudices of cognitive psychology/cognitive science,” but a valuable resource nonetheless, and the only psychological work I know that is not specialized in giftedness but offers an on-target treatment of profound giftedness.

Keselopoulos, Anestis, Man and the Environment: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1976.

Klein, Ann, “Fitting the School to the Child: The Mission of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, Founder of Gifted Education,” in Roeper Review, 23 (2), 2000, 97-103.

Kreeft, Peter, Three Philosophies of Life: Ecclesiastes: Life as Vanity; Job: Life as Suffering; Song of Songs: Life as Love, San Francisco: Ignatius 1989.

Landy, Frank, “The Long, Frustrating, and Fruitless Search for Social Intelligence: A Cautionary Tale,” in Murphy, Kevin (ed.), A Critique of Emotional Intelligence: What Are the Problems and How Can They Be Fixed?, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum 2006, 81-123.

An opposing views piece to (Howard) Gardner theory, including Goleman 1995.

Lewis, C.S., That Hideous Strength, New York: Scrivener 1996.

Lichtenstein, Aharon, “The Duties of the Heart and Response to Suffering,” in Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1999.

Macintyre, Alisdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Chicago: Open Court 1999.

Maloney, George, Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh: An Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality, New York: Crossroad 1997.

McVey, Kathleen, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, New York: Mahwah 1989.

Morelock, Martha, The Profoundly Gifted Child in Family Context, UMI 1995.

This dissertation studies in depth two profoundly gifted children who represent two forms of profound giftedness, Bethany Marshall (profound giftedness focused in a single area, in this case music performance) and Michael Kerney (profound giftedness spread out over many areas). The latter represents someone who is exceptional even for someone who is profoundly gifted. In some sense Morelock is a complement to Hollingworth 1975, but includes significant analysis alongside its thick description.

O’Brien, David; Shannon, Thomas, Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, Maryknoll: Orbis 1992.

Schmemann, Alexander, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1973 (1963), 17.

Smets, Alexis; van Esbroeck, Michel (trs. and eds.), Basil de Césare: Sur l’Origine de l’Homme, Paris: Cerf 1970.

Sword, L., “Gifted Children: Emotionally Immature or Emotionally Intense?” Gifted and Creative Services, Australia, as seen online at http://www.gt-cybersource.org/Record.aspx?rid=12310 on 1 January 2007.

Giftedness is not the same as emotional intelligence but it complexifies emotional life, meaning that gifted sometimes have to work harder to reach what others achieve by less effort to reach emotional maturity. (This article is not limited to profound giftedness but tries to address the broader gifted population.)

Terman, Lewis et al., Genetic Studies of Genius, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1925 (vol. 1), 1926 (vol. 2), 1930 (vol. 3), 1947 (vol. 4), 1959 (vol. 5).

Webb offers reasons why Terman’s methods of identifying gifted people may have been unintendedly biased in favor of the members of the gifted population who enjoyed the greatest social advantage.[99] Terman uses the word “genius” in the title for a population that mostly overlaps the range of “socially optimal intelligence,” without that much attention to profound giftedness. However, Terman offers a landmark study and almost everybody stands on his shoulders even in criticizing him.

Thunberg, Lars, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, La Salle: Open Court, 1995.

Vasileios (Archimandrite), Hymn of Entry, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1984.

Walton, John et al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press 2000.

Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Church, New York: Penguin 1997 (1963).

Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995 (1979).

Ware, Kallistos, “Seek First the Kingdom: Orthodox Monasticism and Its Service to the World,” in Theology Today, April 2004, 61.1, http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=623880061&Fmt=7&clientId=9148&RQT=309&VName=PQD as seen 11/12/06.

Ware, Kallistos, “What is a martyr?” in Sobornost Incorporating Eastern Churches Review, London: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, V.1 (1983), 7-19.

Webb, James; Meckstroth, Elizabeth; Tolan, Stephanie, Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers, Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing Company, 1982.

Webb ties together a great many things in this overview of the spectrum of giftedness (including profound giftedness). Where the sources I recommend for profound giftedness (Morelock 1995, Hollingworth 1974) offer qualitative thick description, this source incorporates theory, thick description, and practical advice into a picture that better than anything else I have seen in its insight into the entirety of the gifted experience.

Williams, Charles; Lewis, C.S., Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1974.

Footnotes

[1] Vasileos 1984, 81-7.

[2] Ware 1997, 32; cf. Ware 1995, 34.

[3] McVey 1989, 4.

[4] Ware 2004, seen online.

[5] Ware 2004, seen online.

[6] Lewis 1996, 370: a character breaks from description of Arthurian grandeur to discuss how this in no way makes Britain superior because each nation has its own characteristic glory: each nation is distinctive and none is superior. Much the same could be said of various populations that are/might be given thick description through the methods of this paper.

[7] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 73.

[8] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 73.

[9] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 66.

[10] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 66-7.

[11] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 254n138. I cannot here explore the suggestion, mentioned in Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 33, that “gold” may represent an underlying Aramaic term for another herbal aromatic.

[12] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.9.2.

[13]Hymns on the Nativity 19.4 in McVey 1989.

[14] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 74.

[15]Hymns on the Nativity 9.15.

[16] Kittel 1976.

[17] Fitzgerald 1999.

[18] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 119-21.

[19] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 67-73.

[20] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 68.

[21]Matthew 3.11; compare: “There is fire in chrism.” (GPh 2.15)

[22] I Corinthians 15.45; cf. I Corinthians 15 and specifically 15.22.

[23] Walton 2000, Genesis 1.27.

[24]Hexameron, Homily 10.8.

[25]Hexameron, Homily 10.9, my own translation. [Emphasis taken from French translation]

[26] Keselopoulos 2001, 57.

[27] John Paul II, Laborum Exercens, 1981.

[28] LE, prologue.

[29] Keselopoulos 2001, 90.

[30] L’Engle 1980, 23.

[31] Dostoevsky 1956, III.5.

[32] Cf. Matthew 25.14-30 and I Corinthians 12.

[33]Matthew 25.14-30.

[34] Balz 1982-3, talentos.

[35] Hagner 1995, Matthew 25.14-5.

[36] Goleman 1995.

