[Paleopsych] NYT Mag: The Prodigy Puzzle

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The Prodigy Puzzle
New York Times Magazine, 5.11.30


    'So you're the geniuses," Senator Carl Levin said, looking pleased as
    he peered over his glasses. He was addressing the flaxen-haired Heidi
    Kaloustian, a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan, and
    John Zhou, a superfriendly 17-year-old senior at Detroit Country Day
    School, unusual visitors to Room 269 of the Russell Office Building on
    Capitol Hill. Michigan had distinguished itself, Levin had been
    informed: the state boasted two Davidson Fellows, and he had clearly
    been told these teenagers came trailing brainy superlatives. "Genius
    loves company," announced the September press release about the
    students who had won scholarships awarded annually since 2001 by the
    Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a foundation that supports
    "profoundly intelligent" youths, a more recent term for off-the-charts
    children. "Seventeen prodigies," the press release went on, were "to
    be honored at the Library of Congress for contributions to society" in
    the fields of science, math, technology, music and literature.

    Even among these superstars, the young Michiganders stood out. All the
    accolades and attention added up to a thrilling but evidently also
    somewhat disorienting experience, at least for one of them. "I'm
    generally pretty shy, hesitant to show my work," Heidi told me over
    the summer - a reticence that had only partly been drummed out of her
    by joining her high school's poetry-slam team at a teacher's
    insistence. Sitting on the couch awaiting the senator, she looked
    slightly dazed at being in the limelight: Heidi was one of the four
    Davidson "fellow laureates" this year - recipients of the top $50,000
    scholarship awards for projects they had submitted. She was also the
    first laureate ever in literature, with a writing portfolio she titled
    "The Roots of All Things." John, a scientist whose 2005
    accomplishments also included semifinalist standing in the national
    math, physics and biology olympiads, was taking his $25,000 award in
    stride. He was one of five winners at that level. The remaining eight
    Fellows received $10,000 each - money to be disbursed for approved
    educational purposes for up to 10 years.

    Apparently feeling his visitors deserved more than the usual small
    talk, Senator Levin forged on with "Where are your souls?"

    "You mean what are our projects?" John responded, ready with the title
    of his: "A Study of Possible Interactions Among Rev1, Rev3 and Rev7
    Proteins From Saccharomyces Cerevisiae." John laughed along with
    everyone else when Levin remarked, "I understood the word 'protein,' "
    and with the confident charm of a youth who has spent lots of time
    with adults, he told the senator he really enjoyed seeing him at a
    recent AIDS walk in Michigan (for which John had organized a school
    team). Turning to Heidi, who explained that she wrote both poetry and
    prose, Levin was prompted to joke, "So writers are worth twice as much
    as scientists these days?" It was a short step to reminiscences about
    college-tuition bills for his own daughters. The Senate photographer
    then sprang into action, arranging a classic portrait of future
    promise: professorial senator in the middle, flanked on one side by a
    bright-eyed youth and on the other by a mother wearing a grin her
    child might later tell her looks goofy.

    For the Davidson Fellows who came to Washington in late September for
    a gathering that culminated in an evening reception at the Library of
    Congress, the visit to Capitol Hill was more than a photo op. It was
    an effort to help promote the vision of their patrons, the founders of
    the Reno-based Davidson Institute, Bob and Jan Davidson. Drawing on a
    fortune earned in the educational-software business, the Davidsons
    established themselves as a well-endowed new presence on the
    gifted-education scene in 1999. Their goal is not just to support
    extraordinary youthful achievements, though their contributions to the
    cause of enriching precocious childhoods have been wide-ranging. The
    institute's enterprises include, in addition to the fellowships, a
    free consulting service now assisting 750 "Young Scholars" between the
    ages of 4 and 18 who qualify with top test scores (99.9th percentile,
    I.Q.'s of at least 145) or, for those without a battery of
    assessments, portfolio submissions. The Davidsons have also begun the
    Think Summer Institute, offering college courses for 12- to
    15-year-olds. Next fall the Davidson Academy, a public middle and high
    school for the profoundly gifted, will open on the Reno campus of the
    University of Nevada. How much pleasure the Davidsons, in their early
    60's, take in celebrating the accomplishments of the fellows was
    obvious at the reception: Bob, strong-jawed and a jokester, and the
    elfin Jan glowed like godparents as they beckoned the multicultural
    array of prize-winners up to the dais to speak about their projects -
    "prodigious work," a term the Institute favors, ranging from the
    adorable 6-year-old Marc Yu's piano performance to the 17-year-old
    Kadir Annamalai's work on the "growth of germanium nanowires," useful
    in thermoelectric devices.

