The Stigma of Genius

Einstein, Consciousness and Critical Education, Second Edition

by Shirley Steinberg (Author) Joe L. Kincheloe (Author) Edmund Adjapong (Author) Deborah J. Tippins (Author)
Textbook XXXII, 252 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 111


In The Stigma of Genius: Einstein, Consciousness and Critical Education, we muse over ways in which to be, to become and to recognize uniqueness and different paths to genius. Understanding there is no prescribed procedure, we determine multiple actions, means and measures with which we recognize and teach to genius, we look at Einstein’s life and knowledges to connect our pedagogies and students. Today’s schools often exemplify an inability to stimulate and encourage students to find passion, goals and reasons to be educated. Many public school students do not succeed, they are disengaged, discouraged, and failing. Teachers are exhausted and overworked and lack respect and administrative support in districts controlled by local and national politics. Using Einstein as an example, but also a metaphor for educators, The Stigma of Genius is straight talk about the needs for schools/teachers/administrators/students to become critically and contextually aware. We argue for an education which is conscious of students’ needs and the nuances within each school and each classroom. Discussing cognition, classes, urban education and diversity, we have attempted to circle back to Einstein and understand ways to support and encourage today’s geniuses.

Table Of Content

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On Diamonds and The Stigma of Genius


I have come to believe that genius is a social construct. Genius depends on who is identifying and naming it and where the person that has the power to name it comes from. Folks with power will always see genius in those who remind them of themselves. It is a way to lay claim to the title even if they know they are not geniuses themselves. The powerful thing to note in the naming of genius is that when someone has the power to name it, they also have the power to name who does not have it. It is in the perception of who is or isn’t genius that the story of Einstein becomes such a powerful one. His relationship to schools and schooling, his entanglement with politicians and governments, and his role in both endorsing and expanding science teaches us about both the nature and stigma of genius.

I’ve always thought that genius was in the hands. I see it in the effortless grip of a basketball by someone defying gravity and elevating towards a basketball hoop. The grip of a microphone by a rapper right before her voice pierces the air and touches the soul or the tender healing touch of a mother. I also know that those forms of genius have been made not to count in a world where a certain type of relationship with mathematics and the use of words with multiple syllables has been made to denote genius. Under this flawed view of genius, conceptual understandings of mathematics innate to the urban experience and the bending, pulling and shrinking of words that are part of hip-hop performance get dropped. This is ←ix | x→why Edmund Adjapong’s addition to this already masterful text is so important. It is in the stretching of perceptions of genius that allow Einstein to be connected to Eminem and Neil deGrasse Tyson to sit with Nas that allows the world to unpack the stigma of genius and discover its innerworkings. This unpacking is the way that we allow geniuses that haven’t been named as such to begin to pick up the elements of their magic that the world has told them to drop.

If a people who have always been told they have nothing of worth were given a gift of a priceless diamond at birth, how can they be convinced that they are worthless or hold nothing of value? The answer is quite simple. They have to be convinced by every force they come in contact with that the diamond / the genius they hold is valueless and that something of exponentially more value lies not within them, but beyond them. Schooling is the facilitator of this conniving convincing of those who hold genius to let it go. It is a system where folks who do not have the diamond have developed a set of well-designed obstacles for those who do by convincing them that embarking on the course will garner something more valuable than what they already have. It is a process of manipulating people to navigate obstacles not designed for them in a century old marketing scheme that denies their humanity and convinces them that their gifts are curses. Naturally hardworking and resilient people are called lazy and weak as they travail through a 12-year, 16-year or even 20+ year course to nowhere; only to discover at the end of the journey that it was all a farce. Or worse, to get to the end of the obstacle course holding on to piles of fool’s gold handed to them on the journey while the diamond they possessed at the beginning was dropped along the course. By the time that the realization comes that they may have lost something of value, it is too late to return to the course and search for it. They complete the course and now stand on equal footing with the children of those who designed the course – each with fool’s gold that signifies completion. The obstacle course proved to be a “great equalizer” but not in a way that benefits those who had something to begin with. Instead, it places those who didn’t have genius to begin with in the same position as those who learned to let their genius go. At the end of the game, genius will still be named and claimed among those who never had it. Expertise in some arbitrary dimension will get some without a natural gift to get named as genius while those who always had the gift are left with self-doubt.

