Is there a more melancholy poem in the English language than Thomas Gray’s 1751 “Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard”? Hugely popular even before its publication, Gray’s “Elegy” is spoken by a wanderer who notes the humble tombstones of a lonely village and wonders what undiscovered talents lived and died there, forever unknown to the world:
Maybe in this neglected place is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, which the rod of empire could have swung,
Or awakened in ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge in their eyes its ample page
Rich from the spoils of time never unfolded;
Chill Penury suppressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Much of what we do in higher education is to prevent such tragedies – to ensure that future artists and leaders are not overlooked or undervalued because they live or work out of the way” tradition” that guides young people to our doors. We strive to attract, nurture and retain students, faculty, staff and administrators. We look for qualities such as motivation, focus, drive, thoughtfulness and brilliance. In the current higher education jobs crisis, with an increasing number of people considering leaving, I find myself particularly keen to retain those with enthusiasm and spark.
The word ‘talent’ used in a broad sense does not have much relevance in higher education, except as a modifier of a specific set of skills, such as ‘talented debater’ or ‘talented violinist’. “Gifted” is the favorite word in science. But as the dean of a top research university, I find I think about talent all the time, looking at the qualities that make a great department head or program director (which have more to do with leadership than with academic discipline). I constantly note how an energetic and enthusiastic department administrator can increase student success – and wonder how to hire and promote for it – and I closely examine what characteristics indicate that an individual has something special and unique to contribute to a mission.
I was prompted to think more specifically about talent by the new book by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross Talent: how to identify energisers, creatives and winners around the world (Saint-Martin Press, 2022). Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University (and renowned public intellectual), and Gross, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, argue that finding and developing talent is a matter urgency of social justice. “We have come to regard the world’s failure to find and mobilize enough talent as one of the most significant failures of our time,” they proclaim.
Thomas Gray’s poem comes to mind right here. For those of us who believe that discovering and cultivating talent is a fundamental goal of higher education, taking lessons in how talent is crafted and perceived by successful entrepreneurs can offer new insights and perhaps pathways that we in academia can communicate to our students.
“Talent hunting is a fundamentally optimistic business, based on the principle that there is always more value to be found in our world,” observe Cowen and Gross. Yet, training and creative skills are needed to recognize talent. And if there are talented people around the world who are tragically unsuited to their jobs, the various assessment metrics of large numbers of people – standard hiring tools like Meyers Briggs, the Caliper profile, test scores standardized exams, civil service exams or the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery – does not work to sufficiently or effectively spot talent and suggest a better-suited path. The authors suggest that good talent spotters might look for traits beyond those in the Five Factor Theory (neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness) and look for traits such as endurance, self-improvement , robustness, generativity, happiness, clutter (surrounded by elements and books that strength be useful), earliness, stickiness and other original ideas. That’s good advice.
Much of my academic work over the past quarter century has been to reclaim and celebrate long-lost talents, primarily among enslaved women and men in the pre-war American South who managed to nurture their creative spark and create a legacy that demonstrates immense talent and resilience. . Think of Hannah Crafts, whose novel, The servant’s story composed in her head as she endured untold abuse under slavery for the first decades of her life, was written in freedom in the 1860s, lost for over a century, and finally published in 2002. Think Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, a New York teacher who traveled south after the Civil War to teach newly emancipated children and wrote spirited letters about her experiences for several newspapers before she died tragically young. I also think of Nat Turner, the daring leader of a bloody and failed slave revolt in North Carolina in 1833, who mentions in passing while in prison awaiting execution that as a child he stole previews of free children’s school books and spent valuable free time “experimenting by casting different things in clay molds, trying to make paper, gunpowder and many other experiments”.
Imagine a world in which the energies of Crafts, Highgate and Turner could have been better “tuned” to a growing nation and nurtured accordingly. What would such a world have looked like? For Frederick Douglass, whose prodigious talents were spotted early on by his slaveholders and by the abolitionist community after his flight north, the paradigm worked, as it did for Aretha Franklin, because the authors of Talent notes, spotted early on by talent scout John Hammond.
But getting noticed isn’t easy for many people. In the world of technology, women, people with disabilities and some underrepresented minorities are not always spotted by men for their entrepreneurial skills. There is “a rather limited range of behaviors authorized for women in the professional context”, Talent the authors acknowledge. Women, for example, need to navigate and display appropriate levels of charm, enthusiasm and assertiveness in interviews – presumably with men.
Standardized practices can now protect vulnerable people. (Former professors remember the infamous MLA interview horror stories of female candidates answering questions atop a hotel bed surrounded by male interviewers.) the world. My mind goes to Maria Beasley, the prolific 19th century inventor of barrel and life raft manufacturing technology who continually applied for and was granted patents for her inventions. I think of Harriet Tubman, whose bravery, creativity and exceptional physical stamina might not have been predicted in a sit-down desk conversation.
As a scholar also of the emergence of civil service bureaucracies in the 19th century, I know that red tape and highly regulated systems were necessary to level the playing field, from inherited privilege to some semblance of talent identification based on merit, however imperfect. Being judged on the merits might have helped the fictional George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1851. The young man was finally driven to flee his slavery when his owner punished him for brazenly inventing something new. “What business had his slave to walk the country, invent machines, and stand his head among the gentlemen?” Stowe’s point was that Harris’ talents cannot be rewarded in a system that refuses to see some people as also having super-talent potential. But the downside of bureaucratic processes that prevent bigotry and bad intentions from rejecting candidates doesn’t help hiring managers develop a knack for spotting talent.
Why is it important to keep an eye on talent? There is perhaps no higher purpose for college and university leaders than to raise the aspirations of potentially talented people who underestimate themselves. I agree with Cowen and Gross that being seen as talented is the antidote to the much-talked-about crisis of confidence among young people (and perhaps middle-aged people as well). “When you raise an individual’s aspirations, you’re essentially tilting that person’s achievement curve upwards for the rest of their life,” they state. In my work as Dean, this objective is important not only for students but also for staff who have sometimes had the most circuitous paths to a career in higher education. Talent isn’t about degrees and credentials, although those stamina counters – which they are – are still useful.
Talent is indeed a crowded list that includes stamina, self-improvement, toughness, stickiness, and sometimes just a spark that makes a person stand out unexpectedly. I find myself in a new position noticing the spark more than anything else. And so I’m driven to throw shortcuts and spend time listening and trying to discern a spark. I urge everyone in a hiring position, inside or outside of higher education, to think broadly, beyond our own perspective. Such an enlargement is urgent to avoid tragic discrepancies so that “the heart[s] once pregnant with celestial fire” does not remain indifferent.