"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."How many of you can read this as simply descriptive of how things are and not judgmental?
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Descriptive, say, like "Great athletes compete in the Olympics, average athletes play softball and ski after work, and poor athletes watch television"?
Somehow, "poor athlete" doesn't overlap with a moral assessment the way 'small minds' does in this quote. I'm trying to figure out why. Surely we can recognize that people with 'great minds' have some abilities that people with 'small minds' don't have in the same way great athletes can do things average athletes can't.
Yet 'small minds' seems to say much more about who you are as a person, than does 'poor athlete.' Maybe it's because people with small minds don't know this fact about themselves. After all, it's just easier to know a good athlete when we see one. An athlete's ability is much more tangible than a great mind's ability. We can see someone consistently sink the ball in the basket or run faster than anyone else. But only in very specific situations do we see that someone's mental ability is tangibly better than our own such as when someone gets the last word in a spelling bee right, or wins a chess tournament or on Jeopardy. Or can fix our computer.
But these are specialized abilities, almost oddities. She's very smart, but . . . A great mind is something more than the ability to finish a Sudoku in ten minutes. We know there are different kinds of intelligence, not just the linguistic/rational/spatial intelligences thought to be captured in IQ tests. Is a great mind one that has many of them? Actually, Howard Gardner, who developed the concept of multiple intelligences, also has identified five different minds -
- The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one professional craft.
- The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others.
- The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena.
- The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups.
- The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one's responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.
Maybe the higher percent one has of all five, the closer one gets to being wise.
Is Eleanor Roosevelt's aphorism insightful or just a snarky put down from an intellectual woman who, because of her wealth and position, was the target of a lot of gossip?
Why is discussing events less important than discussing ideas? And discussing people even less important? People and events are, it seems to me, the raw data necessary for the ideas of social science and philosophy.
I think we, collectively, need people with a wide variety of skills - people good with their hands, with plants and animals, with machines; good at music and art, at raising children, at bringing people together, at taking risks, at avoiding risks. All these skills are necessary at different times for individual survival and communal prosperity.
One could argue that the progression Roosevelt offers is one of expansion. At the narrowest level, the focus is people. Putting the individuals into context gets us to events. And finally we back up further and see those events, not as random or unique, but in a larger context of more enduring ideas about what is good, what is right, what is important, etc.
Part of me likes the elevation of people who discuss ideas, but not at the expense of people who discuss other things. One can discuss people, events, and ideas in order to improve the general quality of life or to enhance one's own importance and power over others.
This riff could drift in many different directions. How do we even know a great mind when we meet one? How many great minds are there for every thousand people? What is a great mind even?
Given the anti-intellectualism of some groups today, I think it's important for us to work on understanding what it means to be 'smart.' In that respect, this post follows up on thoughts I've posted about on elitism.
Our current great political divide compels me to ponder why so many people seem to think they know so much more than they do, and to dismiss people who know far more. (I'm talking about all folks who are certain about what they know, whether they dropped out of high school or continued on to get a PhD.) All of us need to expand our understanding of why we believe what we believe and how we test our truths.
Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was probably using 'small minds' in the dictionary sense - narrow-minded; petty; intolerant; mean - and by reinterpreting it literally, I've made an issue out of nothing.