Carolyn Dicey Jennings (homepage) writes this guest post for us today:
The Lasker Award in Medical Science was announced in Cell Press this month under the title, "Pure Genes, Pure Genius." To me, there is little worse praise than "genius." The root of the word, shared with "genie," signifies a magical, impossible to understand element, brushing aside the hard work under the miraculous rug of some innate talent, some God-given gift.
Granted, I don't get this a lot. I could count the number of times on one hand. I hear the term applied much more often to others. All the worse, since now I can never reach their stature. How could one climb what is divine? When someone uses the word "genius," they are asking you to kneel. Whether they are asking you to kneel to your own gifts or those of others, I find this request revolting. Whatever happened to determined effort? To the strength of the collective? Whatever "genius" is, it has nothing to do with these. And so I not-so-humbly request: look to the hours, attend to what is added, praise the support that has enabled this accomplishment. Do not reduce us all by giving it away.
Or, if you cannot help but to identify Great Works with the term "genius," finding it preferable to say that creativity comes from genius than from nowhere, know to whom your praise is sent. As written in the Oxford English, "genius" is primarily used "with reference to classical pagan belief: The tutelary god or attendant spirit allotted to every person at his birth, to govern his fortunes and determine his character, and finally to conduct him out of the world." Such spirits may best explain some of the twists and turns of our cultural history, but I doubt that they explain the great and ennobling work of Donald Brown and Tom Maniatis.