Can anyone become a genius?

An answer to this question asked on Quora: Can anybody become a genius?

Likely, because there is no precise definition of genius.

“Imagine going back to the year 1600. Even then, Western Europe was one of the more educated parts of the planet, but back then about 20% of the population could read and write. And I suspect if you went back there and if you asked someone who was capable of reading and writing—say a member of the clergy—and you said: “What percentage of the population is even capable of it?” They might have said: “If you have an incredible education system, maybe 50%.”

You fast-forward 400 years to today and we know that that prediction would have been wildly pessimistic; that nearly 100% of the population can be literate. But what similar blinders we have on today? If I were to ask you: “What percentage of the population is capable of understanding quantum physics? Or what percentage of the population is capable of contributing to medical research?” You might say maybe 5 or 10%, or with a really good education system maybe 15 or 20%. But what if the answer is a 100%? What could that mean for the rate at which human society could progress? What would that mean for the human condition? But that is just one aspect of the types of blinders we have on today, that in 400 years will hopefully seem silly.” –Salman Khan – Class Day 2015, Harvard [1]

However, while the message above is very optimistic, and not wrong, it does not say everyone can suddenly perceive mathematical concepts as shapes and colors as some geniuses could. To that my answer is: “Probably not, yet.” But that’s not what matters. People seem to equate genius with effortless scientific discoveries. In fact the opposite is true. Most geniuses lived for their field. Their work was their leisure. The amount of time our generation spends on learning something new would pale compared to their amount spent on their endeavours.

“Education… has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.” –George Macaulay Trevelyan

Aside of the latter digression; if a student today would explain calculus to a 17th century farmer, the student would be seen as a genius. In that respect, everyone could be his own genius if we use education for what it’s meant: the joy of learning.

Footnotes
[1] Class Day 2014: Salman Khan

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