    It is the Davidsons' other, related aim that calls forth a different
    kind of fervor. Authors (with Laura Vanderkam) of a book called
    "Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Minds" (2004), they
    are on a mission to remedy what they are convinced is a widespread
    neglect of exceptionally talented children. That means challenging the
    American myth that they are weirdos or Wunderkinder best left to their
    own devices or made to march with the crowd. "By denying our most
    intelligent students an education appropriate to their abilities," Jan
    Davidson warns a nation in the midst of a No Child Left Behind
    crusade, "we may also be denying civilization a giant leap forward."
    Precocious children are not only avid learners eager for more than
    ordinary schools often provide, the Davidsons emphasize; they are also
    a precious - and imperiled - resource for the future. The Davidsons,
    joined by many other advocates of the gifted, maintain that it is
    these precocious children who, if handled right, will be the creative
    adults propelling the nation ahead in an ever more competitive world.
    As things stand, the argument goes, the highly gifted child is an
    endangered species in need of outspoken champions like the Davidsons,
    who are role models for the "supportive, advocating parent" they

    The youths have their chance to engage in advocacy, too, and the
    Davidsons had selected very personable prodigies to visit Washington
    to publicize the don't-hold-children-back message. (Video
    presentations are part of the fellowship application process.)
    "Rounded like an egg" is the simile John Zhou used in the SAT-prep
    classes he taught (though he himself, a perfect scorer, didn't take
    any), where he recommends blending a well-honed talent with other
    interests to "erase the image of the nerd or the geek" - a balanced
    profile the Davidsons would surely endorse. Their fellows fitted it
    and proved ideal ambassadors of well-tended youthful brilliance.
    Admirably poised, they were getting precocious practice for the future
    eminence that, they were told more than once that day, awaits them.

    The Davidsons are not the first Americans dedicated to cultivating
    early promise and dismantling the popular image of highly gifted
    children as misfits, an affront to a nation founded on egalitarian
    principles. More than three-quarters of a century ago, the Stanford
    psychologist Lewis Terman, armed with his newly minted I.Q. test, set
    out to challenge the myth that unusually intelligent and talented
    children are "puny, overspecialized in their abilities and interests,
    emotionally unstable, socially unadaptable, psychotic and morally
    undependable." His longitudinal "Genetic Studies of Genius" aimed to
    prove the opposite: highly gifted youths tended not only to enjoy more
    wholesome childhoods than ordinary kids but also to become
    extraordinary adults. His labors have since helped spawn a rich field
    of research and outreach devoted to exceptionally gifted children -
    though you might not guess it from the embattled rhetoric employed by
    gifted-child advocates in general, not just the Davidson Institute.

    The lament uttered half a century ago that in philistine America
    "there are no little leagues of the mind" could not be made in our
    turn-of-the-millennium meritocracy. Thanks precisely to programs like
    those run by the Davidson Institute, there is what you might call a
    farm system devoted to finding talent and developing it, and though
    the process isn't streamlined, it has become ever more extensive. You
    merely have to look at the résumés of the Davidson Fellows, which list
    a stunning array of distinctions - from music and Intel competitions
    to math and science olympiads to participation in highly selective
    summer programs. Even as they sound the alarm, prominent advocates
    themselves celebrate the widening span of resources. Consider, for
    example, "A Nation Deceived," the Templeton National Report on
    Acceleration issued last year and subtitled, "How Schools Hold Back
    America's Brightest Students." In its brief for more grade skipping
    and subject acceleration, it indicts an educational system that indeed
    gives talented students short shrift. (Federal money for the "gifted
    and talented" is minuscule compared with the quarter billion in this
    year's No Child Left Behind budget, and state and local efforts,
    though often better, are uneven.) Yet in the course of promoting the
    benefits of leaping ahead, "A Nation Deceived" also extols "a whole
    host of outside-of-school opportunities, including award ceremonies,
    summer programs, after-school or Saturday programs, distance-learning
    programs and weekend workshops and seminars," to which the talent
    search serves as a "gateway" for the topmost students, who also have a
    variety of early college options to consider, like California State
    University at Los Angeles's lively early-entrance program. Julian
    Stanley, a Johns Hopkins psychology professor and a pioneer of the
    gifted-child movement, marveled not long before he died last summer at
    age 87 at how a dearth of opportunities had given way to a "wealth of
    facilitative options."

