The Great Intelligence Hoax

Albert Einstein is an example of great intelligence, but are his type of cognitive abilities the only ones that matter?

The article I talked about yesterday ended with some comments by UNC professor Jay Smith on “holding players to high academic standard” and “focus[ing] on the things that are supposed to matter to a university.”

I cringe when I hear comments like this and don’t believe it is helpful for either side of the debate to devalue the abilities of the other.

Obviously the case involving Hakeem Nicks at UNC is unacceptable, but perhaps its ok that athletes get extra help and major in less academically rigorous topics. Maybe universities should offer students who struggle academically with an opportunity despite their perceived deficiencies.

Multiple Intelligences

There are reasons why an elite athlete, who is also a mathematical genius, is hard to find. They exist, but aren’t something you see everyday. I recently read an excerpt from a book called “The Mind’s Sky,” by Dr. Timothy Ferris. In it, Dr. Ferris outlined science indicating how the brain of an athlete and scholars are different. Essentially he says Joe Montana’s brain functions differently than Albert Einstein’s.

I know…not a groundbreaking revelation, but the interesting thing is that the same part of the cerebral cortex controls both skill sets. To gain transcendence in one, the other must suffer to some extent.

Does this mean that Montana is a moron and Einstein is klutz? Absolutely not. It merely means they are both functioning at an elite level in one aspect and it is unlikely that they can function at an elite level in the other. It also means it would be ridiculous for either man to look down on the other. Einstein probably couldn’t have won a Super Bowl and Montana probably couldn’t have developed anything resembling the Theory of Relativity.

And what about music? Or art? Are gifted people in these disciplines any different from athletes? I tried to find information on eligibility requirements for collegiate activities such as band and theater but was unsuccessful. Anyway, Howard Gardner has written extensively on his theory of multiple intelligences and their role in the educational process. His ideas are being widely implemented in educational systems and is gaining broad acceptance. If you search the term “multiple intelligences curriculum design,” Google returns over 1.9 million results.

Most would argue that art and music are viable disciplines in higher education. So why not athletics?

Societal Value

So what is more valuable? It depends on who you ask. And when. It’s all about perspective. Need to solve a mathematical problem to produce food more efficiently, talk to Albert. Need to throw a rock at a rabbit for dinner, go with Joe.

Today, in the U.S. it may seem Einstein’s genius has more value, but 10,000 years ago it was the other way around. Skills should be developed to the greatest extent possible. If you find yourself in a survival situation, you are probably going to need as many skills and you can muster. Value isn’t an easy metric to pin down. It is largely dependent on situation.


There are also questions about opportunity and socioeconomic bias. In some instances athletes from poor families would not be able to attend school without a scholarship. Or at least they wouldn’t believe they could go. Sometimes athletics give this opportunity, and sometimes they give hope. Sometimes they may even help a person grow in fundamental ways.

And what of acceptance and eligibility? Some students struggle in this regard because their elementary and secondary schools failed them. Or they aren’t native English speakers. Or they have a learning disability. Or the admissions test they take is invalid. Many students have complicated, and in some instances, tumultuous histories. Who is to say they shouldn’t get a chance?

Or maybe it really is true that college isn’t for everyone. But what becomes of these people? Are they forever relegated to a life of menial work for little pay? And remember, Einstein, and many other amazing people, either failed or were underestimated at some point before finding success.

The primary issue at hand is what we want our universities to do. Do we want them to strictly adhere to the current set of accepted academic disciplines? Or should they only prepare people for a job?

Personally, I don’t think either of these are acceptable.

Universities are places of learning and growth. They need to  allow students to cultivate their talents, and provide a place for exploration and exposure to diversity. Students should leave school with a solid understanding how they can continue to grow as a person and make the world a better place with the abilities they have.

In my opinion, job training should happen on the job and academic disciplines alone aren’t broad enough to capture the entire spectrum of human potential.

So what do you think? What is the role of a university? Do athletics have a place in higher education? Please join the conversation in the comments below.


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