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Dr. Jonathan Wai: Research Scientist, Talent Identification Program, Duke University & Case Western Reserve University (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/09/08


Part two of a three-part in-depth, broad interview with Research Scientist, Dr. Jonathan Wai, of the Talent Identification Program, Duke University, and Case Western Reserve University.  He discusses the following subject-matter: Tom Vander Ark in The Educational World Is Flat (2012), an interview between Marilyn vos Savant and Harold Channer in 1986, and specialists and generalists; Salman Khan and the Khan Academy, Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (1960), and universality of English; risks of rote learning with Khan Academy, asian educational systems, and Bill Gates; flourishing of the gifted population with focus on the young; myths of the gifted population; responsibilities of the gifted population to society and culture; near and far future of the gifted population; The SAT Is Too Easy (2012) and a higher SAT ceiling; Karl Bates, The Art Of Communicating Science (2013), and C.P. Snow; and Project Scientist: Inspiring The Next Generation Of Females (2013), women in STEM, business, and leadership, and the example of Japan.

Keywords: Bill Gates, C.P. Snow, Canada, Einstein, English, Flynn, Gifted Population, Google, Harold Channer, Japan, Karl Bates, Khan Academy, Marilyn vos Savant, Salman Khan, STEM, Talented Youth, Tom Vander Ark, U.S.

11. One of the items most striking to me came from an interview with Tom Vander Ark entitled The Educational World Is Flat (2012), “In America we appear to have a strong emphasis on being well rounded. Einstein was someone who focused on subjects that he was interested in and tended to ignore subjects that he didn’t care much about.”  It reminded me of an interview by Harold Channer with Marilyn vos Savant (1986).  In it, she says, “…What I call a misguided effort to be well-rounded.  Why not let one person go and become another Einstein in his or her field? It doesn’t have to be something as impressive as physics.  There are all kinds of things.  But in this effort to make a well-rounded individual, we sort of turn them all off to everything, give them things too early.”  It seems further reason to consider catering to the most talented.  What do you think of specialists and generalists?  How might the US alter the educational streams for the gifted to allow to more specialization in an area of sole interest?

Today there is so much knowledge that specialization is almost a necessity.  I think, at least in the U.S., the value of being well rounded comes from parents who want their children to be happy in every sense.  Parents want their kids to fit in and be accepted by society.  Not being well rounded means you are more of an outlier, and especially if you are a social outlier, you have less chance of being accepted.  But this is always an issue for people who go on to become great.  Oftentimes the path to greatness is quite lonely because you are going where nobody else has gone before.  I think a general education is necessary, for example being familiar with history as Flynn pointed out earlier.  But if a student knows what they want to do at an early age and wishes to specialize, I think we should let them do that and not hold them back.

12. You have had interviews and articles on the use of modern technology such as computers and software to design, and upgrade, education. Even though, Salman Khan in one interview with you discusses the changes brought on through a decent online educational system called Khan Academy, which, of course, he founded and operates.  However, I see the foundational change to much of the educational world for the 21st century arising from one area, even though mathematics counts as a universal language.  The international language seems quite strongly English.  Relevant, to me at any rate, I remember reading the opening piece of Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions (1960), which I found once more for this, and he says, “As late as the seventeenth century the savants and artists of all Europe were so closely united by the bond of a common ideal that cooperation between them was scarcely affected by political events.  This unity was further strengthened by the general use of the Latin language.” [Italics added] The increasing universality of the English language, in my opinion, will likely improve the educational level of the world.  In this sense, organizations such as Khan Academy appear to be ‘piggybacking’ on the phenomenon of increased universality of a common working-language, namely: English – partially eliminating our literal, global ‘Tower of Babel’. What do you think?

This is an interesting idea, and perhaps a uniform language is helpful for learning everywhere.  I think what online learning has done is provided educational access to anyone anywhere in the world who has a computer, an internet connection, and the freedom to find the information they want.  Without question this should allow talented students from around the world have the opportunity to interact with one another and innovate together.

13. In the articles How Khan Academy Can Help Find The Next Einstein (2012) and Five Lessons From Salman Khan For Education (2012), you discuss concerns about how Khan Academy may be “enabling rote learning.”  This is a common criticism of Asian educational systems.  Yet in academic international comparisons, those Asian nations are outperforming America, particularly in math and science.  Bill Gates has said, as you quote in If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent? (2011), “You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them.”  Do you have thoughts on this criticism?  How about ways to increase understanding and inventiveness?

I think Gates said it well already.  You have to have something in your brain before you can innovate.  Oftentimes rote learning just means you repeat it enough times until you have a concept always ready at your mind’s fingertips.  Today we have Google, which means every bit of information is available online.  However, innovation often comes from the synthesis or reorganization of existing knowledge in a novel or creative pattern or extension, and so to have many things memorized can be quite important, depending upon the context.