    Perhaps the time has come to examine a rather different myth, embraced
    by gifted-child advocates themselves: that children of unusual
    intelligence and accomplishments remain a misunderstood, marginalized
    resource in a culture obsessed with equity and prone to conformity. In
    fact, youthful prodigiousness is the leading edge of a wider cultural
    preoccupation with early high performance in our meritocratic era.
    Among the educated elite, the superchild has become the model child,
    and the model parent is an informed advocate with an eye trained on
    his or her child's future prospects. The unusual fate of the
    precocious child - to become adultified early and yet to remain
    hovered over for longer - is echoed in the situation of the privileged
    child, ushered along a highly scheduled path of credentialed
    performance from cradle onward, with college and career ever in mind.

    In short, thanks not least to the gifted-child movement itself, the
    mission of discovering and molding precocious talent has been
    mainstreamed more successfully than anyone expected. Once in a while,
    the more mundane variety of Ivy League-aspiring kids and their
    ambitious parents pause to ask themselves whether the ethos entails
    too much early pressure to compete. For truly extraordinary kids, a
    different version of the question arises, but it is considered less
    often: could it be that in the quest to pinpoint and promote
    exceptional youthful promise, testers and contests and advocates may
    have unwittingly introduced early pressure to conform, not to the
    crowd but to an assiduously monitored, preprofessionalized and
    future-oriented trajectory? If the mold-breaking creativity and
    innovation that advocates invoke are what society wants more of,
    perhaps it is worth asking whether anointing the ranks of
    talent-search stars with a sense of foreordained distinction and
    steering them onto a prize- and degree-laden fast track, the earlier
    the better, may have its costs. Of course, it is every parent's hope
    to help satisfy highly gifted children's zeal for mastery and give
    them fulfilling childhoods, and programs like those the Davidson
    Institute runs help make that easier. But a look back over a century
    suggests it may be hubris if the goal of the guidance is to shape
    truly exceptional destinies in adulthood. Well-intentioned efforts to
    smooth the path and hone expertise in a hurry might even - who knows?
    - be a hindrance in the mysterious process by which mature originality
    ultimately expresses itself.

    L ong before 20th-century psychology turned its attention to young
    geniuses, children with extraordinary powers were enshrined in myth as
    figures to be at once feared and revered. Baby Hercules had occasion
    to display his prowess in strangling serpents because jealous Juno,
    angered that Jupiter had sired a son with a mere mortal, dispatched
    snakes to his cradle. Twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple after
    Passover, "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and
    asking them questions," invites not only astonishment "at his
    understanding and answers," but also rebukes from his bewildered
    parents; they're unsettled by his insistence that he "must be about my
    Father's business," well aware that he isn't referring to Joseph. In
    the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, perhaps the first early Christian
    attempt to fill in Jesus' life before that temple story, awe is mixed
    with terror. Jesus is an alarming little boy who doesn't merely make
    real birds out of clay and work other miracles but causes the death of
    those who scold him for not resting on the Sabbath and shames masters
    who try to instruct him in his letters. From the divine/demonic child
    of antiquity to the Romantic era's idealization of the innocent
    imaginative genius was perhaps not as big a leap as it seems: the
    prodigy was the very emblem of prophecy, in touch with mystical truth
    and powers outside of human time. In his different guises, the
    phenomenal young emissary came bearing an implicit message: adults

