Eminence Front

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em·i·nence

/ˈemənəns/

Noun
  1. Fame or recognized superiority, esp. within a particular sphere or profession: “her eminence in cinematography”.
  2. An important or distinguished person: “the Attorney General canvassed the views of various legal eminences”.

Eminence is everywhere in articles on giftedness of late. It’s arrived hand-in-glove with the Talentists, that group that seeks to broaden the definition of giftedness to include just about anything a human being can possibly do differently than other human beings1. The new way of thinking centers on the idea that gifted education should foster and encourage those most capable of – and I quote – “path breaking, field-altering discoveries and creative contributions by their products, innovations, and performances.” Thus, by the strictest definition of the term, noted above, gifted people are to be famous people. Important people. Superior people.

Look, I’m not offended by the idea that an intelligent person can work hard and be recognized for excellence in his or her chosen field. Far from it. What I do find disturbing is the expectation that everyone is a prodigy in a specific and defined field. Eminence suggests that we all somehow sharpen to a single point of brilliance, one which efficiently yields up the fruits of our giftedness to society in a quantifiable way. It all sounds very pleasant and logical, and at the same time, it makes me think I’m being rendered down for my mineral salts. More disturbingly, literature in the field is starting to suggest that giftedness + diligence = eminence, as a rigidly defined equation. It might; there’s certainly no shortage of examples out there. But it also feeds the gifted-as-output engine, and that can end up with terrible results – even for those that do become eminent. After all, if I rearrange that equation algebraically, I can also produce giftedness – eminence = – diligence; “if I’m smart but not famous, I clearly didn’t work hard enough.”2  That’s a horrific message to send to gifted children. Eminence is a delightful concept for those of us who single-mindedly pursue fields that offer the possibility of large-scale acknowledgment and the possibility of ‘recognized superiority.’ What are the rest of us? Failed experiments? Intellectual detritus? Cautionary tales?

This logic also doesn’t necessarily work for polymaths. I have terrible news for the Eminence Front; I’m not eminent. Not by the strictest definition of the word. I’m not technically a famous author; there’s a pretty tightly-defined slice of the gifted young adult population that likes my work, but they’re not New York Times bestsellers, and it’s unlikely that my books are going to be turned into godawful movies anytime soon. I’m not technically a famous guitarist, either, although there are those who will shout requests for songs I’ve written. I’m not technically a famous archaeologist, but one of my finds is on display in a cultural museum in Cortez, Colorado. I’m not technically a famous entrepreneur – but there are people who rely on the services my company provides every day to make the right decisions for their companies. I’m a better author than most entrepreneurs I know, and a better guitarist than most archaeologists. But the ideologues of the Eminence Front don’t value polymathic output; only prodigious output.

More importantly, though, these are the activities for which I’m even able to measure that output – the activities I’d have a chance of becoming eminent in. I’m not even really considering the things I can’t technically be famous for. Am I a famous father? (I do have a very, um, distinguished ‘Dad of the Year’ plaque on my desk.) Has my husband-ing ever been recognized for its superiority? Is it possible to be distinguished while I’m plunging a toilet or grilling hamburgers or taking the trash to the curb? Then there’s homeschooling, which – by definition – is an act that runs directly counter to the concept of eminence. Kathy and I have both made the very conscious decision to limit our career workload so that we can focus more closely on the education of our children. If eminence was ever camped out in my cul-de-sac, it likely packed its bags the day we made that decision. I’m OK with that, and so is she, but what are we telling our own kids when we tell them that eminence is everything?

That. in turn, raises the following question: where, in this equation, is the word happiness? How about fulfillment? Self-actualization? And which component of the definition of eminence are we supposed to be following? Is it more crucial to the essence of eminence to be important or famous? Famous or superior? Superior or distinguished? Ke$ha’s a famous person, but she’s not important. Zoe Keating is probably the anti-Ke$ha – important, but not famous. She’s got a lot of company. Miguel Alcubierre might end up becoming the most important man in scientific history – but he’s not famous. (Yet.) Brian Greene and Rodolfo Gambini are important, but not famous, and neither can yet demonstrate superiority over the other; in fact, one is likely to be dead wrong, and his error is going to prove to be immensely valuable to physicists. We can’t all be Neil deGrasse Tyson3.

What I’m going to tell my children is the following: follow your passion in life. It might be looping the cello, or developing warp-drive engines, or painting with oils in a sunny back yard. Following your passions might ensure you fame, or – ahem – “importance”(whatever that means), or being ‘recognized for your superiority.’ Or it might not. What it will bring you is meaning, and joy, and a direct conduit between the fire in your soul and the work beneath your hands. There is no more “important” goal than that in this life. They might find themselves famous, or “important,” as a result of their passions – but the converse is unlikely to be true.

As for the ‘Eminence Front?’ Someone fairly famous in his own right once informed me that it’s a put-on.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

1 You’re welcome.

2 giftedness = eminence – diligence somehow falls out of this, too. Go figure.

3 Yes, I’m counting the vests in the ‘distinguished’ column.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. oh THANK YOU for using the term – and being – a polymath. for years i’ve thought my dh was the only one who did – or was. he’s not eminent either, and that’s ok by me, though not by most others. your perspective here has offered me yet another profound perspective in which i can accompany my family members to reach their individual goals for personal happiness.

    Reply

  2. i just reread and realized i used the word perspective twice. in the same sentence. facepalm. i need more chai before i make comments in the morning.

    Reply

  3. Have you ever read “Flow” and other books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? That book came to mind with the word “fulfillment.”

    Reply

  4. Posted by Erin Miller on February 25, 2013 at 4:46 am

    This popped up on my Facebook feed. Excellent essay. I too am made uncomfortable by the “eminence talk”. Are you an NAGC member?

    Reply

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