Confessions of an academic over achiever

Emeritus professor Jim Flynn: ‘‘I still have things to do but, at 82, feel I have made some...
Emeritus professor Jim Flynn: ‘‘I still have things to do but, at 82, feel I have made some progress toward becoming a free man.’’ Photo: ODT.
Emeritus professor Jim Flynn is an overachiever. At 18 years of age he graduated from university; in his celebrated career at the University of Otago he has uncovered the massive inter-generational IQ gains now known worldwide as the Flynn Effect; and, at 82 he is still running several kilometres a week, publishing books and being invited to speak overseas.

 

Q  Why do you do what you do?

A I have always wanted to be a free man — an autonomous human being and that means a mind free of falsehood about the most important questions. I was a very devout Catholic as a child, and God (and heaven and hell) seemed to be the most important things in the universe. When I was about 11, I won an encyclopedia and read about how the universe may have needed no creator and how human beings had evolved. This seemed to me far more sensible than anything the Church had taught and when asked if I wanted to be a priest (at 12 you could go to a high school for priests), I declined until I had made up my mind. In a few years, I decided I was an atheist but now had to confront the question: if no commandments came from God, were my humane ethical principles just a matter of opinion. My greatest satisfaction has been clarifying these questions, and related questions like free will and the status of science, which took a long time.  In How to Defend Humane Ideals (2000) and Fate and Philosophy (2012, written to help non-specialists to see their way), I reached conclusions I could live with.

Along the way, I decided to try to live up to my humane ideals, whatever their status, and this meant opposing racial bias as the most obvious evil existent. I was a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chairman in the US South, which brought some physical risk (and being fired from my lectureship). I was also a Democratic Socialist and, after being fired in the North, came to New Zealand in 1963 at the age of 29 with my young family.

In 1979, when writing a book to defend the notion that blacks were equivalent to whites for genes for intelligence, I discovered the "Flynn effect": that people had made massive IQ gains over time. This threw the theory of intelligence into confusion (were we that much brighter than our ancestors?) and although I resented the time spent away from philosophy, I could not let the question drop until I had "solved" it.  Thus, I had a second career in psychology and published a series of four books mainly with Cambridge from 2007 to 2016.

By 2007, I was 73 and over the last 10 years decided to spend most of my time trying to clarify issues that mean the most (to me and others). These include why America has made such a mess of its foreign policy, how to get young people to start reading serious literature and history again (the two Torchlight books), how people can educate themselves to think critically in a way they were never asked to do at university (How to Improve Your Mind, 2012).  Most recently I published a little book on climate change (No Place to Hide) so lay people could look at the science behind it and see the need for dramatic action. I still have things to do but, at 82, feel I have made some progress toward becoming a free man. Writing these books and lecturing to my students (which I still do) is the greatest satisfaction of my professional life.

Q  Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

A The heads of the US, China, and Russia to talk about climate change.  Only when politicians cannot find a gathering in which their policies are considered even remotely acceptable will they change.  In the 19th century, this led to the abolition of the slave trade.

Q  What is your earliest memory?

A At 15 months, lying in the top bunk of a caravan, looking down at my brother standing below, and thinking how small he looked.  He said, "What are you looking at?" I can date it because it was the only time I was in a caravan.

Q  What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A To be either a theoretical physicist or a pure mathematician: because they seemed to pose the most difficult problems to solve.  By 17, I had decided this was too much like a chess grandmaster — no direct application to people — and that I would do political and moral philosophy.

Q  What is your most embarrassing moment?

A When a friend learned that I had betrayed a confidence. I felt inexcusably at fault.

Q  Property aside, what’s the most extravagant thing you’ve bought?

A lovely mosaic of the Madonna when in Rome — I still love it.  I do not really care about cars and clothes and games.

Q  Who would play you in the film of your life?

A Roger Bannister when young — he ran the first four-minute mile at Cambridge. He would have to play the part of someone who was not nearly as good. The theme would have to be my running career, my family, and my work. Who would want to see it?

Q  What is your guiltiest pleasure?

A Delusions of grandeur — I know I get more attention than I had ever hoped but always want more. To be fair, I would be happy if my ideas (rather than me) won the day.

Q  What would be your dream job?

A Beginning when I came to Otago in 1967, I have always had my dream job.

Q  What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

A If my family and friends and I were younger and had more time to be together — not remotely achievable.

Q  What keeps you awake at night?

A I dream mainly about my writing, still being a strong runner, and the sexual exploits of youth.

Q  What song would you like played at your funeral?

A Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody — the most beautiful piece I have ever heard.

Comments

Truly a great man!

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