Einstein’s life tells us a story of the burying of genius. His life experience is the story of being marginalized, being seen as inferior, and being defined as something other than who you are. Einstein’s experience is a narrative that gives a thin slice of the essence of the Black experience. Their genius is developed from a perfect combination of historical marginalization and challenging socioeconomic conditions. They have a genius level of resilience activated from struggle. This is ←x | xi→why I drew a comparison between diamonds and genius in the paragraph above. Diamonds come from billions of years of heat and pressure that causes carbon atoms to crystallize and create something seen as precious as genius. Genius comes from hundreds of years of historical oppression, socioeconomic disadvantage, colonialism, slavery, and police brutality at the type of intense pressure that creates diamonds. The ingredients for genius -the carbon atoms that make the genius of youth of color and the hip-hop generation were formed years before the present generation ever existed. Just as dead trees get buried underground become coal and then diamonds, indigenous bodies in the Americas and the Caribbean who underwent both physical and soul death at the hand of slave masters and institutions like schools were buried and are resurrected through this present generation.

The saying “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds” holds deep meaning for today’s hip-hop youth. Their ancestors who were literally buried were seeds that transfigured themselves into trees that emerged from the ground with thick trunks and wide stretched branches like the arms of young people who protested oppression in the 1960’s, like their ancestors did. Those young people- those trees from buried seeds were chopped down and reburied in schools for decades and now, something new emerges. The buried seeds became trees, the chopped down trees got reburied, they underwent pressure and heat and turned into coal and then the carbon from the coal became diamonds. We cannot allow our young people to drop their diamonds on the obstacle course of school. When we drop our diamonds, we drop our ancestors, their lives and their stories. The dropping of our diamonds is to lose sight of our magic. It is this process that is the stigma of genius

“We talk about historical trauma,” noted Russell Eagle Bear, the historic-preservation officer of the Sioux as he described the effort to return the bodies of Native children who died at the Carlisle school. “A hundred and thirty years later, this still has an impact on our youth. We’re trying to make peace with those spirits and bring them home.”

Embracing our ratchet is bringing our ancestor spirits alive and back home. It is reclaiming our lost energy.

Christopher Emdin is a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a social critic, public intellectual and science advocate whose commentary on issues of race, culture, inequality and education appear globally. The founder of Science Genius, he spends a great deal of time dedicated to working in urban school science programs. His NY Times bestselling book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (2017: Beacon) is followed by Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Excellence (2020: Beacon). #hiphoped

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On Genius … an update


Oscar Wilde wrestled with being labeled a genius, he ridiculed his own talents and eschewed those who were considered geniuses or assumed themselves to be one. Wilde appreciated genius was a chattel so when questioned by customs after landing in New York, he quipped, “I have nothing to declare by my genius,” recognizing his destitute condition while acknowledging his only identifiable commodity. Indeed, the notion of genius has been perverted in our post-postmodern era, where the declaration of one’s own genius has become de riguer for doltish politicians and leaders. In the case of this book, we will continue to assume that exceptionality and creativity still contribute to genius. We have added new chapters to the book, including Edmund Adjapong’s discussion of Science Genius, a program created to bring out genius in urban classrooms.

Malcolm Gladwell (2008) contends that his notion of outlier must achieve 10,000 hours in order to succeed, to become gifted, a genius … more than competent in any task/challenge/role. Said outliers require at least this amount of practice in order to achieve that exceptionality and creativity. In our commodified, digitized, device-obsessed society, those 10,000 hours are more than appropriate for a population which continues to devolve … the iceberging of society has melted us into numerically quantifying genius. What happens at the 10,001st hour? What are genius credentials? Who is measuring the post 10,000th hour? Name of the testing firm? Who administers the first genius hour?

