Hundreds of 3000-year-old tablets, remnants of the thriving Minoan civilization, were discovered on the Mediterranean island of Crete in 1900 by British archaeologist Arthur Evans. The script on the tablets resisted decipherment for over 50 years until British architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris earned the title “The Man Who Deciphered Linear B” when he finally cracked the code in 1952. Ventris’ insight followed decades of relentless and staggeringly tedious work by Classics professor Alice Kober whose death just two years earlier had cut short her quest to understand the script, and his breakthrough would not have been possible without her work.
New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox highlights Kober’s role in the story in her book, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.
The decipherment provides a fascinating example of the question of prodigy versus process. Malcolm Gladwell resists the traditional image of a “genius”—the one Ventris projected, a brilliant eccentric with hair askew who bursts from his study and exclaims, “Darling, I found it!”—as the only one, or even the most important one. He describes the need for a “modern” type of genius, claiming that “the kind of challenges that we face now are so complex that we need to adjust our time frame for discovery” and adopt “a new set of attributes, chief among them the ability to work hard and to extract joy and satisfaction from that kind of hard work.”
Ventris was a “traditional” genius, but his deductive leaps were built upon and dependent on the years of painstaking work performed by Alice Kober, who is a model for Gladwell’s “modern” genius.
Most importantly, Gladwell says, when it comes to public education, “you can create environments where people will flourish…not by selecting out who we think of as the brightest kids but by promising every kid, ‘Come in and we’ll make you better.'” He says, “If you put people in the right context, they can do extraordinary things” and maybe become the modern type of genius, rather than waiting around for the next Einstein or Shakespeare to show up.