A few weeks ago, one of my students, Mona, wrote an essay about how, at age four, she was pulled out of school because other students didn’t want to play with her due to her lack of athleticism. “I don’t remember the exact incident,” she said, “but after that, I learned to be content with my own company. I’m really grateful to my parents for showing me how to be happy by myself. Anyway, that school didn’t really teach anything except sports and playing stuff.”
Mona is 12 now, and while I meet her weekly, she is completing an undergraduate degree in Economics at a local university in Bangkok. Still, she spends most of her time learning at home. “Do you have tutors, or do your parents set up a curriculum for you to follow?” I asked. She laughed and said, “Well…I can read, you know. I mostly just teach myself.”
Her uniform of frilly socks, frocks, and pigtails, typically replete with ribbons and rhinestone clips, belie the topics of her essays: taxation systems in South America, the biology of fingernails, various applications of the golden ratio. Her precociousness, coupled with her politeness, sometimes make me forget she’s a pre-teen, until she breaks the spell by saying something like, “I’ll be allowed to paint my nails next year.” She told me she’s on a diet, because she needs to lose a few kilos (she appears to have a perfectly normal BMI for a 12-year-old), and when I once asked her to write me a story, she was taken aback. “I’ve never written fiction…do I just make things up? Can I write a biography instead? That might be more useful.”
Her uniform of frilly socks, frocks, and pigtails, belie the topics of her essays: taxation systems in South America, the biology of fingernails, various applications of the golden ratio.
Mona’s parents, both doctors, asked me to teach her how to write essays well, because once her course is complete in 2021, she wants to pursue a postgrad degree in History in the UK. I can’t help but wonder how she’ll socialize with British university students at the tender age of 15. Sure, she’s exceptionally bright; she’s been playing Bach on the piano since she was toilet-trained, and reads textbooks for fun. Still, her classmates will be knocking back pints at the pub at noon with their professors, while she orders herself a (diet) soda and wonders what on earth is going on. Moreover, even though she’s clearly gifted in areas like mathematics and music, and her mind is keen and curious, her essay-writing is still somewhat juvenile; that may suffice for a degree in Economics in Thailand, but she needs plenty of prep before she can even consider tackling a Master’s abroad.
History is rife with child prodigies: Blaise Pascal, Pablo Picasso, Juana Ines de la Cruz, Srinivasa Ramanujan…the list goes on, and the ones we remember are only the ones who remained remarkable into adulthood. The Terman Study of the Gifted, which followed the lives of 1,500 child prodigies, showed that most of these wunderkinder fade into obscurity over time, often working white-collar or even blue-collar jobs as they get older; many face mental health problems. While people may be obsessed with that six-year-old piano virtuoso on Ellen, and hope he’ll become the next Mozart, it rarely happens that way. So the big question is, how do we give prodigies better chances of success in the future? Is leapfrogging regular school systems a good idea?
It’s important to note that prodigies are largely nurtured to be that way. Even a math genius must be taught numbers and existing rules or theorems, and no violin virtuoso came out of the womb brandishing their instrument. From the very beginning, genius is a joint venture between children and their parents. That’s not to say there isn’t an innate aspect: while it was found that a high IQ isn’t necessary to be a prodigy, psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz found that every single prodigy had a better working memory, which is dynamic rather than static recall, than 99% of the population. The Latin root word, prodigium, means sign or portent, indicating that the child is thought to display some exceptional skill or ability from the get-go. These omens must then be cultivated into something more; the psychological definition of prodigy dictates that a child must produce adult-level output by the age of 10, usually in a field with rule-based systems like mathematics or music.
Hungarian education pioneer László Polgár believed that prodigies could be created. He married with the purpose of having children that would prove his point, and sure enough, he had three daughters who became world-renowned chess masters, with Judit, the youngest, widely considered to be the best female chess player of all time, to this day. They were homeschooled by their parents, who had a rigorous and pointed curriculum set up with chess as the focus and math and languages as supplemental subjects. This is a homeschooling success story, but there are several unusual factors. First, both parents were entirely devoted to educating their children; most parents work other jobs. Second, the fact that all three sisters, with only small age gaps separating them, were taught the same things together saved them from experiencing the isolation of not being around other children, and ensured their emotional development. Third, the family frequently faced anti-Semitic and sexist backlash, bringing them closer to each other in a protective family unit, so there was little resentment and competition was constructive. Fourth, the family travelled to over 40 countries together for chess competitions, giving the girls experiences and perspectives unusual for children of their age.
The Polgár sisters
In a 2012 interview, Judit said, “With other prodigies it might be different. It is very fragile. But I’m happy that with me and my sisters it didn’t turn out in a bad way.” Sufiah Yusof, another hothouse prodigy, was admitted to Oxford University at 13 to read Mathematics. Her father Farooq was also regarded an educational pioneer — when his daughter got into Oxford, he boasted that he would produce “more Sufiahs.” However, his abusive personality led Sufiah to attempt suicide twice at 11, and in her twenties, she became an escort. While there’s nothing wrong with the profession, as she chose it and enjoyed it, it was certainly not an outcome her family imagined. It resulted from a traumatic childhood, which she described as a “living hell.” In this case the caretaker of the prodigy was not listening to her; he was overriding her completely.