    Lewis Terman, however, was not a man readily daunted, and his endeavor
    embodied the ambitions and the confusions - and the elusive
    predictions - that have marked gifted research and development ever
    since. Five years after he revised Alfred Binet's intelligence test,
    creating what became known as the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test, he put it
    to use in a pioneering survey of a little-understood population. When
    Terman began seeking gifted California schoolchildren to participate
    in his "Genetic Studies of Genius" in 1921, he was undertaking the
    first youthful talent search, eager not just to explore the nature of
    gifted children but ultimately to predict and improve their chances of
    future greatness. Convinced that intellectual capacity was innate, he
    was a eugenicist eager to see the brightest selected out and trained
    up to guide society. But he was also aware that no one knew when or
    how, much less which, buds of brilliance might ultimately produce
    glorious flowers. Terman became determined to see to it that the
    proverb "early ripe, early rotten" wouldn't describe their fate. He
    would do his best to boost, not just stand back and trace, the
    trajectories of subjects, whose well-rounded giftedness augured such

    If that interfered with the purity of his findings and predictions,
    so, too, did Terman's methods for choosing his subjects. His approach
    made it less than surprising that the Termites, as the study
    participants were nicknamed, proved exemplary schoolchildren, not
    lopsided or eccentric at all. Terman's tool, the I.Q. test, was
    devised in and for an academic context, focusing on verbal and
    quantitative reasoning and memory skills, which meant scores at the
    high end correlated closely with classroom success. He was in search
    of the overall high performers, and his fieldwork further ensured a
    sample low on idiosyncratic characters. Since Terman didn't have the
    resources to comprehensively test the more than a quarter-million
    students in the California school districts he was looking at, he
    enlisted teachers to help make the first cut. They supplied him with
    the kids they considered the best, a group unlikely to include "some
    nerdy person in the corner mumbling to himself," points out Dean Keith
    Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California,
    Davis, who specializes in the scientific study of historical genius.
    Testing this cohort - as well as other batches of bright children he
    rounded up earlier - Terman emerged with an overwhelmingly white and
    middle-class sample of roughly 1,500 students whose average age was 11
    and whose I.Q.'s ranged between 135 and 200, about the top 1 percent.
    (The mean I.Q. in this group was 151, and 77 subjects tested at 170 or
    higher.) It is worth noting that his methods selected for a
    conscientious breed of parents as well, given that lengthy
    questionnaires about their children were part of the drill.

    The data reviewed in the first volume of findings, in 1925, demolished
    "the widespread opinion that typically the intellectually precocious
    child is weak, undersized or nervously unstable." Terman's inventories
    - of physical and personality traits, books read, intellectual and
    recreational interests, family background - revealed children
    physically superior as well as more trustworthy and honest, and much
    better at school (where about 85 percent of them had skipped grades)
    than a nongifted group used for a rough comparison. On the East Coast,
    a fellow psychologist, Leta Hollingworth of Columbia University
    Teachers College - a forerunner whom the Davidsons salute - chimed in
    with similar positive findings about the gifted students she studied
    in two public schools. For the rare specimens with I.Q.'s of 180 or
    higher, the record was somewhat more mixed on the question of social
    adjustment (more recent studies on "psychological well-being" continue
    to conflict); Hollingworth drew particular attention to the problem of
    disengagement at school. But home life in their samples' comparatively
    well-off and small families seemed enviable. "Fortunately,"
    Hollingworth wrote, "the majority of gifted children fall by heredity
    into the hands of superior parents, who are themselves of fine
    character and worthy to 'set example.' "

    With this portrait, the pioneers confronted a tension that exists to
    this day in the quest to rally support for the select cohort. Such a
    positive account of gifted children was good for their image, but less
    so for the message that, as Terman proclaimed at the close of the
    first volume, "the great problems of genius" require urgent attention.
    The young geniuses seemed to be doing nicely - perhaps all too
    competently, in fact. In the 1930 follow-up volume to "Genetic Studies
    of Genius," the Terman team betrayed a hint of defensiveness that
    reappeared in the 25-year and 35-year follow-ups. Anticipating later
    critics, they cautioned against undue expectations. "The title is not
    meant to imply that the thousand or more subjects who have entered
    into the investigations described are all potential geniuses in the
    more common meaning of that term. A few of the group may ultimately
    achieve that degree of distinction, but not more than a few."