[37] Landy 2006 provides an opposing view.

[38] On anecdotal evidence, though, consider the case of one young woman with high enough social intelligence that when she enters a room all the conversations start to run more smoothly and everybody seems to want to be her close friend or romantic partner. It appears that a high enough level of social intelligence may come with unwanted side effects. (Personal conversation with her friend Lydia Klingforth c2000.)

[39] Klein 2000, 97.

[40] Galton 1892.

[41] Hollingworth 1942, xiv.

[42] Hollingworth 1942, 217-9.

[43] Morelock 1995, 223-5.

[44]Hayward 2004, 13-16.

[45] Nicolas Cabasilas, in M. Jugie, ‘Homélies mariales byzantines,’ Patrologia orientalis, XIX, fasc/, 3, 1925, p. 463, as quoted in Lossky 1976, 141.

[46] http://www.holyannunciation.org, as seen on 22/11/06.

[47]Luke 1.38, RSV.

[48] L’Engle 1980, 18.

[49] L’Engle 1980, 194.

[50] L’Engle 1980.

[51] Sword, online.

[52] Michael Pichowski as cited in Sword, online.

[53] Morelock 1995, 161.

[54] Gross 1992, 103.

[55] Webb 1982, 191-204: an entire chapter treats this.

[56] Gross 1992, 97.

[57] Gross 1994, seen online.

[58] Morelock 1995, 293-4.

[59] Morelock 1995, 295.

[60] Freeman 2002, 73.

[61] Lichtenstein 1999, 60.

[62] Behr 2006.

[63] Behr 2006, 33.

[64] Behr 2006, 143.

[65] Behr 2006, 35.

[66] Behr 2006, 143.

[67]Acts 5.40.

[68]Acts 5.41 RSV.

[69] Ware 1983, 18.

[70] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

[71]Matthew 5.10-2.

[72]Hebrews 2.10 RSV.

[73]I Peter 2.19-20 RSV.

[74]Hebrews 5.8 RSV.

[75] Carson 1994, Hebrews 11.23-8.

[76]Hebrews 11.26 RSV.

[77] Ware 1983, 10.

[78] Ware 1983, 16.

[79] Kittel 1976, paschw.

[80] Kittel 1976, paschw.

[81] One hagiographical account may be seen at http://www.roca.org/OA/25/25d.htm, “And lo, the Star… St. Simon the Myrrh-gusher,” as seen on October 9 2006. Like most hagiography, this is considered part of the Orthodox tradition of “biography as theology,” theology given flesh in a person’s life.

[82] Schmemann 1973 (1963), 17; Keselopoulos 2001, 57.

[83] See i.e. Keselopoulos 2001, 57, 64 and comments about Genesis 1:26-8 above.

[84] Botterweck 2003, qds.

[85] Kittel 1964, hagios.

[86] Courtois 1999.

[87] Courtois 1999, 4.

[88] Goudzwaard 1975, 4-5.

[89] If one is prepared to accept that truly traditional societies are something other than traditional roles attemptedly imposed on post-Industrial Revolution living conditions, then Clark 1980 provides an analysis largely of how women have suffered under certain changes, even if it doesn’t focus on who contributed “good ideas” behind the changes.

[90] The Heavenly/Purgatorial suffering found in Job, in Kreeft 1989, 59-96.

[91] The Hellish suffering found in Ecclesiastes, in Kreeft 1989, 13-58.

[92] Personal conversations with different profoundly gifted, 2001.

[93] Lewis 1974.

[94] Lewis 1974, 305,7.

[95] Ware 1983, 11.

[96] MacIntyre 1999, 1ff.

[97] Personal conversations with profoundly gifted, 2001.

[98] Webb 1982, 3.

[99] Webb 1982, 10.

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

Seven-Sided Gem

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

This lecture was given Oct. 26, 2001 during the Midwestern Mensa regional gathering, at the Arlington Heights Sheraton.

Introductory remarks by Dr. Mike Doyle, CEO and Founder of Eolas Technologies: I first met CJS Hayward on the MegaList about a year and a half ago. I was impressed enough by his abilities to hire him at the first opportunity, and he now works as a software developer for Eolas Technologies. Jonathan, in one year, did an independent study of calculus, programmed a four-dimensional maze, and ranked 7th nationally in the 1989 MathCounts competition. Then he turned 14 and turned his attention to deeper challenges. He has studied at Wheaton College, the Sorbonne, and the University of Illinois. Like many profoundly gifted, Jonathan moves among a wide range of interests. He is now focused on writing. He has been published in Ubiquity, Noesis, Inner Sanctum, Perfection, and nowVidya, with Religion Within the Bounds of Amusement. Please welcome him as he speaks about his experiences as a profoundly gifted individual.

Jonathan: Thank you. It is a privelege to be here; I have been looking forward to this night, a time when we can connect and share—not only through our costumes. More on my costume later. Before I begin my speech proper, I’d like to deal with a couple of preliminaries. I have a slight speech impediment; I’ll try to speak clearly, but you may have to work a little harder to understand me. Second, I’d like to review the seven points of my speech, the seven facets of the seven-sided gem:

  • Metaculture: a term which I coined and which I’ll explain.
  • Ages and cultures: by ‘ages’ I mean different temporal ages, not how old a person is.
  • Beyond the Binet-Simon: alternative approaches to intelligence estimation.
  • Inside the glass wall: a private symbol I’ll explain.
  • A musing life: Do I mean a life that is amusing or a life that has musing? I’ll explain that.
  • Thinking inside the box: lessons learned from living among IQ normals.
  • Mystic, Artist, Christian.

Don’t talk about the things you’re interested in with someone you’ve just met. Never mind that, to you, abstract conversation is a staple of acquaintanceship and friendship. To the other person, it may be boring, unpleasant, or a sign of unwanted romantic interest.

Never mind that you have five points of great subtlety and complexity. Pick one, and when you have simplified past the point of distortion, be ready for the other person to say, “Excuse me. Could you say that in English?”

Don’t assume that the person in authority believes, “The rules exist for the betterment of the community and are therefore negotiable when they do not contribute to that end.” Even if the rules do not consider your case, even if they end up hurting you, expect, “The rules are the rules and I am not here to make exceptions.”

