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March Madness!


March Madness is a display of utter brilliance!

“Of course,” you say, but I don’t mean what you may think.

When speaking to various groups about education over the years, I would often interject a bit about multiple intelligences. While not important that anyone subscribe to the specific theories of Howard Gardner or others, it is essential to break the chokehold that mathematical and linguistic abilities have on our cultural beliefs about intelligence and, therefore, on human worth.

Imagine, I would suggest, a great basketball player taking an inbounds pass and beginning a trip down the court. She has already assessed the physical properties of the ball, court and arena during warmups. As she begins to dribble, she chooses the precise direction and force with which to propel the sphere toward the floor. She predicts exactly how and where the ball will rebound, moving her hand there to meet it and propel it once more, sometimes with spin, incorporating that variable into the lightening quick calculations.

She does this equally well with either hand, sometimes behind the back or between the legs, never looking directly at the ball. While performing this breathtaking set of movements, she is watching nine other players, observing their positions on the court, direction of movement and pace in order to plot a course to avoid them. All of this unfolds at breakneck speed, constantly shifting and changing. She approaches the basket, avoids defenders, leaps upward and forward, shifting the ball from one hand to the other, and slams the ball through the rim, having calculated the exact trajectory and speed needed to dunk the ball.

The number of accurate physical calculations involved in this one, short piece of action, is nearly incalculable. While the body executes, it is the brain performing these absolutely stunning cognitive tasks. Designing software with this kind of fluid intelligence would be nearly impossible.

We are understandably inclined to view great athletes through the physical lens alone. But it is remarkable intelligence – most notably visual-spatial and bodily-kinesthetic – that differentiates the best from the rest. This brilliance is as important as mathematical or linguistic facility, but our culture dismisses it as “athleticism,” to be enjoyed, but not fully appreciated.

We all know those who have a special ability: a musician with “perfect pitch” who can also reproduce a complex melody after hearing it only once; an architect who can look at a blueprint and see the finished building in precise detail; a friend whose capacity for empathy can make life painful at times; an artist who can convey indescribable beauty in a few brushstrokes; a naturalist who senses the living world with such acuity that she devotes her life to saving it.

I recall Thomas West, author of In the Mind’s Eye, describing a young man with severe dyslexia, who earned a great living in the microchip industry, despite having no formal training or education in the field. After the Ph.D. engineers finished a schematic design, he would study it and tell them where the bottlenecks were. He was nearly infallible.

Years ago, when working at Landmark College, a school for students with learning differences, I watched young women and men unlock their creative writing gifts through the medium of dance.

Any educator worth his salt knows that presenting concepts of any kind using multiple senses deepens understanding. Language is auditory and visual. Mathematics is tactile. The more cognitive and physical dimensions offered, the more likely that any particular student will grasp the notion. This becomes even more crucial if one accounts for the dazzling array of different intelligences present in every classroom. It is educational malpractice to assume that the “traditional” ways of teaching and learning are sufficient.

I invite you to reflect on things that bring great wonder and beauty into your own life. I doubt that they are exclusively the product of those with great SAT scores or winners of spelling bees.

Gotta go. I’m off to watch some of the most intelligent humans on the planet.




Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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