Class Warfare Blog

July 9, 2017

The Puzzlement of the Talents

Filed under: Culture,Science,Sports — Steve Ruis @ 6:33 pm
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I have been going back and forth with one of my students, who is in many ways my intellectual superior, over the nature of “talent.” I have argued and continue to argue that their ain’t no such thing. He argues that surely there must be.

I argue that scientists have looked and looked for a biological source of a talent and come up dry. There does not seem to be such a thing. What I am talking about is a specific talent, such as for baseball or poker or the violin, not a general propensity to be good at something. People with “talent” seem to progress rapidly and effortlessly in their chosen endeavor. I argue that in most cases what people are observing is a developed skill. When somebody sees a basketball star execute a slick play, gosh they just have to be talented. Of course, the commenter hasn’t seen the dozens and dozens of hours that move got practiced.

People in my camp argue that a physical skill, e.g. hitting a baseball or playing the flute comes from a considerable amount of practice. We acknowledge that people have built in attributes that make them stand out amongst beginners and allow them to learn faster than the crowd. Tall people have an advantage in basketball, for example. (Coach John Wooden used to say “You can’t teach quickness or height, so I recruit for those.”) Baseball requires good hand-eye coordination, strong wrists, and, etc. But is there a talent for baseball? I do not think so. (As an example, think of the multi-sport star athlete in high school. were they born with talents for all of those sports or are they just a good all-around athlete who practices hard?)

My argument is that high levels of skill are developed through training. Training is only pursued when there is interest, so the people who seem to “have a lot of talent,” tried something and were good enough at it that they liked it and so pursued serious training for a time. For example, Mozart was considered a musical child prodigy. But Mozart’s father was a music teacher and Mozart spent many, many hours in practice because, either he had to or he enjoyed it. Expert analysis of Mozart’s early compositions, those of his youth, indicated that they were rather derivative and ordinary. But how many youths are composing serious classical music at a young age? We tend to compare these “prodigies” with ordinary adults in the same endeavor, not with the greats of that endeavor.

One of the counter arguments offered against my position is so many people used the word talent in describing their situation, surely it can’t be just made up. Actually I think it was just made up. I offer, but cannot prove, the following scenario as justification. A youth shows behavior beyond his years. His parents fear demon possession, but a passing clergyman, eager to claim all good happenings for his god, counters that the child has “a gift from god.” These “gifts” became “God-given talents” over time, again to claim their god as the source of all good things (but not the bad things—interestingly, the bad things come from the Devil, or Satan … nobody asks where they came from).

So the idea of a talent was spin. It was an explanation of something that was borderline uncanny that was acceptable to most all people. The existence of talents/gifts was not questioned because they were so common (most people tend to be good at something) but when finally some scientists set out to find the basis for talents, they came and continue to come up with nothing.

If you are familiar with the Bell curve, aka a Gaussian distribution, it is obvious that our attributes and abilities are spread over quite a range. My height, for example, puts me in the top 2.5% of Americans. My IQ puts me in the top 0.5% of Americans. People that are way out on the tails (both high and low) are considered “different.” So, somebody who shows abilities far exceeding the expectations set up for his/her age can be singled out. But I do not see humans who are “off the charts” in their abilities. I see many kids who have opportunities and a few who embrace them seriously and a very few who excel at that activity. We do not sit around and discuss the child who quits right away. (This is a stupid sport; I am going home!) We sit around and ooh and ahh about those whose performances exceed our expectations. We say “They have talent.” What that means, in my thinking, is “They have developed a great deal of skill.” They stand out because they developed that skill faster than others, so at a younger age. Studies of “whiz kids” and “Wunderkinder” do not show a common continuation of their rate of progress into adulthood, many plateau off or “burn out” (not literally). How many stellar performers are you aware of who were child prodigies when young? Not many is my guess.

So, talent? Meh, not so much.

What do you think?

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