Never mind that you can shift your culture at will, or that it is something you must do to connect with others. Don’t try explaining it to others, and whatever you do don’t ask them to do so. If you do, they will experience culture shock and react accordingly. Never mind that to you, foreign cultures are familiar and familiar cultures foreign. Don’t try to explain this either. It asks them to do something completely unfair.

Be very careful in sharing accomplishments, or even things you don’t think of as accomplishments, just cherished moments. To the other person, they may well be intimidating to the point of alienation.

Grieve a thousand wounds, but don’t fall prey to the worst wound of all. Don’t come to believe, “I will never connect with them, and they will never understand me.” If you do, you will find yourself in a sort of Hell—not in the world to come, but here on earth. You will be in a Hell of isolation, an alien in an alien land.

They can joke. That’s why you’re frustrated they don’t understand your humor. They can think. That’s why you’re hurt and upset when they never fathom your deepest thoughts. To those separated by the greatest chasm, is given the greatest ability to bridge chasms.

Perhaps it is harder than doing calculus in middle school or creating a language. It is still something you can do. That intellect that leaves people dazed is the intellect you can use to communicate—connect—in ways that aren’t open to them. That burning intensity that’s gotten you into so much trouble can put fire in your friendships such as many of your friends would never have otherwise known. That unique inner world, that you’ve closed the doors to, after being burned time and time again, is a place you may learn to draw people into. I cannot tell you how, but with a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of humility, a lot of forgiveness given and received, you may come to a point of synergy past the point where you wished you were not quite so gifted.

An anthropologist at this point might make the case that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the already very bright minds associated with Mensa, and the severely gifted. I’d rather say something different. I’d rather say the severely gifted experience is a crystallization of many things that make the Mensa experience distinctive, and there is a common bond of giftedness as well as the bond of being human. I’d rather say that what gap does exist is one that can be bridged. That is the premise this whole talk is based on.

A much better speaker than I am might be able to explain, in the abstract and in entirety, what the inner world and experience of the severely gifted is like. I can’t do that, but I have my sights set on a much more modest goal: to share something of my own inner world and experience, and light a candle of illumination.

When I was a student at Wheaton College, there was a chapel where students lined up and shared some of the, ahem, interesting questions they’d been asked: “You grew up in Japan? Say something in Chinese!” “Say something in African!” “What did it feel like growing up in Finland?” (Uh, I don’t know. Slight tingling sensation around the toes?) The chapel was given by missionary’s kids/third culture kids, sometimes abbreviated MK/TCK. A third culture kid is a kid who grows up surrounded by one host culture—let us say, blue—to parents who belong to another culture—let us say, yellow. They are neither properly blue nor properly yellow, but create a third culture that draws on both. This is not a simple average of the two cultures; there are common similarities, whether it’s a U.S. kid growing up in Kenya, or a Japanese growing up in the U.S. It is a different mode of experience, a different way of being human. Third culture kids tend to have a tremendous ability to adapt to new cultures, but at times a cost: the price of never being completely at home in a culture, as a fish in water. When I heard that chapel, I said, “That’s me!”

It is the characteristic of very creative minds to hit a very large nail not quite on the head. I am not literally a third culture kid; by the time I heard that chapel, I had not lived abroad. There was something deep that resonated, however. The best way I can describe it is that a third culture kid creates a third culture after being shaped by the outer forces of the host culture on one hand and his parents on the other, and a severely gifted individual is shaped by the outer forces of an IQ-normal world and an inner world from a different kind of mind: the higher you go on the IQ spectrum, there is less and less more of the same intelligence, and more and more of a different kind of intelligence altogether. I coined the term ‘metaculture’ to refer to the commonality of experience, a way of not ever being in a culture as a fish is in water. It brings pain, a sense of never fitting in, and at the same time a freedom from some of the blindnesses others can’t escape.

In talking about cultures, I’m hesitant to say that they’ve left an imprint on me, because the metaphor is deficient. It evokes an image of an active, solid, definite culture that leaves a mark on hot wax which is simply there to receive an imprint. The truth is much more interesting: the cultures are themselves, yes, but I am actively drawing, discerning, seeing what in them is of interest to me and can be drawn into myself. Anyone who knows cultures knows that conveying even one culture in five hours is impossible; I hope not to convey the cultures I visited, so much as give a sense of what sort of thing is interesting.

The summer after that chapel, I lived in Malaysia. My father spent the year teaching, and the rest of the family lived there. I got to spend the summer. I understand why my Mom said it was the best year of her life.

In American culture, there is always a clock tick-tick-ticking. It’s not just there when you look down at your watch; it may be more present when you’re not looking: when you’re visiting your friend and distracted with twenty other things to do that day, or on the road where you move faster than any human athlete can run, and one second’s needless delay is one second’s torment. In Malaysia, the clock’s constant ticking stops. This is not unique to Malaysia; those of you familiar with African cultures, or Latin American, will know something similar, but it is at any rate different from the U.S. It’s not exactly true that the Malaysians perceive time slowly where we perceive it quickly, as that the U.S. is conscious of time where Malaysians are conscious of other things. I have continued to shape my sense of time after leaving Malaysia, and come to focus not on time but on people, creation, and some work. If I try to spend a half an hour on my third novel, what will dominate is the half hour, not the novel; I try to give focused presence to what I am doing now and not have a clock cut up my emotions. It is a tremendous boon in writing, or being with people. I try to keep enough of an American time sense to not be needlessly rude by being late to appointments, but on the inside I seek a different time, and I believe my friendships and my creations are the better for it. Dost thou love life? Then do not quantize time, for numbers are not the stuff life’s made of.

Some time after that, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne. It was a wonderful time; part of my heart is still there. During my time as a student, I acquired a taste for alcohol. One thing I realized rather quickly is that five ounces of wine is not much. If I had a glass of wine with dinner and tossed it back after my first bites, I could have another… and another… and another… and become rather quickly inebriated. Or I could simply not have any more wine. Or—there is an alternative—I could sip my wine, savor it.

