Some people think you have to be crazy to be brilliant. Some think you have to be an academic superstar, or a child prodigy. Scott Barry Kaufman isn’t one of them.
Kaufman has always been fascinated with why and how peoples’ minds differ from one another. Currently a professor of psychology at NYU, co-founder of the Creativity Post and blogger for Psychology Today, his thinking about education and intelligence was shaped at an early age.
"Kids should not feel like crap if they can’t do things."
“I was in special education until ninth grade," Kaufman admits. "I would still be [in it] today, but a substitute teacher took me aside and told me I didn’t belong there.” As a result of being placed in special education programs for the majority of his school years, he decided to devote his life to understanding intelligence. “I wondered what other people had that I didn’t have,” Kaufman said. “I didn’t think I was stupid.”His unusual educational background (at least for susccessful academic) meant that Kaufman forged his own path. After high school, he went to Carnegie Mellon, starting off in the opera program when he couldn’t get into cognitive science because of his low SAT scores. As a freshman, he did so well academically that he was granted permission to switch programs his sophomore year. He then transferred to psychology, where he found his calling. Kaufman went on to earn his masters degree at Cambridge University, and his doctorate at Yale.
Kaufman's research focuses on finding the roots of intelligence and creativity. In his quest to figure out, as he puts it, “how we go from birth to extraordinary levels of greatness,” Kaufman has studied all kinds of people who have done unusual, or even extraordinary, things.
“I'm interested in all sorts of abilities, all different kinds of minds, and all the different ways that our minds differ,” Kaufman stated. “My main methodology is to go to groups of people, like college or high school students, and give a whole bunch of tests; IQ tests, personality tests. I look at how they relate to each other, and what they related to in the real world.” He recently finished a study on personalities and abilities in creative people across the arts and sciences. “I am more interested in measuring these abilities and what it takes to achieve across lots of different people.”
He certainly doesn’t restrict himself when it comes to subject material; from prodigies to savants, autistics, schizophrenics, dyslexics and attention deficit diagnosed patients, Kaufman’s investigations run the gamut of unique minds. He believes that there are any number of ways to be intelligent and creative.
“I think everyone wants to express themselves,” Kaufman said. “If we don’t define creativity by one particular way of thinking, there are no non-creatives. If we define it as the ability to think divergently and come up with ideas, then yes, there are some that are better than others. A lot of people say autistics aren’t creative, but that’s not quite right; a lot of them see things in a different way. I don’t think it has to be this sort of divergent idea Lots of people can see things in different ways. Everybody has a personality, and core personality differences.”
Despite his interest in understanding how various types of people think, Kaufman believes educational institutions should avoid "tracking," and instead encourage unique ways of thinking. “I think we should have an educational system where we don’t do the labeling thing, and we allow kids to progress at their own rateand not feel like crap if they can’t do things."
Kaufman tries to put this ideal into practice. As chief science advisor to The Future Project, Kaufman takes part in a program that pairs mentorsor “future coaches”with students. Each student's goal is to get a message across to his peers and benefit the community in some way. According to Kaufman, hundreds of these projects have been completed, with all kinds of goals and subject matter. Some kids may channel their energies toward hip hop dancing, Kaufman explained, while others may have a mission to stop name calling and bullying. One notion is shared throughout: “Every single person has a passion."
For one former special ed student, that passion is to show the brilliance of everyone else.