Giftedness, personality, talent: On the connections between networked thinking and responsibility / Vít Kortus in conversation

Vít Kortus is a lecturer at the Studienstiftung and a historian doing his doctorate in the field of early modern Bohemian history. He studied history, art history and comparative modern history in Freiburg. Prior to his work in Bonn, he was the coordinator of the graduate school at the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” at the WWU Münster.

Vit, what fascinates you most about your job and working with gifted people?

What fascinates me are the different insights and perspectives that the gifted people offer me in a personal contact; that it gives me the chance to think outside the box. That enriches me a lot. I also like the fact that I can meet people who are burning for their cause because something is important to them. They are mostly people who think about other people and how they can help shape society, and who have the courage to take responsibility. I think it is a wonderful task to be able to help these people a little bit, to bring their talents and their gifts to bear, to cultivate them and to implement their ideas on a number of important issues of our present time. When you see all the skills that scholarship holders have and do – it’s phenomenal.

How and how do you recognise talent?

I think you can recognise talent by the ease with which you do something. What looks easy on the outside is generally not easy to do. Talent is the ability to make even difficult things look easy. That fascinates me. And what talent also needs is a stimulating and at the same time supportive environment – and that relates to the person himself: Diligence. I don’t believe that talent can work without diligence – and vice versa. When I am impressed, I often think of talent and say: the person is talented. Then it doesn’t matter what the talent refers to. You can have talent for everything.

Society often distinguishes between art and science. Would you say that there is also a connection and something unifying between art and science? How would you describe the connection?

I think what separates them is that science and art are measured differently. The connecting thing is that a society needs both and that neither is an end in itself. You can’t do without one or the other. Some sciences try to approach “truth”, some work with the concept of plausibility – and these two goals are a kind of yardstick against which scientific statements and their authors have to be measured. Society needs art because it is a way of expressing itself. Art holds up a mirror to society. That is why it is absolutely necessary to cultivate art. Perhaps the unifying factor is also the ability to reflect. But perhaps the connecting factor is also that both science and art train people to look at the world. Art in any case, because as a viewer you get involved. And science sharpens our view. And both art and science explain the world to us.

The Studienstiftung’s support for gifted students has a long tradition and has been aimed at school-leavers and students with above-average learning achievements for almost 100 years. How important is the ability to think in a networked way and to recognise connections when the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes selects scholarship holders?

We look at five dimensions in the selection process. One of the dimensions is cognitive abilities. I believe that the term cognitive abilities is not bound to something single or static over time, but that it is an ability and a process that is always changing. For example, cognitive ability was understood differently in 1925 than it is today, and it will be different again in 2030. This has to do with the structure of the world. Today’s world has become so complex that networked thinking is needed to at least somewhat master the complexity. The time when knowledge could be clearly assigned is clearly over; it seems to me that the appropriate approach to today’s world is that of interdisciplinarity Innovation arises from the process of networking: that is, recognising certain existing connections or opening up new connections that advance science and thinking in general. This is inherent in the metaphor: One has nodes that are interconnected. Sometimes you hear that different disciplines express themselves in fundamentally different languages that are incompatible with each other. But irritations can also be productive. Whether the connection holds can (and must) be proven with scientific methods – which drives a further scientific process.

In your opinion, what special personality traits do scholarship holders of the German National Academic Foundation possess?

We would like to see empathetic people join the Studienstiftung – people who are able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and accordingly also work for others because they have the skills to understand their points of view, their different social realities and starting points. It is also about the courage to take responsibility. It is about people who have the need to put their own abilities at the service of others and who feel the urge to always learn something new and understand their own life as a permanent increase in abilities. My hope is that they are also humorous and open-minded.

What colour comes to mind for giftedness and how would you describe giftedness?

Orange – gold – because I am influenced by the Studienstiftung’s logo. You have a gift for something. Giftedness always refers to a relatively clearly separated ability, a reality or an object. In my eyes, it’s the ease of grasping an object quickly. When you think of talent, you automatically think: ‘That person got something, that person was just lucky’. However, every talent can also remain unexploited, it can wither away without diligence and the right environment. You can call it diligence or cultivation – you have to do something with it in any case. It takes both the effort of the gifted person to make something out of it, and an environment that stimulates and challenges, supports and advances. Giftedness is like a muscle: if you don’t train the muscle, the performance decreases. Giftedness is not something static, but something dynamic and is always connected to the world. And what is also important: if you see giftedness as something given to you, you tend to ignore the responsibility that comes with it. The responsibility is the second side of the coin – and also the expectations that are placed on you. I often hear discussions about the concept of privilege – and no one talks about the expectations that the Studienstiftung places on the scholarship holders – and I find them immense.

What does wellbeing mean to you?

Wellbeing is a state that I would like to achieve. In my eyes, it is a state in which I – fortunately! – can’t be permanent, because wellbeing can usually be defined and appreciated as a contrast to unwellness. And it is a question of attitude to life. I don’t believe that wellbeing comes only from the outside, but that it is an interplay of two forces – forces from the outside and forces from within. It depends very much on the attitude to life with which one looks at reality.

You were born and raised in Vimperk in the Czech Republic and have lived in Germany since 2007. What do you love about and in your adopted home of Bonn? (Favourite places, favourite food, favourite activities)

The Rhine and the Rhenish cheerfulness. The Rhine is my absolute favourite place, and I really like the affection that you experience in the Rhineland. And I also like the sound of the language very much, as you can hear it in the Rhineland.

This interview was conducted in 2021 during the August Summer Academy of the German National Academic Foundation and the Max Weber Programme in Bad Staffelstein, where from 22-29 August 2021 Dr. Ines Klemm together with Dr. med. dent. Christian Tennert (PD) led the interdisciplinary working group “Nutrition, Architecture, Culture – How Food and Building Culture Influence Each Other”.

The joy of the scholarship holders and speakers was palpably great that they could finally work, think and laugh together again in the presence of others. The academies have a long tradition in the promotion of gifted students and also enjoy a very special status among all participants because they offer opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange. The intensive time spent together forms the basis of many research communities, friendships and relationships that accompany one throughout life – professionally and privately.

The Studienstiftung is the oldest foundation for the promotion of gifted students in Germany, whose patron is the Federal President. It is independent of political parties and religion and has been supporting highly gifted students since 1925/1948. “Its purpose is to promote the higher education of young people whose high scientific or artistic talent is expected to render special service to society.” The Regional Group Switzerland has almost 1000 members, with a strong concentration in the Zurich area. In addition to alumni, about 100 active scholarship holders are also affiliated with the network in Zurich (ETH, University).

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