June 3, 2014

EDUCATION: The Wrong Way To Treat Child Geniuses.

Plucking the great scientists of the future out of their scattered middle schools is hard, perhaps impossible. Dr. Lubinski’s report on the grown-up prodigies isn’t called, “What Happens to Child Prodigies as Adults?” It’s called, “Who Rises to the Top?” But it leaves the latter question unanswered.

Those of us who managed sky-high SAT scores at 13 were 20 times as likely as the average American to get a doctorate; let’s say, being charitable, that we’re 100 times as likely to make a significant scientific advance. Since we’re only 1 in 10,000 of the U.S. population, that still leaves 99% of scientific advances to be made by all those other kids who didn’t get an early ticket to the genius club. We geniuses aren’t going to solve all the riddles. Most child prodigies are highly successful—but most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies.

This can be a hard lesson for the prodigies themselves. It is natural to believe that the just-pubescent children on the mathletic podium next to you are the best, the ones who really matter. And for the most part, my fellow child stars and I have done very well. But the older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren’t Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn’t shine in Math Olympiad; didn’t go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you’re the best, you start to believe you’re the best.

One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius.

The cult of the genius exists as a way of avoiding the truth: That most worthwhile things in life that matter take hard work.