The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Book Reviews

Raising Wunderkinder

Rita Koganzon

Vaudeville, Act 6, Zoltan Toeroek, Child Prodigy, 1907, by Moriz Jung; Artokoloro Quint Lox Limited/Alamy Stock Photo.

Tiger Mom vs Everymom

Child prodigies take us to the heart of a central conflict in democratic education: Should we focus our national energies on equality—raising everyone to a level—or on elevating the best to their potential? Ideally, we might do both, and we try to, even in the face of limited resources. But even if resources were unlimited, the tension between these two ends would persist: The very existence of outstanding genius sabotages the search for a satisfactory “level” to which everyone else might be brought. 

Then again, perhaps excellence does not exist, at least not as we conventionally understand it. “We have set up the notion of mind at large, of intellectual method that is the same for all,” John Dewey complained in “The Nature of Method,” a chapter in his 1916 book Democracy and Education. “Then,” he wrote, 

we regard individuals as differing in the quantity of mind with which they are charged…. The measure of difference between the average student and the genius is a measure of the absence of originality in the former. But this notion of mind in general is a fiction. How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning. 

Progressive education since Dewey has sought to circumvent the conflict between the best and the average by emphasizing a vision of a cohesive “democratic society” that prizes individual flexibility and openness over exemplary personal accomplishment. What then is to be done for the handful of children who are too advanced to ignore, who write stories, compose music, and prove theorems before they’re potty trained?

Ann Hulbert’s historical portraits of twentieth-century child prodigies, Off the Charts, offers the progressive answer: Nothing ought to be done for them. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but her ambivalent portraits, ranging from now-forgotten child mathematicians, musicians, poets, and novelists to Shirley Temple and Bill Gates, point to one basic message: Child geniuses rarely grow into adult geniuses, and genius childhoods are ruined most often by the very effort to extend genius into adulthood. Parents and educators were so enchanted by adult-level mastery in these children that they overlooked their broader developmental immaturity, or were so certain that the precocious talent indicated a lifelong calling that they committed their children’s entire existence to its development. But the “parable” of child prodigies, according to Hulbert, is that “children whose signature traits may seem so fixed are also constantly in flux.” The apparently extraordinary child is best off being raised as an ordinary one.

Just as in her excellent previous book, Raising America, the villains in this one are the experts, in this case the self-promoting parents like Boris Sidis and Amy Chua as well as social scientists, like the IQ-tester Lewis Terman and Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth “nerd camp” founder Julian Stanley, bent on “fixing” early talent, identifying and directing the “national resource” of precocious intelligence. The heroes are those unusual parents of geniuses who never tried to fix them in the first place, letting them pursue their interests only as much and as far as they wanted while protecting them from publicity. 

Hulbert’s skepticism of genius development as a child-rearing strategy for even the most obviously advanced children has some basis. Child genius is only relative to the expectations of childhood. It’s astonishing when a ten-year-old like Nathalia Crane writes a mature book of poetry or a fifteen-year-old gets a PhD, but hardly noteworthy when a thirty-year-old does. For child geniuses, the added pressure of not only doing something at a very high level but of doing it better than an ever-increasing number of others quickly catching up to them is often too much to bear. Or, as Hulbert suggests, they experience a kind of “mid-life crisis” and abruptly abandon their talents to turn to other pursuits (or, in the worst cases, retreat into crankish obscurity, like William Sidis and Bobby Fisher, or meet an early death, like Barbara Follett and Philippa Schuyler), having by that point performed on a professional level for as long as those who are actually middle-aged.

Despite the general tendency of early genius to lead parents astray, Hulbert believes that it can, under certain circumstances, create opportunities for exemplary forms of parenting. She writes approvingly of the mothers and fathers of “autistic savants”—for example, the parents of the jazz prodigy Matt Savage and the physicist Jake Barnett, who indulged their sons’ precocious talents not for any competitive purpose but merely to open communication with boys who were otherwise “boxed in.” It was through the pursuit of their prodigious talents that these children were able to address their social and psychological deficits and connect with others. Throughout, Hulbert’s goal is very much still Dewey’s aim from a century ago: playing down even exceptional talent in favor of ensuring “that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning.”

However interesting this idea may have seemed in 1916, it is now little more than the clichéd folk wisdom of the American Everymom. Protect your children from the meritocratic rat race! Ensure that they love learning for its own sake! Hulbert’s own admittedly “overscheduled” and “omni-enriched” children attended Sidwell Friends before heading off to Harvard and Yale. Nearly all affluent parents live this contradiction, denouncing the competitiveness and inegalitarianism of the “system” while working it themselves.

The only contemporary writer who is consistent on the question of equality versus excellence is the much-maligned Amy Chua, author of the 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In the guise of describing “Asian parenting” Chua, a Yale law professor with two daughters, offered the only honest account of what all-American child rearing among the educated classes aspires to, and what is necessary to achieve it. That such candor managed to horrify all the Waldorf School tuition payers in those classes is merely a testament to their willingness to attribute to mythical foreigners the expectations they refuse to acknowledge within themselves.