    The urge to forecast, then as now, drives research on childhood
    giftedness - yet as Malcolm Gladwell noted in a recent talk, precocity
    in general doesn't turn out to be a very reliable predictor of truly
    exceptional mature performance. When a colleague of Terman's,
    Catharine Cox, undertook the curious exercise of retrospectively
    computing the youthful I.Q.'s of 300 adult geniuses in the past
    (drawing on facts from their biographies), she found they were high -
    but far from the whole story. She also discovered the importance of
    other qualities, especially persistence and confidence. And she
    presciently warned that tests "cannot measure spontaneity of
    intellectual activity; perhaps, too, they do not sufficiently
    differentiate between high ability and unique ability, between the
    able individual and the extraordinary genius." Cox concluded that "the
    extraordinary genius who achieves the highest eminence is also the
    gifted individual whom intelligence tests may discover in childhood,"
    with the crucial caveat that "the converse of this proposition is yet
    to be proved."

    Focusing on a small cohort of children with I.Q.'s above 180,
    Hollingworth's case studies couldn't supply clear-cut evidence that a
    high-testing childhood was a precursor of later extraordinariness. The
    few she followed into early maturity excelled in their early 20's at
    academic and intellectual work, and won honors. But she wasn't sure
    what to conclude about creativity and originality, plainly
    disappointed that her sample didn't display more. She speculated that
    this was partly because of nurture: "so harnessed to the organized
    pursuit of degrees," in one child's case, and subjected to an
    "education so scrupulously supervised and so sedulously recorded that
    he had little time for original projects" in another. "The gifted
    group at midlife," as the Termites were called in the 35-year
    follow-up study, were highly educated for the time, professionally
    very successful and well adjusted. But the Terman team tried not to
    sound too let down that "a majority of gifted women prefer housewifery
    to more intellectual pursuits," right in step with postwar America.

    In 1956, the year Terman died, a Nobel Prize was awarded to William
    Shockley, who as a California schoolboy didn't make the cut for the
    Termites but went on to help invent the transistor (and was later
    hailed as a catalyst in the creation of Silicon Valley, and also
    pilloried as a racist eugenicist). In 1968, another reject, Luis
    Alvarez, won the prize for his work in elementary particle physics. No
    Termite ever became a Nobel laureate, though some became
    well-published scientists and multiple patent holders. Alumni include
    journalists, poets and movie directors as well as professors, among
    whom psychologists have been particularly distinguished, perhaps not
    surprisingly. Terman, after all, pulled Stanford strings and did
    everything he could to help his protégés, who had been selected for
    what are often now called "schoolhouse gifts" and had grown up as a
    self-identified group imbued, not least by him, with expectations of
    academically approved achievement.

    The fact that "the group has produced no great musical composer," as
    the study's authors wistfully noted, "and no great creative artist"
    perhaps wasn't so surprising, either. In part, of course, that is
    because such figures don't surface very often. In part, it was because
    "special abilities" weren't what they were testing for - the I.Q.'s
    appeal was its assessment of general cognitive ability, and the
    "globally gifted" child was the figure the Terman group fixed on. But
    in part it was also because when special talents were spotted in their
    high I.Q. mix, they resisted systematic analysis. Fewer than half of
    the kids who had shown distinctive artistic abilities stuck with those
    interests, though musicians were more likely to. (Even in music, the
    field best known for spawning prodigies, the yield of distinguished
    mature artists is low. Out of an unusually large concentration of 70
    young musical marvels in the San Francisco area in the 1920's and
    30's, only 6 went on to notable adult careers: Leon Fleisher, Ruth
    Slenczynska and Hephzibah Menuhin on the piano, and Isaac Stern,
    Ruggiero Ricci and Yehudi Menuhin on the violin.)

