Six years after the program stopped filming, the format has been resurrected in a slightly altered form by another studio, as Hidden Talents. Instead of finding interesting individuals and training them up, this series starts off with the potentially pseudo-scientific notion of taking hundreds of applicants and putting them through a series of exams to discover their "hidden talents" and then pick the best ones to show on the programme.
I came across this as one episode has been mentioned on a couple of language websites, what with it being based on a "hidden talent" for languages. Now I'm not convinced that they stuck to the exam results, because the guy they finally chose had a particularly tellie-friendly back story -- he left high school without doing any A-levels and was living in a homeless shelter. Now of course I'm not saying that he wasn't capable and that he didn't get high marks on the exam (he probably did) but I just find it hard to believe that they didn't play a little bit fast and loose with the figures to get the guy they wanted on screen.
Now I've seen a couple of language aptitude tests in the past, and I'm not particularly impressed. As with all tests, they can only test your current level of knowledge and not really your ability to be taught. The most thorough language tests will try to get you to deal with concepts like conjugation, declension and word order without explanation. So it says you'll pick up the initial concept pretty quickly. So what? Does the saving of half-an-hour at the start of the course make that much difference in the long term? Is the language test putting off people who would actually do just as well in the long run as those that pass? It's impossible to say, because for the most part, the people that run these tests only have data for those that passed in the first place. (If anyone knows of any blind study that's given any empirical evidence for language batteries, I'd be very interested, but I doubt any exist.)
This is OK if you're running the US Defense Language Institute, where the number of applicants vastly outstrips the number of places available as they can afford to turn lots of possibly good candidates away -- heck, they really have to turn lots of possibly good candidates away.
It's also OK if you're producing a programme like Hidden Talents, because you only need one.
However, it's a horrible message to be sending out -- that people have specific talents. On the surface it seems like a positive message (when everything goes wrong, it's just that you haven't found your talent) but it's actually pretty corrosive. How many people give up on languages and say "I haven't got the head for languages" or "I'm no good at languages"? People genuinely believe that they are inherently incapable of learning languages, with no real evidence, and it gives them an excuse to give up.
If talents exist, we still have no way of genuinely identifying them. Furthermore, these talent characteristics are miniscule compared to the potential for education. A 16-year-old coming out of a 21st century school knows almost as much about the world about them as some of the top scholars of the ancient world, and that's all down to education. As the old phrase has it, most of us are nothing more than "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants".
Isaac Newton did not invent this phrase -- here's the original citation for the phrase (taken from Wikipedia)
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.
Now, whenever I say there's no such thing as talent, someone always mentions sportsmen and physical pursuits. I could claim it's a bad analogy, but actually, I don't think it is.
International competition sports can only be won by one individual (or team) out of the billions in the world, so yes, the most physically gifted generally win... if the training and equipment is equal.
But what if the training and equipment isn't equal?
I apologise for repeating myself, but I've used the example of marathons in a previous post. The reason I'm repeating myself, though, is that it was in the comments section, so people may well have missed it.
The marathon: one of the great challenges of distance running. And yet there are now people who run the length of six marathons in six days...in the Sahara desert! And that's not to mention finishing times. In the first modern Olympic Games (ooh, topical!) in 1896, the marathon was won by Spiridon Louis, in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. As I said previously, in the 2011 London marathon, 939 people beat his time. The world record for the marathon currently stands at 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds (Haile Gebrselassie). How much of these improvements is down to better training regimes and better race-day nutrition? How much is down to choice of footwear?
Overall, the lion's share of skill in any field appears to be teachable. The talented will always be "best", but only by a whisker.
We can all be "good at" anything, as long as we don't expect to be the best. After all, out of 7 billion people, it's pretty much impossible to be "best" at anything.
PS. Sorry I haven't progressed with the study of novels. I was with family at the weekend, and I never got my momentum back afterwards. I'm travelling at the weekend as I'm starting a new job on Monday. If the weather's bad where I am, I might make some progress in the evenings. Otherwise, I'll be out exploring.