What Chua set out to inculcate in her daughters was, with allowances for comic exaggeration, not just Hulbert’s “childhood normalcy” or Dewey’s life of “activities that have meaning,” but excellence and virtue. Excellence and virtue are inegalitarian qualities; they imply standards and hierarchies. Does this mean they are necessarily antidemocratic?

Hulbert suggests that they must be. Her portraits emphasize the competitive side of precocity and reproach the parents of child geniuses for organizing childhood around developing talents and for being willing to exhibit the results in public. Only when these children have such significant deficits in other respects that we need not worry that their hothouse upbringing will give them a competitive edge over others can Hulbert bring herself to endorse talent development. 

This is at once self-serving and futile. Imagine that we could stop parents from developing their children’s talents, whether phenomenal or ordinary, in order to diminish educational competition. What would come of it? Mainly, the children of parents with the most resources would achieve with less effort the “future distinction” their parents had discouraged less well-positioned parents from pursuing for their children. Equality requires that all comers be permitted to compete, and the resulting competition becomes necessarily more intense as more children (or, their parents) join in. Counterintuitively, as Tocqueville observed almost two centuries ago, intense, soul-grinding competition is an ugly symptom of equality, not inequality. 

Of course, Hulbert and the Everymom she represents are right to conclude that intense competition is exhausting and frustrating, and that arming even an enormously talented child for a life of incessant competition is not a task from which either parents or children will derive much joy. But the only alternative they propose is some kind of spontaneous mutual disarmament, neither possible nor useful, that only sends the pursuit of excellence underground in the meantime. 

But perhaps we do not need to redefine standards to abolish individual excellence and pursue Deweyan “social adjustment” in order to alleviate the misery of endless competition. We were already democratizing excellence long before Dewey offered his services as our pedagogical chiropractor, by extending the domains in which it is possible to excel. Decentralization, the division of labor, and the continual development of technology open new channels for talent and recognition without necessarily closing the old ones, and the remarkable range of ways in which even the very young can potentially distinguish themselves in our regime is itself on display in Hulbert’s book. There are the music and math prodigies, staples of modern precocity since Mozart and Pascal, but there are also movie stars and programmers, impossibilities until the twentieth century. The pursuit of excellence need not be a zero-sum game when new domains for excellence continually open up.

The real problem is not the inegalitarian pursuit of excellence, or even the competition it implies, but the increasing centralization and narrowing of the avenues of excellence. A college degree is now expected for fields that were long held to be beyond the purview of the academy, like the arts (not to speak of those fields that were simply held to be beneath it), and it is increasingly desirable that the degree be not from just any school or even a specialized one, but one of a small number of supposedly omnicompetent “good” schools, which in turn expand their range of offerings to consume all those fields of excellence they previously disdained as “illiberal” and which they mercifully left for other institutions to cultivate. Now, whether your talents lie in music or math or programming or acting or even football, all roads can lead to Harvard. And from Harvard’s perspective, why not? 

In spite of this centralization and narrowing, American education and opportunity remain remarkably decentralized and, more importantly, decentralizable. The political structure of schooling allows for local and state-level control of public schools, and there are private schools, charter schools, homeschools, unschools. Entire schools exist to improve the lowest-performing students, while others are devoted wholly to the superadvancement of the highest performers. Many more exist for completely orthogonal purposes—religious education, musical and artistic training, even the cultivation of individual eccentricity. This decentralization and aversion to systemization have allowed us to absorb the tension between equality and excellence without making any definite or final choice between them. It is not a philosophically consistent solution, but an enormously practical one, if we could see its benefits clearly. 

If we want to defend this equilibrium against the encroachment of centralization and uniformity, however, we won’t get far by chastising parental desire for excellence and virtue in children and insisting that they focus instead on “childhood normalcy,” a stultifying pseudoscientific myth Hulbert herself demolished in her first book. Parents’ desire to push their children in order to give them the best possible lives as they understand them is what makes decentralization workable; it is only when we no longer trust their parents that we have reason to subject children to centralized standardization. For all Hulbert’s suspicion of the misguided and over-the-top aspirations of the parents of child prodigies, it is impossible to imagine any institution, however well intentioned, devoting more effort and attention to calibrating education to these parents’ particular dispositions than the parents themselves. Something has clearly gone wrong with democratic education when we find ourselves demonizing parental devotion in the name of equality. 

If rare and exceptional childhood gifts offer us any lessons about democratic education, such lessons ought not to be that parental aspiration is our enemy, or that because “every child is a remarkable anomaly, poised to subvert the best-laid plans and surprise us,” we ought not make any plans or harbor any hopes for our children. They might show us the costs of overzealous planning, but, more urgently, because we cannot fully harmonize the democratic pursuits of excellence with equality, the experiences of these children should strengthen the case for educational decentralization, and for a “system” that is broad enough to encompass parents’ desire for excellence, especially because such aspirations are so frequently frustrated by the eventualities of growing up.