In doing that, I tasted wine as I had not tasted any beverage before. Because there was so little, I learned to be present and enjoy much more than absently having a hazy awareness that something I liked was passing through my mouth. My absent awareness of sodas was not a bad thing; one thing I learned upon returning is that American soft drinks are not intended to be consumed that way. If you sip a small glass of Mountain Don’t, you will soon learn that Mountain Don’t isn’t meant to be so sipped. I learned to be present, not just to wine and non-alcoholic beverages like fruit drinks and Mocha, but also to food, and to a much broader circle. If I am in a public place, and music I like comes across the air, it is transient; it is fleeting. I cannot make it last any longer, but I can be present to it in the short time it does last. When a friend comes from out of town, in all likelihood her visit will be over before it has begun—but I can be present in that time as well. This presence has added something to my life complimentary to the time sense I acquired from Malaysia.

What’s the last culture? One that will take a bit more explaining, as I have to swim upstream against more than one thread of American culture. What is it that I have to swim up against? “This is an idea whose time has come.” “It’s the wave of the future.” “We’re entering the third millenium.”

If I were to speak of “an idea whose time has come, and gone,” or “the wave of the past,” it would be less clear that I was speaking a compliment. If I were to say, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude.”, you’d have every right to accuse me of a non sequitur. I believe that “We’re entering the third millenium.” is also a non sequitur, even though it is spoken as a statement of great significance.

There are two ideas closely intertwined: the doctrine of progress, which says we are better, nobler, wiser people than those who came before—a temporal version of ethnocentrism, which says that ideas like machines grow rust and need to be replaced—and period awareness, which goes beyond the historicist observation that all of us, past and present, exist in a historical-cultural context and are affected by it; period awareness fixes an unbridgeable chasm between the people who walked before and us; they are in a hermetically sealed box. The net respect is to believe that the peoples of the past cannot talk with us: we can point out how they were less enlightened times, but they certainly cannot criticize us.

My second novel, Firestorm 2034, is the story of a medieval in 21st century America. In the course of researching medieval culture, thinking about it, and trying to convey it, it left a mark on me in many ways similar to Malaysia and France. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a masterpiece of humor that is often mistaken for a reasonable treatment of medieval culture; my novel reverses it in more ways than one. Not only is it a medieval in America, but more deeply I reject the belief that the most significant difference between the medievals and us is that we have better technology. There is a wealth of culture and wisdom that has been largely lost.

What is one such area? The present issue of My Generation, the magazine of the American Association of Retired Persons, has a cover story about “Jeff Bridges: Beautiful Dreamer.” On the cover, he has black hair tinged with silver, although I would forgive you if you glanced and said it was brown. It’s a few inches longer than mine. He’s curled up, slouching, with his arms over his knees, wearing faded jeans, white socks, and tennis shoes. The man looks like a teenager. This is not an accident. I have never seen a My Generationcover with a woman who looks old enough to be admitted to the AARP, and when I first saw that periodical, I mistook it for a GenX magazine.

Why? The core idea is that there is a short period of glory—I’ll say from fifteen to twenty-five years, although some of you might place the beginning and end a little differently—and before that point, you’re only a child, meaning curiously enough that you don’t have access to adult pleasures; you can’t drink, you can’t drive—and after that point, you’re a has-been. This message is ubiquitous, present not only in children’s TV shows but equally in a magazine for retired people. And, in a certain manner, it makes perfect sense.

It makes perfect sense if there is nothing more to have in life than physical pleasure. Before fifteen, you can’t acquire as much pleasure as someone with adult resources; after twenty-five, your capacity for youthful pleasure diminishes. And so, if one starts by assuming that the whole point of life is to have pleasure, that the point of science is to create a Utopia of spoiled children, then it follows quite simply that a child is nothing much and someone past the age of thirty is a has-been. It follows quite simply for us, but the medievals saw it differently.

The medievals believed that the entire purpose of this life is as a preparation, an apprenticeship, a beginning, to an eternity gazing on God’s glory. It means that, even in this life, there is infinitely more to seek than physical pleasure. There is more to desire. There is virtue, both earthly, natural virtues, and the merry, heavenly, deiform virtues. One can begin to be a heavenly person, enjoy Heaven’s joys, and know God.

The words, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,” voice a pessimistic philosophy: enjoy pleasure because there’s nothing more and we have a grim life. The medieval view sought much more than pleasure, and in following it, I want to grow more. I don’t believe I’m leaving the time when I can enjoy the only good in life, pleasure. I believe I have different fruits in season coming. Some people dread their thirtieth birthday. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to turning thirty, forty, fifty, to when my hair turns tweed and then white. I’m looking forward to growing in wisdom: the interesting part of my life isn’t ending, but just beginning.

What about intelligence testing? I like Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door; it’s a children’s book with a little boy, Charles Wallace, whose IQ is “so high it’s untestable by normal means.” I like the story and Charles Wallace; I identify with him, and in reference to that passage began to wish the same were true of me, that my IQ were so high it was untestable by normal means. I even tried to convince myself, in moments of pride, that this was true.

It came as a great disappointment to learn not only was this literally true, that my IQ was literally so high as to be untestable by normal means, but that the threshold was so low. If the authors of the Binet-Simon test, paradigm example of the good IQ test, were to be told, “This test you’ve made, doesn’t really distinguish average from below average, but shows a remarkably fine discrimination at the upper strata of human intelligence,” they would have regarded the test as a failure, pure and simple. The Binet-Simon test is a test for inferiority. Sources I’ve seen differ as to why; one gently states that it was meant to identify special needs people and give them that extra boost of special education they need to function in life. Another says, less charitably, that it’s to identify certain people as inferior: exclude them; stop ‘wasting’ resources on them. In either case, it is less than clear to me that this is the model of test for organizations like Mensa.

Some other high-IQ societies use an adjusted model of test, where they take off the time limit, because they recognize that rushing people doesn’t get best behavior, and put all the problems on anabolic steroids. This can probably boost the ceiling a little, but it has its own problems. It’s a bit like taking an office where work isn’t getting done, and making everybody work twenty more hours a week: if work isn’t getting done, five more hours might help a little, but twenty won’t fix the problem. Howard Gardner, multiple intelligence theorist, spends most of Extraordinary Minds arguing for a multiplicity of genius; in the beginning, he asks if there’s anything common to all kinds of genius, and says, yes, he’d identify three things:

  • There is some domain of performance.
  • There is a community that appreciates the genius’s performance in this domain.
  • Failures.

