genius with no capital letter

Feb 3, 2011 by

I often wonder what the role of universities should be. “Critical thinking” is a catchphrase that most take for granted and hardly anyone defines any more.  To me, it consists of two parts:  analytic and synthetic thinking. In America, I believe, the latter is dominant while in Britain the former. Or it might be the distinction between the undergraduate and graduate studies which in my case overlaps with the British and American one.

I had a class with Charles Hill  (Wiki him or wait till the end of the story:) who spoke of Plato and Aristotle. He chose aspects from both philosophers which he deemed relevant for the world of today.  The class is called, in a grand American style, “Strategies of World Order” which in Britain would probably be equivalent to a more down-to-earth “Applied Political Philosophy”. Either way, the course is based on a selection of books, which, according to our professor, carry universal messages on stagecraft, leadership and the field of international relations in general.

I do not wish to recount word by word what he said (even though it might have been a more interesting read.) I wish to focus on how he spoke. He spoke about the most difficult decisions made in the history of mankind with such simplicity, clarity and balance that we all sat there in complete silence, absorbing every word. The impression was comparable to that when you read a great author and know instinctively that each word he picked  had to stay there. No synonyms would do, for he chose a perfect word in and put it in a perfect location to make a perfect whole. Or when you listen to a virtuoso who chose each note to create a melody that could not be changed. But unlike music, Hill’s words appealed to our rationality, not emotions, especially as he spoke of Socrates’ teachings.

His lecture was not academic in the sense of being theory or concept-driven. Instead, it was based on experience, of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, of in-depth lecture and feeling, of history. He introduced contexts and made the ancient world real. It was a talk that showed how to draw lessons from the biggest successes and failures of historic leaders, that connected the ancient world to  modernity. That showed that real academia is about a more subtle understanding of life around us, here and now, by dint of what came before and of intellectual connections made across centuries and continents. It was synthetic teaching at its best.

One thing that a privilege of being here has given me, I feel , is the ability to spot and appreciate genius – genius which is not loud, not abstract, not necessarily bespectacled or eccentric, not geeky or showy, but humble and deep-eyed. Genius that sees complexities of every situation but can express them with lucidity and depth, can draw conclusions, and suggest solutions. Charles Hill was an advisor to R. Reagan and H. Kissinger. An advisor that any country would wish for, I believe.

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