Homeschooling is dicey because it is deeply dependent on the parent-child relationship; there has to be mutual respect for any chance of success. It allows the prodigy time and space to specialize in whatever field they are interested in, but unless handled carefully, it severely limits their social circle, it burdens them with the weight of expectation, and it often leaves them with massive holes in their knowledge. John Stuart Mill, who was an experiment of his father, James, and utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was taught physics, economics, history, Latin, and Greek. He became one of the world’s leading economists at 18, and then suffered a nervous breakdown two years later. He was able to heal through the arts: poetry, literature and music, which he hadn’t experienced as a child, pulled him out.
John Stuart Mill
This is one of my worries about Mona, with her childhood devoid of fiction: her creativity is stunted, which bars her from discovering entire swathes of human emotion and inventiveness. The problem with child genii is that they tend towards closed subjects that provide them clear steps to success. They learn to remember and regurgitate, but not often to venture into uncharted territory. With chess, there may be 10^120 possible games playable, but each turn allows only a finite number of moves; it is orderly and therefore winnable. Rather than raising precocious kids as party-trick machines, it’s vital to encourage a breadth of learning, with open-ended questions to prompt them to apply their skills to new situations. Homeschooled Laura Deming, venture capitalist and modern-day alchemist, became interested in the biology of aging at eight, and four years later she had joined a lab at the University of California San Francisco to work on longevity. She continues to succeed, perhaps due to the open-ended problem she wants to answer. One wonders if she could have conceived such a question without some fictional inspiration.
Breadth of curriculum is one of the great advantages of sending kids to school. Although Deming was able to explore a variety of subjects for herself, most homeschooled prodigies plunge deep into their specialties, usually in longstanding fields with the distinct possibility of mastery. While many of these children do go to university early on, again, their curricula are narrow and so are their social circles; they may even feel pressure to accelerate their maturity by engaging in drugs and sex, like their peers. Working with a professor or a group of adults does have its merits: prodigies find scope in their fields they didn’t know existed, they encounter perspectives nuanced with the years of experience they lack, and of course, they understand that while they excel in their areas, they may not be the best out there. Deming certainly wouldn’t have made the leaps and strides she did without collaborative work with much older mentors and colleagues.
Still, the benefits of working with peers your own age can’t be overlooked. Just like doing yoga can leave you with sore muscles where you didn’t know muscles existed, being in a school setting goes far beyond the subjects taught. It is escaping an echo chamber. You learn humility towards your teachers, respect for classmates who excel in other areas, collaboration, and leadership techniques; you begin to recognize different strengths in people, like organizational skills, resilience, and determination. You even learn to withstand some teasing, recover from disappointment, or do things you really don’t want to. These skills are often more important than mastering facts and figures. Physical and emotional development are intertwined with intellectual growth. Although school-going prodigies have a penchant for skipping grades, I wonder how much they should be able to bypass.
Just like doing yoga can leave you with sore muscles where you didn’t know muscles existed, being in a school setting goes far beyond the subjects taught.
In his book A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism, Alston Chase described how Ted Kaczynski was considered well-adjusted up till he skipped sixth grade. Kaczynski himself described this as a pivotal moment in his life: he went from a sociable boy, a leader in his grade, to a bullied misfit. He left soon after for Harvard, where his behavior got increasingly erratic, and was worsened by his participation in an intense, three-year long psychological study. Over time, he became a Luddite, resistant to technological change. While living as a hermit, a road was built through a plateau near his cabin, and suddenly, he became the Unabomber, a terrorist who sent mail bombs largely to academics to fight against modernization. It seems his isolation from humans stemmed from the single, skipped grade; perhaps if he had felt more connected to people, he would not have been so quick to kill.
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber
Of course, regular school holds its own issues for prodigies. Achieving far above the norm may even lead to future failure; Professor Ellen Winner, expert in prodigies, says “I think it all has to do with how many expectations were put on you as a child: You’re a genius. You’re going to be a genius when you grow up. That is really dangerous.” Just as overwhelming expectations can harm a student when they leave an environment of constant high achieving, boredom could cause frustration, lack of growth, and even isolation during school. The best compromise seems to be staying in the grade prescribed by your age, but attending different classes for the subjects you excel at. External courses and projects could supplement a school syllabus to ensure a challenging curriculum.
Perhaps the best recourse would be specialized schools that specifically admit only prodigies. The 1980s study “Genius Revisited” showed that students of the Hunter College Elementary School in New York, required to have a minimum IQ of 155, did not become genius, change-making adults. However, their approach to learning was still relatively traditional. New institutions like the Proof School in San Francisco encourage project-based, broad-spectrum learning guided by ex-Harvard professors and the like. The focus is not simply on skills, but the application of them through exploration, problem solving, and communication. Such institutions provide integrated learning such that leapfrogging their systems is impossible.
Perhaps the best recourse would be specialized schools that specifically admit only prodigies.
While that may be the ideal, cost, exclusivity and scarcity of similar institutions make them difficult to access for many. However, whether parents choose homeschooling, regular school, or specialized schools, in the end, certain factors should stay constant. Open-ended exploration is important: prodigies should study the regular range of subjects offered at school to the degree any regular student would be expected to, to ensure balance. Their caretakers should be supportive but not aggressive in pushing them, and should avoid setting restrictive expectations. Bypassing regular socialization and education systems runs the risk of stunted emotional development, and it seems that, above all, children should be encouraged to find compassion and purpose, whatever their field of expertise. While Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai and Nobel nominee Greta Thunberg may not be prodigies in the traditional sense, they are achieving far beyond most adults, and their compassion and purpose will allow them to continue doing so as they age.