According to Gardner, a genius fails more, and more spectacularly, than an average person.

This notwithstanding, if you’re trying to get into Mega Society East, what counts on the test is not what you get right; it’s what you get wrong. It’s not the absolutely brilliant answers you had to questions two, five, and seven; it’s the fact that you missed something on questions one, four, and nine. Given the cognitive diversity at the upper end of the spectrum, there are limitations to even high-ceiling tests.

Is there any alternative? I would say yes, and I believe a hint of it comes from a story about a high school physics student. After the unit covering air pressure, the teacher wrote on an exam, “Explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student wrote, “Tie a rope around the barometer, lower it from the top of the building until it hits the ground, make a mark on the rope, pull it up, and measure the length of the rope. (There are other ways of doing this.)”

This put the teacher in a bit of a bind. He called in one of his colleagues, and explained what had happened. The colleague said, “In a way that demonstrates your knowledge of physics, explain how to use a barometer to determine the height of a tall building.” The student said, “Go to the top of the building with a barometer and a stopwatch. Drop the barometer, and measure the time before the barometer splatters on the ground beneath. Then use the formula y = 1/2 at2 to calculate the height of the building.” The teachers conferred and gave him almost full credit.

The teacher asked what some of the other ways were: “Go outside on a sunny day, and measure the height of the barometer, the length of the barometer’s shadow, and the length of the building’s shadows, and use ratios to determine the height of the building.” “This probably isn’t the best way, but go into the basement, knock on the superintendent’s door, and say, ‘Mr. Superintendent! I have a fine barometer for you if you will only tell me the height of the building!'”

What this story screams out to me is not just that the student is bright enough that he could see the desired answer about calculating from the difference in air pressure. I’m positive of that. It’s not just that he could give several alternate approaches. It’s that he would. It’s that he behaved like a gifted mind does when it’s been completely insulted.

That gives a hint of an indirect approach: don’t try IQ-normal-style cognitive strain questions, but look for a very different kind of thinking, and the effects of living in a world where most other people are two, three, four, five sigma below you. I wrote up the basic ideas, and e-mailed Paul Cooijmans, head of Giga and Glia. He suggested I start my own high-IQ society. I thought that was a little more ambitious than I wanted to take on now, but I did create a test. I wrote it up, gave it to heads of some high-IQ societies to distribute, received very kind responses from Gina LoSasso of the Mega Foundation and Nik Lygeros of the Pi Society… and have gotten two tests filled out, which I haven’t looked at because I want to read them together. The test may turn out to be nothing more than an interesting fizzle. Even then, I thought it might be interesting enough to share.

What about the glass wall? The symbol relates to me to three layers, or levels, of maturity in dealing with others. The first layer is not recognizing there is a difference. In childhood, even when I scored high in the MathCounts competition, I might have realized there was something called intelligence and I had more of it, but not that I thought all that differently: I treated others as if they were the same as me underneath. That is a recipe for giving and receiving hurt.

When I finally let myself see that there were differences, I tried to fit in through blending in. In the short run, that’s much better; there are far fewer incidents. Over time, it costs—the cost of a false self. There were some things in myself I wasn’t showing anyone, not even myself.

After that, I began to erect a glass wall about myself, something that would keep things out of view before I was confident people were ready, but not permanently—and would let me draw others in. I don’t think this is a final resting place—in fact, I’m almost positive itisn’t—but it seems a definite step ahead of the other two steps.

What’s inside the glass wall? Much of this speech hints at things inside the glass wall, but I’d like to give one concrete example.

In the book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Phillip Yancey helps draw out stories and insights from Paul Brand, the doctor who discovered that leprosy ravages the body by destroying the sense of touch, and with it the ability to feel pain. In one of these stories, Dr. Brand tells how he left a speaking engagement sick, sat hunched in the corner of a train car, wishing the interminable train ride would be over, and finally staggered to his hotel room. He began to undress, and realized to his horror that there was no feeling in his left heel.

He pricked himself with a pin and felt nothing. He jabbed himself harder, watched a drop of blood form, and moaned for the pain that would not come. That night, he lay dressed on his bed. He knew that sulfone drugs would probably stop the spread of the disease quite quickly, but he still could not help imagine it spreading to his hands, his feet. As a doctor who worked with patients who’d lost their sense of touch, he cherished the feel of earth in his fingers, the feel of a puppy’s fur, the affection of a friend. His career as a surgeon would soon end. What’s more, what would become of his movement? He, their leader, had assured others that leprosy was the least contagious of all communicable diseases, and careful hygeine could almost ensure that they would not get it. What would it mean if he, their leader, was a leper? That ugly word he’d banished from his vocabulary rose like a monster with new strength.

After a long and sleepless night, Dr. Brand got up, and took a pin to face the gristly task of mapping out the affected area. He took a breath, jabbed himself—and roared in pain. Nothing had ever felt so delicious to him as that one electric jolt of pain.

He realized what had happened. He was sick, with something mundane, and as a sick traveller had forgone his usual motion. His foot had fallen asleep. Dr. Brand was for a time too ashamed to recount that dismal experience, but I’m glad he did. The experience changed his life, and the story has impacted me.

As far as perception goes, I’m not sure if my sense of touch is more perceptive than most people’s. Probably a little bit. I can say that it is integrated with other senses. There was one time I was at the supermarket, and the woman in front of me in the checkout line dropped a soda bottle a short distance. Being bored, I gently pinched the bottle, and then made a comment that seemed to me almost too obvious to be worth saying: if you pinch a soda bottle, you can tell if it’s safe to open. A bottle that can be safely opened will give slightly to moderate pressure; a bottle that’s shaken up is firm as a rock. Her reply, “Oh, is that the trick that you use?” caught me off guard. Feeling a shaken soda bottle like that is no more a trick to me than looking at the stove for dancing orange spots is a trick to see if I’ve started a grease fire.

As an American who’s lived in France, I like to give my friends hugs and kisses. I’m careful how and when I ask, particularly about a kiss on the cheek, and I listen to people with my intuition before asking those questions… but that invitation (accepted or not) is usually tied to when I pull someone inside the glass wall.

