Friday, February 6, 2015

The Last Journey of a Genius and How Do You Say Gifted?

The Last Journey of a Genius and How Do You Say Gifted?

In 1989 PBS' NOVA aired The Last Journey of a Genius, a television documentary on the final days of the great physicist Richard Feynman.  Today, anyone can google and watch it. 

In the documentary, Richard Feynman talks about becoming a member of the Arista, an honor society, at Far Rockaway High School in New York City.  At the time (early 1930s), everyone wanted to be a member of the Arista, according to Feynman.  However, once Feynman became selected he soon discovered that the group was more concerned about deciding who was to be allowed in the Arista.  He hated intellectual pretense and wanted no part of it.

Feynman wanted to be ordinary: a school psychologist had tested his IQ at 123/5 in the 1930s or within the range of normal.  Feynman once told a friend that he would not be able to join Mensa, an organization who members have IQs in the 150 or higher, since he lacked a high enough qualifying score.

Apart from his IQ score, Richard Feynman was anything but ordinary.  While Feynman's name is often touted about within the physics world, Einstein's iconic status extends far beyond the physics world and the one most commonly named in terms of giftedness.  And yet, most (who are knowledgeable about Feynman and Einstein or other geniuses) would put Feynman in the category of giftedness and even the rarified category of' true' genius.

The similarities between Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein are staggering and worth noting:
both became famous, award-winning physicists.  Both were awarded Nobel Prizes.  Both looked for the simplest solution to a problem.

Both Feynman and Einstein beat to a different drum.  Both were late talkers and not always hard working, high achieving students.  Both had an insatiable curiosity and were highly creative.  Both were divergent rather than convergent thinkers.  Both cherished the process of exploring and investigating questions rather than the end result.  Both were physically and socially awkward.  Both had married and then divorced; though Feynman's first wife died of tuberculosis and he stayed married to his third wife for more than twenty-five years.

Ironically, today the term 'little Einstein' has been co-opted.  Too often, it is usually refers to a bright, eager child with a high IQ who perhaps learns how to read at or before age 2 and then performs other amazing physical and cognitive feats at an early.  Quite the opposite of Einstein's own upbringing in many ways, yet the pundits and talking heads persist in co-opting his name.  The title of the headline Little Einstein! Girl, 3, Mensa's Youngest Member says it all.  

Today such 'little Einsteins' are never considered 'little Feynmans.'  Often, there's no discussion how giftedness may be more than a high IQ or a qualifying score with Mensa or pertain to a set of characteristics and neurological condition.  There's also usually nothing about how Einstein or other gifted people do not share the same precocious or physical, mental, social and emotional developments and, in fact, many gifted people have special needs and developmental delays.  And there's often no discussion or consideration how much a disservice this association does for the betterment of society or the child either.

Intelligence scores speak for one piece of the puzzle, but they do not speak for all.  Otherwise, Feynman and many others would have a higher IQ score than they did or do.

Perhaps we should re-assess how we say giftedness.  Perhaps we should accept that there are Feynmans in the world and that there are more definitions and ways to be gifted than being identified through IQ testing.

This is part of the Gifted Homeschooling Forum's blog hop How Do You Say Giftedness.  For more of GHF's blog hops, see


  1. Feynman is one of my favourite physicists and authors, a quirky, out of the box thinker who was also funny and humble. I really like the idea of Feynmans as a name too :D

  2. "Perhaps we should accept that there are Feynmans in the world and that there are more definitions and ways to be gifted than being identified through IQ testing."
    I couldn't agree more!

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post. You're very right that giftedness is not just a number. Nor is it just an achievement. People are multifaceted in ways beyond each of our imaginations.

  4. I agree - we must celebrate the divergent, creative minds, and focus less on the numbers. I'm so glad you told this story. I had not heard of "The Last Journey of a Genius", and it is now on my list of things to watch!

  5. We love Richard Feynman. We watch his lectures online and have several of his books.

    You are absolutely right, there is so much more to giftedness than academic performance and an IQ score!

    Thanks for a wonderfully interesting article. I so enjoyed it!