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Opinions of Sunday, 10 May 2009

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

Child Geniuses And Adult Nincompoops

I have always had problems with surveys and opinion polls, because nobody ever asks me anything. Yet, I am made to read research outcomes as though I was part of a focus group discussion. One such report was on popular words used by Britons: Nincompoop. I never heard anybody use that word when I lived in that country. At least, nobody used it for me. Instead, I heard fathead, twit, idiot and blockhead. Occasionally, you heard people being called geniuses for fixing a bulb into a socket. Of course, there were times you were confronted with real ingenuity when you listened to debates by Prof Richard Dawkins, one of the top three intellectuals in the world. Otherwise, it seemed the word nincompoop gave a very apt definition to popular adult behaviour, including faking orgasm and all forms of addiction. Lately, I have been addicted to child geniuses, not anymore that I am addicted to the buffoonery of adults. I am absolutely fascinated by the Nicholas character in The Pursuit of Happyness, the Hollywood blockbuster that last year ended our pursuit of real happiness in the movie theatres.

Until then, there had been couple of bad films which featured phenomenal actors, but the stories were simply not inspiring. We couldn’t bring them home, because they did not treat any good themes. Where there was a good theme, the story was not all together successful. Will Smith had played the lead role in the grass-to-riches Pursuit of Happyness story. He was brilliant but his son, Nicholas, actually his real son, (proper name Jaden Smith) did a terrific job. The bond between father and son was so natural; it made verisimilitude seem very similar. The story, after all, was a familiar one. Nicholas perfected the plot. Incidentally, just around the same time, the actor who played the artful Dodger in Oliver, the sensational British musical that starred Ron Moody as Fagen, died. He was a boy genius who became a millionaire very early in life but successfully blew it all till he died poor, just like his boss Fagen lost all his fortune in the Oliver Twist story.

Nicholas did not make the record books as a boy genius, because he wasn’t exactly a genius. Any other child of Hollywood parentage could have played that role with some coaching. Lately, there have been some phenomenal young talents who have made news. In America, a six year old boy of Indian parentage has an IQ of 176, much better than Albert Einstein’s 160. Tell him your date of birth and the lad will tell you exactly what day of the week you were born. Most of us have no idea what day our last birthday fell, even though we may have celebrated it with pomp. The boy is able to recite all the states in the USA, from Sarah Palin’s Alaska to Wyoming. Most remarkably, he is also able to start from Wyoming and end it with Alaska. And he could go as far as Russia, if Palin would buy the ticket. He carries a typical Indian name, Pranav Veera. Well, this time, not a Patel. It is so exciting listening to him reciting the names of the states with typical Indian accent; the kind that immediately transports you to Mumbai, because it is also accompanied by the shaking of the head and the neck. His father holds a PhD and his mum has two Masters Degrees. Maybe the science about children getting their intelligence from the Y chromosomes of the mother makes sense. Or, is it from the father? I am a virgin in science, especially Physics and all that organic stuff, so you would not blame me if I don’t know exactly what the chromosomes do. I am into verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Never mind if they have become my adversaries. It could have been worse.

Last week, we had another gem of a two year old in Britain. The girl can tell the capital cities of 36 countries, including Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone, where the people really live the name: Freetown. With an IQ of 156, Elise Tan Roberts has become the latest member of MENSA. While the toddler was still in her pampers, a British television presenter stormed town to interview adults on how much they knew about the world, apart from the city of London, which many Londoners do not know well, anyway. Nearly all the respondents could not name the capital cities of five countries. Of course, you don’t expect the average Briton to know the capital of Nicaragua, unless they went on holiday there. What about Sierra Leone, which made news for nearly a decade during their civil war? You expect that any literate person who reads a thing a week would know a few things about the world. Not in this generation of fast-moving cars and advanced telecommunication. A sharp-looking man in his fifties gave Djibouti as the capital of Sierra Leone. The most intelligent person who came close to giving a good answer said Freedom. Well, that wasn’t a bad try. He could have joined MENSA that day.

Maybe it is the internet. Or, that there is simply too much to read that folks just do not bother anymore. Yet, a bestseller is published everyday. Victoria Beckham is proud to say that she is never able to complete a book. How many books have been written about her, even though she has done nothing meaningful over the past years, apart from being the wife of a millionaire footballer, who isn’t talented than Abedi Pele. Mrs Beckham actually boasts that his children think celebrity-crazy magazines, such as OK and Hello, are family albums, because they are always covered in the pages of the magazines. This celebrity nonsense does not seem to sell beyond the headlines. In the process, real substance and scholarship are buried beneath the glossy presentation of characters like Kate Price, aka Jordan. What is she popular for? Well, maybe for farting into a microphone. And then she bore a son with a footballer. Why is Harvey news?