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In The Stigma of Genius: Einstein, Consciousness, and Critical Education, Second Edition, we muse over ways in which to be, to become, to recognize uniqueness and different paths to genius. Understanding that there is no prescribed procedure, but only multiple actions, means, measures in which to recognize or teach to genius, we look at Einstein’s life and knowledges to connect our pedagogies and students. In the 1980s, Joe L. Kincheloe spent hours, days, weeks pouring over the Albert Einstein House papers in Princeton, New Jersey. Kincheloe understood that the notion of context was essential in placing Einstein’s genius. While working on the research, he recognized that Einstein and genius were not usual topics in schooling, on the contrary, Einstein is most notably a one trick wonder, a calculation, a t-shirt, a clock, a mug to many pedagogues. Decades later, we still see few references to Albert and fewer to genius and the possibilities of genius lying dormant in our students. I do understand those 10,000 hours can be a goal, a concrete mark … what I don’t comprehend is our inability to encourage and extend students to find the passion, to seek a goal. Our students are not succeeding, many are failing, most are discouraged and disenfranchised … and those are the privileged ones. We swirl in an underworld of mandated consistency: curriculum indecision, instructional design hell, punitive standards, inadequate administrators, and combat-weary teachers. Climbing to the top are those kids whose parents can afford to finance the 10,000 hours, however, I’m not sure many of them become genius, even at 20,000 hours. Genius cannot be quantified or purchased. And other kids, the Black, Brown, poor, Indigenous, refugee, queer kids … how can we help them ascend, to aspire genius? Our students need tentative, living pedagogies, contextualized lifeworlds, cultural relevant classrooms, to discover where they can go. We hope that this book will bring our readers past the kitsch t-shirts, and consider the importance of multiple unified, critical, democratic educations and ways of knowing.

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Oscar Wilde

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Rubber Sheets, Bowling Ball, and BBs—Interconnectedness and a New Consciousness


Einstein often used the notion of a rubber sheet stretched over a baking dish to explain the complex notion of space. When a bowling ball or a bb is placed on it, the sheet is bent or warped around the objects. This distortion exemplifies what massive objects such as the sun or the moon do to the fabric of space. This is one of the basic concepts of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The rubber sheet is flat when no objects are placed upon it; Einstein referred to this as the absence of gravity. When the bowling ball depresses the sheet, the curvature around the depression represents a gravitational field. A bb rolled along the sheet will fall into the trough just as an asteroid will fall to Earth if it gets too close to its gravitational field. We saw the movie, Armageddon; we know what we’re talking about. The more massive the object the greater the bending of space. The bowling ball will distort the sheet more than the bb.


XXXII, 252
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
metaphor scholarship cognition biography failure
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XXXII, 252 pp.

Biographical notes

Shirley Steinberg (Author) Joe L. Kincheloe (Author) Edmund Adjapong (Author) Deborah J. Tippins (Author)

Shirley R. Steinberg lives with the knowledge that she is not a genius. She has done about 500 hours in music, 1000 hours in foreign languages and is convinced she will never get 10,000 hours of anything. Originally a drama teacher, she took a radical left turn to complete a doctorate based on the criticalizing of media using bricolage, a philosophical research methodology she refined with Joe Kincheloe. Expanding her idea of pedagogy into cultural studies, her work blends the critical with the pedagogical and cultural. The author and editor of many books and articles, her research interests have generated (often with Kincheloe) Critical Multiculturalism, Christotainment, Kinderculture, and Postformal thinking. As Research Professor of Critical Youth Studies at the University of Calgary, she engages local, national and global community work with and for youth, refugees, immigrants and other disenfranchised groups. Joe L. Kincheloe was the Canada Research Chair of Critical Pedagogy at McGill University in Montreal. Born in the mountains of Tennessee, he was raised to recognize inequities within society and became the humble champion for the oppressed. Originally a junior high social studies teacher, his intuitions about the positivist nature of education were confirmed when he read Pedagogy of the Oppressed. After completing his graduate degrees, his first position was on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, probably his most rewarding job. After several appointments in the US, he moved to Canada to (in his words) escape Bush’s presidency. The author of 60 books and hundreds of articles, he is to be remembered as a rock n’ roll musician, father, partner and sincere friend to many. His work continues to influence, as does the work of Paulo Freire, mentor and friend, to whom Joe attributed the notion of Radical Love. Edmund Adjapong is Assistant Professor of Education at Seton Hall University and a faculty fellow at The Institute for Urban and Multicultural Education at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of #HipHopEd: The Compilation on Hip-Hop Education Volume 1. Edmund is a former middle school science educator at a New York City public school in The Bronx. He is the director of the Science Genius Program, a program that engages urban students in the sciences through Hip-hop, and the director of The Science Genius Academy, a program that encourages and prepares students to pursue STEM careers while providing mentoring and support. Deborah J. Tippins is Professor of Education at the University of Georgia. She is the author of numerous books and articles and an international Fellow, a Lilly Teaching Fellow and member of the Teaching Academy at UGA. She is a recipient many awards, including several for innovations in science. She has been a Fulbright Scholar and works in community-based science education.


Title: The Stigma of Genius