What about a musing life? Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business talks about the dark side of television’s effects on culture. Without going into a full analysis of Plato’s Allegory of the Television, I will say that television blinds the inner eye by stimulating the surface and starving the depths. A home without a television is like a slice of chocolate cake without tartar sauce.

Without television, what happens? At times, you get bored, and then more bored, and then you come to a place on the other side of boredom with renewed creativity, sensitivity, and insight. I try to live there; like my time sense and the presence learned through wine, it gives focus to musings, such as this talk was woven from. It is a sort of fast for the mind, and makes room for a considerable degree of depth.

What is my interest in thinking inside the box? There’s been a lot of homage paid to the many virtues of thinking outside the box. Perhaps many of you have stories to tell of a time when someone was extolling the many virtues of thinking outside the box, but that’s not where I’m going. The praises of thinking outside the box are sung because thinking inside and outside the box complement each other, and most people are so often inside the box that it’s hard for them to step out. With severely gifted individuals, the real challenge is not thinking outside the box, but thinking inside the box.

There are many times that it’s better to think inside the box. Driving to work, for instance. More deeply, communicating and negotiating requires one to understand and think like the other person, and for many people, this means thinking inside the box. I’d also like to give one very concrete example of where it’s important to think inside the box: manners.

Manners are an arbitrary collection of rules, and there is no unifying principle that everything else flows from. Respecting and valuing the person will not tell you why you should hold a fork like a pen instead of how a little boy wants to hold a knife. Something that meaningless may be very difficult for you and me to learn, but it is important. Why? To many people, manners are the very foundation of civilized interaction, and it presents them with a needless and pointless obstacle if you say, “I respect you and I do not feel the need to observe manners in your presence.” It’s been said, “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance;” if people are going to walk away from you offended, let them be offended by something of substance, not by crude manners.

And lastly: mystic, artist, Christian. Why do I group these together? Does being a mystic make one an artist and a Christian? No; nothing like that holds directly, but there is a common thread. It’s illuminated by a conversation I had with one friend, where I said that pragmatism was a philosophical disease. I learned shortly thereafter that pragmatism was quite important to her.

Why would I say something like that? In one conversation a few years earlier, at Calvin College, one of my friends asked me why I wanted something, and didn’t like my response. A little probing, and I knew why: while the words he used were, “Why do you want it?”, what he meant by it, the only thing he could mean at that time, was, “What do you find it useful for?” The item, whatever it was (I don’t remember), was not something I wanted for its usefulness in letting me get something else; it was something I valued in itself. He couldn’t see that.

So I asked him, “Do you value having that arm on your body?” “Uh, yes…” “Why?” “Because if I have an arm, I can grab an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I grab an apple, I can eat an apple.” “Why do you want that?” “Because if I eat an apple, I can live and not die!” “Why do you want that?” At that point, he gave the response I’d been waiting for: an impassioned explanation that living and not dying was not simply valued as a means to something else, but something he wanted for itself.

Pragmatism and utilitarianism have a very small circle of things that are valued outside of their usefulness to something else: the Oxford Companion to Philosophy lists only pleasure, which seems a dismally small selection to me. Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts talks about the insipid banality in the Christian art tradition: the tradition that once produced Dante and Bach has now produced “John’s Christian Stores”, and a large part of that is because Christians sold their birthright to embrace pragmatism. Where pragmatism draws a small circle of things that are embraced, Christianity, mysticism, and art draw a much larger circle: there’s something there that isn’t in Dewey and Mill’s practical world.

Madeleine l’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, tells of a time in college when her professor asked on a test how Chaucer chose a particular literary device in a passage, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not “choose a literary device;” that’s not how an artist works at all! I had a loosely similar experience, if not involving anger; I was sharing something I was writing with a new acquaintance, and she complimented my use of personification at a specific point. I had to reread the passage more than once to see what she meant; she made a straightforward statement, but I had not thought in those terms. A good artist may have excellent technique, but the technique is there because the art is good; the art is not good just because of the technique. Good art comes through something much more, and much more interesting, than technique: listening to the work, serving it, cooperating with it, helping an unformed idea have a shape that others can see.

What about mysticism? There is a problem here; you might say that insofar as mysticism can be explained, it is not mysticism. I will say that the characters I identify with most in literature have been characters who’ve had a foot in another world. Charles Wallace from Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not the boy genius, Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, an abstract personification of intelligence; he is a very real and believable person. He is open to another world, not surprised to think he’s seen dragons in the twins’ vegetable garden, and he kythes; that is, he has a real and present communication, something beyond communication, with others. You can read about kything in the 100 ways of kything on my webpage.

In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael Valentine Smith is born as a baby boy on Mars, orphaned by all human travellers, raised on Mars by Martians in Martian culture, and brought to earth as a young man. Let’s talk about culture shock for a moment. Smith causes and receives quite a lot of it, as the story narrates his progression from a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man to a character who is both human and Martian. There are quite a few stumbling points along the way to this. At one point, early in the story, someone asks Michael what is intended to be a very routine question, but Michael doesn’t get it. He has heard the words before, but he’s a bit like a top-notch English professor trying to decipher a math paper: even with a glossary to all the symbol, there’s a whole way of thinking that goes with the strange words, and Michael doesn’t understand it. Heinlein says that half a million years’ wildly alien abstractions raced through his mind. I don’t have half a million years’ worth of much of anything, but I do have wildly alien abstractions. I first became a philosopher as a boy, too young to touch any of my thoughts in language; one of the questions I thought of was, “Am I human?”, or, “Am I a being of the same class as those I observe around me?” I observed that my parents were linguistic creatures who moved naturally in language, that I was not linguistic in any comparable way, and concluded that I was not human. Another question I pondered was a short, simple question that could be rendered, “Can there be a perpetual motion machine, and if so, how can it be started?” The second part of the question was tied to the first; the best way I can explain it is that, given time-symmetric laws of physics, if there’s a machine that will keep on going forever, then the other side of the coin is that it has been going on forever, and there’s no way to start it. In middle school, I started French at about the age of ten, and in a few years was able to think more fluently in French than in English. My accent sounded more typical of a native Parisian French speaker than a Midwestern American English speaker. Why? There are a couple of reasons, differences in how the two languages were taught, but one of the basic ones is that English was here, French was there, and my way of thinking was way out there, and happened to be closer to French than English.