Ann Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, a British Television Quiz show, produced a celebrity version of the show, on which she featured the WAGS, Wives and Girlfriends of Footballers. The British press reported that the girls were actually the weakest brains in Great Britain. Cheryl Cole, wife of Chelsea footballer Ashley Cole, was asked a question that anybody with a brain the size of a peanut could answer. She was supposed to give an example of, say, a reptile, and the popular Girls Aloud musician mentioned something like a cow. There were other very simple questions that they failed to answer correctly. Yet, these are people with huge following. They may even be role models.

A few days ago, Sarah Brown, wife of British Premier Gordon Brown, praised Hotel Heiress Paris Hilton as a smart girl. The two had met at the First Ladies of Africa Health Summit Gala in America. Mrs Brown wrote on her Facebook: “Loved Paris Hilton who I met for the first time last week in LA for the first time. Nothing about her public image prepares you for the first meeting. She is a smart, caring considerate person. Who knew?” Then as if on cue, Hilton almost immediately leaves the following tweets on her Twitter: “Just had an amazing conversation with Sarah Brown, Gordon Brown’s wife. She is such a smart, beautiful, inspirational woman.” Paris Hilton a smartie? You don’t often hear that about her. We don’t know much about Mrs Brown’s sense of humour; otherwise we are likely to think of the Paris adulation as a big joke. Maybe the Premier’s wife meant to use the word as an acronym: So Mad At Reading Text (smart)?

Well, Paris Hilton may be smarter than many of us with three or four, and sometimes five university degrees. It is amazing how the internet has literally taken our heads off our necks, processing our thoughts and producing results at the touch of a button. From the preparation of a CV to the writing of a proposal for a PhD, there are templates lodged inside the internet. All you need do is type a key word into google, and the computer will regurgitate more information than you need. So we end up cutting and pasting people’s thoughts and passing them off as ours. If you are too busy to consult the internet, you can pay experts to write you a good research proposal. That is where the dishonesty starts. So, when we later plagiarise another person’s research, it is no news. It is not wrong to consult career and CV experts for instruction on how to prepare a good CV, but it appears terribly improper if you pay them to prepare your CV for you. You might as well ask them to attend the interview on your behalf and proceed to do the job for you. In any case, if you cannot give an account of your educational and employment history in the form of a CV, then how do you trust a stranger to tell your personal story?

So, scholarship has fallen, and there is nothing we can do about it, except perhaps consult the internet for instruction on how to fix it. Maybe we like to make it appear so, because we have been lamenting fallen standards for a very long time. Standards in nearly everything: education, performance on the job and charity. You can take a high school course online if you are too busy to make a physical presence in a classroom. You can become a minister of religion by sitting behind the computer and answering some prototype questions set by a body in a rich country. It is also possible to get a PhD online. Those who have done it say it is as good as enrolling on a full-time programme in a good university. That makes sense, because these days a man does not need a woman to produce children. You can pay a surrogate mother and avoid living with a stranger who would divorce you on Facebook. A woman can pluck an adorable child from a sperm bank. Suddenly, we live in a world of possibilities where everything seems impossible.

What is the result of all these? When Sufiah Yusof was admitted to Oxford University to study Maths at the age of 13, the world had lots of expectations for the brilliant girl. She had made news like Elsie Tan Roberts. This was in 1997. Last year, we read that she works as a prostitute in Britain. With an IQ of 156, and a member of MENSA, she is now the world’s most intelligent prostitute. It is not known how much she charges her clients. What a difference a decade can make? She must be good at her job, because less gifted girls with an IQ of a puppy have survived the horrors of the trade.

By the way, how do you spot a MENSA potential in your child? The average IQ is between 90 and 109. When you have an IQ of above 130, you are considered a gifted person. These days, there are many ways to test your IQ. One way, again, is by taking a test on the computer. I challenged my wife to take the test, but she would not. Her excuse was that the barometers used in measuring intelligence are not the same as those of yesteryears. You are intelligent if you are successful. And success is only understood in terms of money. Well, maybe that explains why Sufiah Yusof abandoned Oxford for sex.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa, Canada