    Terman and his colleagues focused on a batch of precocious literary
    girls. The researchers set out to compare their work with the
    juvenilia of eminent writers of the past. But quality and development
    tended to be highly uneven. That was obvious, for example, in a
    sampling of the 100 poems produced between ages 6 and 8 by the
    prolific Betty Ford, an engaging girl with an I.Q. of 188 who was said
    to skip and dance as she dictated her poetry, if she wasn't feverishly
    typing it out by herself. Nor did the juvenilia of the great provide a
    steady standard. In fact, a panel of judges rated poems by the young
    Longfellow and Shelley below those of Betty and other nobodys. As
    Terman's team concluded: "One would hardly be justified in attempting
    to devise methods for the prediction of adult literary accomplishment.
    Too many factors other than natural ability go to determine the amount
    and merit of achievement." The 8-year-old Betty herself suggested as
    much in "Blackbirds," which the judges rated among the poorest of her
    poems: "But to tell what I have in mind,/Is harder by far, than to
    guess/What the twitter of those birds mean,/As they spatter their
    words about."

    The Stanford-Binet I.Q. test reached middle age along with the
    Termites, looking disappointingly staid itself. At least it did from
    the vantage of those increasingly convinced that youthful giftedness
    could not be reduced to a fixed and innate general intellectual
    ability or potential. In postwar America, the terms "gifted" and
    "talented" crowded out "genius," which sounded suspiciously elitist,
    and a quest was under way for a wider, democratic conception of human
    excellence. Psychologists pushed toward a more multifaceted
    understanding of giftedness, turning their attention to "divergent
    thinking" and creative capacities - fluency, originality, flexibility
    - as well as to a wider range of less distinctively intellectual
    abilities, like "task commitment." It was time, too, to take a more
    interactive, social view of the emergence and growth of talent, whose
    very existence in childhood, after all, depended on adult recognition.
    Youthful giftedness could not be fully appreciated, or cultivated,
    without viewing it as a social construct, a capacity that flourishes
    thanks to a confluence of forces: a domain of knowledge with clearly
    demarcated rules a child can master, adult models and mentors ready to
    assist and a receptive cultural context. All of these factors help
    explain why highly structured, permanently valued fields like music
    and math prove especially hospitable to prodigies. It's also why
    precocious mental calculators and map makers, for example, were once a
    sought-after variety of prodigy and no longer are.

    Some 50 years after Terman, giftedness was a social construct in flux
    and in the spotlight. The first federal definition of "children
    capable of high performance," announced in the Office of Education's
    Marland Report of 1972, which led to legislation on education for the
    gifted, was a symptomatic catch-all. The formulation covered students
    "with demonstrated achievement and/or ability in any of the following
    areas, singly or in combination: general intellectual ability,
    specific academic aptitude, creative or productive thinking,
    leadership ability, visual- or performing-arts aptitude, psychomotor
    ability." The lineup still led off with what Ellen Winner, professor
    of psychology at Boston College and the author of "Gifted Children:
    Myths and Realities" (1996), describes as "the smooth and even image
    of the globally gifted child." Yet narrower talents - and perhaps
    quirkier and more uneven ones - now received independent billing, for
    the old faith had been shaken that I.Q. and creativity were so closely
    correlated after all. The problem was, there were no good tools for
    tracking skills like "creative or productive thinking," and in any
    case, what could that really mean in childhood, a period dedicated to
    mastering, not generating, knowledge? Looking back to the 1980's,
    David Henry Feldman, who teaches child development at Tufts University
    and is the author, with Lynn T. Goldsmith, of "Nature's Gambit: Child
    Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential" (1986), recalls a
    sense of frustration with psychometricians and with "creativity as
    measured by creativity tests, as in how many ways can you use or
    describe a brick" - but also a sense of ferment. He was busy examining
    the uncanny extremes that Terman's study had skirted - Feldman's book
    probes six specialized prodigies and their hothouselike homes - and he
    found himself sharing ideas with an eclectic array of psychologists
    tackling the development of creativity from different angles. Among
    them were Howard Gardner, who was soon to begin work on his theory of
    "multiple intelligences," and Howard Gruber and Dean Keith Simonton,
    both busy looking at the history of creative eminence.

    But the impulse to "recharge" the prodigy notion with some of its
    "original power and mystery," as Feldman put it in his book, failed to
    gather scientific momentum, he now ruefully admits. (He awaits further
    brain research.) In the meantime, a less global assessment method than
    the I.Q. exam had proved itself ideal for identifying the most
    familiar item on that Marland Report list of special capacities,
    "specific academic aptitude." There is nothing like a ready tool, and
    a numerical measure, to cut a phenomenon down to more accessible - and
    usable - size in America.