Blajeny, also from A Wind in the Door, is a Teacher from another galaxy, and the lessons he brings are sometimes difficult: not as, “Face your worst fear ever,” but as different from what they’d expect. He tells the children they will be in his class, and Meg is elated that her brother Charles will never have to go to the red schoolhouse again; then he says something that leaves her wondering where his classroom is. Blajeny retreats inside himself, and when she’s decided he won’t answer, he says, “Here, there, everywhere. In the schoolyard in first-grade recess. With the cherubim and seraphim. Among the farandolae.” I am wearing the costume you see me in because of how I identify with Blajeny, because there’s something of me that shines through him.

Last, what about being a Christian? There’s one music professor who said that, rather than thinking that we sing a song one and then it’s over, and we sing it later, and so on, we should rather thing that as long as there have been created beings, there is an eternal song rising before God, a song rising as incense that will never go out, and that when we sing we step into that song. Christianity is the foundation this whole edifice of thought is built upon, and its crowning jewel. It is the soil in which other things grow, and the thoughts I have given are an example of how Christians may think.

So now in this brief time I have shared a little bit about myself; I have answered a few questions and raised many more. Come visit my website, at CJS Hayward; it’s in your program. Of course I’d like to hear from an editor who’d like me to write something, or would like an existing manuscript, or someone who’d like to hear me speak, or someone who’d like a website built, but more than any of that I have given this talk for the same reason I’ve built my website: to connect. What have I left you wondering about?

After the speech, two hours’ worth of discussion followed. That night, after the speech, Jonathan was invited to speak at the next conference, and invited to two other engagements.

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

A Personal Flag

A flag, loosely a mirror image of the French flag, with a red cross on the white strip in the middle, and numerous smaller pictures; it is described in detail below.
When I was poking around the web, I found Steve Scheussler’s home page. Among other things, it mentions that Steve has a personal constitution.

There was something that bothered me about the idea of a personal Constitution. I respect Steve and enjoy his acquaintanceship — I didn’t feel a nagging doubt about him, only a disagreement with the idea of a personal constitution. The basic idea of lex, rex — “the law comes before the king” — is foundational to American government, runs so deep that justices who violate it invariably acknowledge its place by paying lip service to it, checks many of the abuses when a ruler is permitted to do anything he wants, and strikes me as fundamentally flawed. What you know is always more than you can write down, and living by a personal constitution makes a creation greater than its creator. The principle that can be written is not the ultimate principle.

I felt an objection, but I also felt something worth imitating. I followed my intuitions for a while, and came to a flag. I hold objection to the way flags are treated in American culture — the only physical object I have ever been asked to pledge allegiance to. I was required by law to pass a school test on the Constitution and on the flag, and the flag is the only item I have been told to never let touch the ground. Nobody objects when I (quite frequently) put a Bible on the floor, nor does anybody object when I am roughhousing with friends (human — created in the image of God!) and push them into the ground — but the American flag is to be held in such high respect that it may not touch the ground, not even when it is being respectfully folded. The proper term, I believe, for an object of this veneration is: ‘Idol’.

That is what American culture makes of a flag, but that is not what it must be. I choose to make it something else — a way to share who I am to other people. Like many symbols, it holds meaning, but does not explain itself. So here is an explanation of its symbolic side:

Legend

Basic design

Most flags are very simple, with perhaps one true picture at the center; my flag is intended to be at once both simple and complex. I will treat the simple aspects before going on to the little details.

The two obvious allusions are to the French and British flags. Why does the French flag appear reversed? I am left-handed. There’s been a lot of silly stuff written about left-handedness, but there are some serious aspects as well. My brain has an unusual wiring pattern that appears in some left-handers — the pattern is only found in 2% of the world’s population. If you meet me in person, you will find that I speak slowly, after a pause — but when I do speak, my words are as carefully chosen as those I write. I think differently, by nature.

I chose the French flag as the main model, because I have spent time in France, and because there are ways in which it is more home than America — French people often think and discuss ideas where Americans often watch television. I enjoy speaking French a great deal. But why is America not represented at all?

It is, only in a way that is not obvious.

The common mental model of American history is that there was England, and then English colonists came and settled in America, and then they broke off and formed their own nation, and now the U.S. is the U.S. and England is England. How else could anyone think of it?

One of my professors argued that Martin Luther King was essentially a conservative: his “I have a dream” speech did not try to attack, change, or replace the fundamental principles of American government, but instead asked for a more consistent application of American principles. When he said that the bank of justice did not have insufficient funds, he was not asking white America to write a new check; he was trying to cash a check that had already been written. In a similar manner, the United States was in large part founded by English colonists who had been promised certain “rights of Englishmen”, rights that were not forfeited by colonizing faraway soil, and rebelled when these English rights were violated. “No taxation without representation!” was an English cry. Another analogous situation would be the Reformation. The Reformation did not start when people decided that they wanted to break off from the Church and do something else; it started with criticisms from people who believed, rightly or wrongly, that the Roman Catholic Church was failing to live up to Catholic standards. Reams of anti-Catholic invective came later, but the initial idea was to help the Church be more properly Catholic. Something of the same is at work with America’s independence. In contradistinction to the idea that the colonies split off from England and became different, I would suggest that a bifurcation occurred — and that the two sides are not very far apart. A friend who grew up in France commented on the similarity of spiritual atmosphere between France and the United States; both France and the United States are part of the West, and England and the United States are closer still. Now the U.S. has economic and military distinction, and (for good or for bad) is drawing much of the world’s technical talent — but there are strong similarities, and some of the intellectual movements that have been pointed to as America distinguishing itself from Europe are things I’d rather forget: pragmatism, behaviorism, etc. The English flag, in a non-obvious way, represents America, along with the basic colors of red, white, and blue.