14. You share a concern of mine. In particular, the sincere desire to assist the gifted population in flourishing, especially the young.  Now, many organizations provide for the needs of the moderately gifted ability sectors of the general population, most often adults and sometimes children.  However, few provide for the needs of children (and adults) in the high, profound, exceptional, or ‘unmeasurable’ ability sectors of the general population.  Some organizations and societies provide forums, retreats, journals, intelligence tests, literature, or outlets for the highest ability sub-populations.  What can individuals, organizations, and societies do to provide for the gifted population?  What argument most convinces you of the need to provide for this sector of society?

There are two main reasons to invest in talented people.  The first is that by investing in them we help them fulfill their potential and live rewarding and meaningful lives.  The second is that by investing in them we are actually investing in our own future—that is, talented people invent a disproportionate share of things that benefit all of us.  The first reason should be enough, but today in the U.S. it is not.

15. Of the gifted population, there exist many myths.   What do you consider the greatest of these?  What truths dispel them?

Actually, one of the largest myths I encounter is that talented people tend to have a lot of problems (e.g. social).  However, longitudinal studies on talented students, such as the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, have shown that talented kids end up as well adjusted and quite successful adults who have families and friends just like everyone else.  Perhaps the stereotype of the nerd as being socially inept is comforting to many people, for whatever reason.

16. In turn, what responsibilities do the gifted population have towards society and culture? Why do you think this?

I believe that each person should have the freedom to choose what they want in life and be responsible for themselves and their actions.  They should try to be at least a net zero and preferably a net positive on society.  However, talented people in general have been given a head start in life, and therefore my hope is that they would fully recognize this, be responsible with their decisions that impact many others, and be wise stewards of their talents.  For their personal well-being, I would hope they would not waste the head start they have been given in life.

17. Where do you see the future of the gifted population in relation to society? What about the near and far future of the gifted population in general?

Talented people have always been and will always be important in society.  In the book Human Accomplishment (2003), we see the many amazing things that have been created largely by the gifted population.  I hope that society would place value on talented people, not for being talented, but for using their talent and working hard to create something that is helpful or beneficial to all of us.

18. You note one large, and mostly unstated, problem directly with the article The SAT Is Too Easy (2012). For instance, you raise the issue of the current SAT’s lack of ability to distinguish among the top candidates in the US.  Why not coordinate with high-ceiling test constructors to measure 4.5 and 5 SD above the norm with the SAT?

As I mentioned earlier, the better solution is either to use the SAT as it exists at an earlier age, or actually bring out the original SAT, which had a much higher ceiling.  Basically the idea would be to use an existing test with established reliability and validity.

19. Of the articles and interviews published, I consider the interview with Karl Bates, entitled The Art Of Communicating Science (2013), the single most important article from your blog posts. You cut to the heart of the issue of culture and the split described by C.P. Snow with the sciences on the one side and the humanities on the other – and never the twain shall meet.  We can talk about science.  We can talk about intelligence and creativity.  Regardless, without attention to understanding the separate streams of English language used in each major side, as set out by C.P. Snow, the other stuff seems secondary, even tertiary, to me.  Most cutting about the interview, I find, is the concision and pragmatic nature of the responses by both of you at the end of the publication.  Do you have any expansions on the topics discussed therein?

Thank you.  I think scientists and journalists don’t communicate as often as they should, probably in part because these groups have very different incentive and reward structures.  However, the problem to a large extent lies with academics who don’t understand that the rest of the world operates similarly to the journalistic world.  It is the academic world which is very much in an ivory tower.  A lot of different fields or disciplines, if they actually took the time to meaningfully interact, would come away with not only a greater appreciation for other disciplines, but also could improve upon their own craft.

20. In your article Project Scientist: Inspiring The Next Generation Of Females (2013), I felt thrilled reading it. More have begun to discuss these issues.  If we exclude one half of the talent pool, North America loses out. Provided the possibility of easier international travel, talented women with interest in STEM, business, and leadership fields in general will, in my opinion, likely travel to other areas with the opportunities.  For instance, this appears in Japan, where many of the talented, wealthy, and highly-educated Japanese women have begun to work against cultural and institutional structures to provide more fair opportunities for themselves.  Especially the increased possibilities of self-empowerment of these women, they choose to do it.  At least from my vantage, from the cost-benefit analysis of a talented and well-educated Japanese woman, travelling to a new place with better possibilities of equal opportunity compared to having to change a well-entrenched cultural and institutional foundation in Japanese society seems like a far better and more immediate solution.  Looking at our own societies, how can we empower women here-and-now in the US and Canada?

I agree that we need to empower women all around the world.  More importantly, I think we need to empower both women and men in various disciplines where they are typically underrepresented.  I also think we need to focus on helping empower the individual regardless of their color or their gender.  In the end, it is not about what people look like, but about who they are as an individual.  We need to respect individual differences.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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