    The test was the SAT, which Julian Stanley, who established Johns
    Hopkins as a center of gifted education and research, went ahead and
    administered in 1969 to an 8th-grade math whiz he had heard was not
    only excelling in a summer computer course at Hopkins but also helping
    graduate students. Joe aced the math portion. It emerged that among
    children under 13 who scored in the very highest percentiles on
    grade-level standardized tests, there were some who could match or
    outperform the average high-school senior SAT-taker, particularly on
    the math section, but also on the verbal section and sometimes on
    both. The SAT could thus be used as a device for winnowing the top and
    tiptop performers in specific areas very early. With the help of
    colleagues, Stanley inaugurated the Johns Hopkins talent search and
    began gathering subjects for the second-most-famous longitudinal
    gifted study: the continuing Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth
    (SMPY), which includes a superselect cohort of students who scored 700
    or above on the math or the verbal section before turning 13 (a feat
    performed by 1 in 10,000 children, those the Davidsons and others
    label "profoundly gifted"). Intervention was Stanley's real goal, and
    acceleration - not mere enrichment - became his mission, which meant
    packing the earliest SMPY phenoms off to college very young. Soon
    Johns Hopkins had started intensive summer programs where students
    could devour whole-year math courses, and before long literature
    classes too, in mere weeks. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented
    Youth model caught on. Stanley helped start centers at Duke and
    Northwestern, and there are now programs as well at the University of
    Denver, the University of Iowa and Vanderbilt University.

    "The idea that we should try to make a universal man out of one person
    isn't appealing to me somehow," Stanley once said, not sharing
    Terman's interest in the omnibus genius. Instead he and his team
    emphasized a more specialized vision: to spot children's narrower
    talent as linguistic or numerical "symbol analyzers" and, by
    supporting it early and intensively, help spur them on to excel in
    that field as adults. It is an endeavor, they have pointed out, right
    in step with the spirit of the information age that was dawning as the
    SMPY unfolded. What began as a regional talent search has become
    national, annually testing nearly a quarter-million students. Last
    year the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth alone recognized about 400
    students who scored above 700 on either or both sections - which
    suggests the net is quite successful in catching the top kids.

    In the SMPY's most select group of high scorers - the 1 in 10,000
    cohort - almost all have enjoyed some form of academic acceleration,
    and Stanley's hope of orchestrating self-fulfilling prophecies so far
    seems mostly to have panned out. Early adolescent math or verbal
    trajectories are borne out in about two-thirds of the cases, with the
    notable exception that high verbal males are as likely to pursue an
    undergraduate degree in the sciences as in the humanities and arts.
    Advanced degrees are far more common in this SMPY group than in the
    general population. Participants also more often receive tenure and
    take out patents, cited as evidence that the SAT measures "much more
    than book-learning potential." As SMPY researchers await the analysis
    of data on the cohort at age 50, it is worth noting their scaled-down
    accomplishment. They have created what amounts to effective early
    career-profiling - an instrumental goal rather different from the
    inspirational visions of their predecessors. Where Hollingworth sought
    cultural "originations" from her highest I.Q. cohort (not just
    cultural "conservation"), the new mission is to answer the need for
    "human-capital specialization" by fine-tuning and facilitating
    particular expertise earlier and faster.

    It is hard to say what might have become of these already high-scoring
    middle schoolers had they never sat for the SAT and enjoyed summer
    courses and been anointed as extra-special. Stanley and his associates
    have not aspired to conduct a rigorously controlled experiment. They
    do like to claim, though, that if they had been in charge, the future
    Nobel laureates Shockley and Alvarez would have made the cut. What
    they neglect to note is that the two of them didn't need finding. It
    is interesting, though, to wonder what difference, if any, it might
    have made to Shockley's career had his alternately domineering and
    indulgent mother received guidance in rearing her brilliant but
    obnoxious son. And who knows what might have happened had Shockley
    received an early (nonmaternal) imprimatur of promise and a chance to
    mingle with brilliant peers - rather than the insult, which reportedly
    rankled him all his life, of scoring too low (129) to qualify for the
    Terman study. Might he have avoided his late-life notoriety? Or is it
    conceivable that he might not have helped invent the transistor at