Red

This third of the flag might be titled, ‘Eclectica’ — not named for this website, but including various eclectic aspects of my interest or my person. Red was my favorite color when I was a boy. Specific things listed, loosely from top to bottom, are:

  • The world. In this case, the world is not a symbol of the environment per se, so much as of cultures the world around. I am interested in cultures, and find them to be objects of fascination and beauty.
  • A climber. I love to climb, and I am very happy that Wheaton College recently opened a climbing wall. I’m hoping to learn how to climb up a thick tree trunk without using branches.
  • A hand, showing the bones inside. A skeleton is not necessarily a gruesome part of a corpse; it is also part of a living, breathing human body. In Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand talks about how a lobster has a hard skeleton on the outside — and how a man has a skeleton that’s strong as steel, but covered with soft flesh. I don’t know how well I live up to this standard (I know one person who’s said that I don’t), but I want to live to the standard of rock hard, unyielding principles inside, but a soft touch that meets things on the outside.
  • A paper target, viewed through a competition rifle’s sight. I don’t get to do riflery very often, but I enjoy it a great deal. Marksmanship is not about the machismo that Hollywood shows; it’s about concentration and growing still.
  • A Swiss Army Knife. I carry a thick Swiss Army Knife, and use it for all sorts of things. After watching MacGyver as a child, I came to value resourcefulness, tinkering, and jury-rigging; I still find the knife to be quite useful.
  • A place called “the Web” at Honey Rock Camp. Honey Rock is a place that has been special to me from childhood; it is easier to know other people there, and there are beautifully eclectic physical facilities. One of these has a World War II cargo net strung up to make a place for children to romp around in: the Web. It is now, so far as I know, closed — the fabric is deteriorating, and it is a legal liability. The camp retains its beauty, and provided the home setting for A Cord of Seven Strands.
  • A clock with no hands. After spending a summer in Malaysia, I changed my time sense to move more slowly, to not need to have things happen quickly and try to let go of the number of minutes elapsed when I am with a friend. Something of this basic insight is captured in Madeleine l’Engle’s description of kairos in Walking on Water, Neil Postman’s description of moments (before the clock ruled) in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and by an anthropologist in The Dance of Life. Why? It’s not that I wanted to lose awareness of time, so much as to gain a more effective focus on things that are lost. There are other facets, but I do not wish to expand here — the interested reader is encouraged to look at the mentioned titles.
  • A roll of duct tape. Same basic meaning as the Swiss Army Knife; I used to also carry that, too.
  • Swimming underwater. I haven’t done much swimming in the past few years, but I was quite often in the water as a boy — and, more often than not, swimming under the surface. I cherish those memories.
  • A television with clothing on top and books in front. It’s hard to portray the absence of a television per se, but I can portray one that hasn’t been used in a long time. I generally try to avoid watching television, and I do not have one in my apartment. Not only is an hour of television an hour not spent doing other things, but watching television subtly alters — impairs — our experience of the external world. How does it do that? Read Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
  • A cave. A cave is a quiet place to rest and think; it is a symbol of withdrawing to meditating. My apartment is such a place.
  • A graveyard. A graveyard is not necessarily a symbol of the macabre; it is a place symbolic of continuity between the living and the dead. This is why many old churches and cathedrals bury people under the sanctuary; it is a symbol of connection with those who walked before. I do not believe in the modern concept of progress, nor the postmodern rejection of progress and everything near it; I believe in a human and a Christian continuity with those who walked before.

White

The center of the flag, and the connection between the other two portions, is faith. The Cross is central and defines what else is there.

There are innumerable symbols that could be used, but I chose to restrict myself to four. Those four are:

  • Grapes. Grapes are a symbol of wine, one of God’s blessings to man. It is a blessing so special that Christ chose it to become his blood, and when we drink Christ’s blood, we are drinking the divine life — something hidden and mystical, and close to my heart.
  • A candle. There is something a candle symbolizes that is not in a light bulb. It is a softer light. There is a reason couples want a candle for a special dinner, and it is a reason not confined to romantic love. I cannot explain what it is, but it is something like faith.
  • Me, sitting in my blue armchair, praying. There is an interplay of light between God and me.
  • Friends hugging. Touch is also important to me, and with it, more broadly, kything — I identify strongly with Charles Wallace in Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, a work whose resonance has pierced my heart like few other.

Blue

The last third of the flag, blue, is devoted to reason. A particular emphasis on the mind is not catholic and universal like the claims of the Christian faith, but it is one part of the broad corpus of human and Christian work, and it is important to me.

I should note that the word ‘reason’ has shifted meaning in the last few centuries, and it is an older meaning that I wish to invoke. Now the term ‘imagination’ is used very broadly for human brilliance; a person might say that a plan shows “real imagination” as a way of saying that it reflected insight and understanding. In the Middle Ages, however, the term did not have its present meaning. It meant the faculty that formed visual images, and little else — the term ‘imagination’ has expanded in meaning. The term ‘reason’, however, has shrunk in meaning. At present, it does not mean much else besides logical thinking — but in the Middle Ages, ‘reason’ referred much more broadly to human faculties, including many things we would now call ‘imagination’. ‘Reason’ is an alternate translation to the Greek logos that John used to describe God the Son. ‘Reason’ does not mean ‘rationalism’ (“Among intellectuals, there are two types of people: those that worship the mind, and those that use it.” — G.K. Chesterton), but a special effort to love God with all of my mind.

From bottom to top, here are the symbols represented:

  • A book, open, with light flaring out, and things coming from that light. The book is a symbol of learning in general, and the Book.
  • A hypercube (tesseract) — mathematics, which provided discipline for my mind, among other things.
  • A storm of blue and orange flame, by a burning tree: Firestorm 2034 as the image of literature, both read and written.
  • A networked computer, coming in part through the hypercube. Math and computer science are tightly linked, and computer work is putting bread on the table.
  • A magnifying glass, and a cadeceus: “You must study the ways of all professions.” (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings. As well as the basic academic disciplines, I have tried to understand other areas that would stimulate and broaden my thinking: emergency medicine, forensics…
  • Deep waters. The thought that can be stated is not the ultimate thought; the worded thoughts give way to things that cannot be explained, and the symbol into which others recede is formless, deep waters. Most of my thoughts are now in words, but my deepest thoughts are never in words to begin with.