    There is no predicting the fate of the fellows anointed by the
    Davidson Institute over the past five years, and of course the award
    itself is just one identity-marking moment for them. But the emergence
    of this junior MacArthur grant at the turn of the millennium points up
    the persistent tensions in talent development. On the one hand, it is
    worth wondering whether the inflated rhetoric of adult approval might
    prove a burden of sorts for children who are already much lauded. Leta
    Hollingworth advised long ago against placing highly gifted children
    "in a position which will be a constant stimulus to live up to the
    role of child prodigy" and warned against overusing "genius," a term
    generally understood to imply domain-altering powers no child can
    possibly yet have. Confidence is a crucial ingredient of success in
    carving out a distinctive path, but too many early plaudits can
    undermine risk-taking and drive. Outsize external expectations can
    also be daunting for precocious learners and performers as they make
    the maturational leap from the work of mastering rules and skills to
    the challenge of asserting more self-conscious control of their gifts.

    On the other hand, the Davidsons' revival of the reverent terminology
    is a reminder that precocious accomplishments are wondrous in
    themselves: the monumental efforts and results children are capable of
    can be amazing, never mind what those children may (or may not) go on
    to become. These are awards for hard-earned achievement, not for
    test-taking ability or abstract potential, Jan Davidson emphasizes as
    she explains why she feels it is appropriate for the fellows to speak
    to the press and be saluted by senators and congressmen. By the same
    token, she doesn't want to see public attention drawn to the other
    lucky beneficiaries of the Institute's help, the 750 Young Scholars,
    who are selected merely "for being smart, a God-given gift." The
    arduous fellowship application (which asks about the labors and
    mentors involved, and the social significance envisaged) is wisely
    geared to older adolescents: despite the talk of "prodigies," only 3
    of this year's 17 are younger than 16. In Washington, effusions over
    the fellows' precocious promise and polish are offset by an emphasis
    on their persistence and their initiative in seeking out guidance -
    surely a better identity than "genius" for kids with, let's hope, lots
    of exploratory stumbling ahead of them.

    At the evening reception in the Library of Congress, John Zhou and the
    other dark-suited teenage scientists seemed to be in their element,
    chatting over the hors d'oeuvres as if they were veterans of public
    events like this - which the handsome Lucas Moller, who was clearly
    practiced at answering lay inquiries, gave every sign of being.
    Moller, a 17-year-old from Moscow, Idaho, has been researching Mars
    dust ever since fifth grade, when at the suggestion of his scientist
    father he submitted an entry to a NASA-sponsored school contest and
    won. It was the beginning of a relationship with a NASA mentor, which
    has led him on to other related projects and assorted conferences. The
    basic pattern proved to be common. Entering competitions and finding
    internships or connections, governmental or academic: from Stephanie
    Hon (working on Alzheimer's) to Milana Zaurova (studying malignant
    brain cancer), nearly every science/technology fellow had a similar
    tale of closely mentored opportunity to tell in the morning
    discussions that the Davidsons videotaped for clips to quote from when
    they lecture. It was not quite grist for the "genius denied" paradigm:
    if schools couldn't offer direct help, no fellow said schools actively
    stood in the way.

    In fact, with all the enabling institutions, it was sometimes hard to
    tell exactly where and how the young scientists' drives originated.
    Over lunch, John Zhou's mother - whose husband left China after
    Tiananmen Square, with her following later - confessed that she had
    despaired that her bored sixth grader's energy was disappearing into
    computer games, only to be reassured when she succeeded in redirecting
    it into Web design, and he became a whirlwind of accomplishment (even
    setting up a site for a branch of his city's library). "I don't know
    if I was going to fall through the cracks, like my mother said," John
    said with a laugh. He was more inclined to credit the example of other
    purposeful kids as the real catalyst for his many endeavors. As a
    group, the scientific fellows are definitely not lacking in passion,
    the galvanic trait everyone invokes these days, including the
    Davidsons and the fellows themselves. Bob and Jan astutely pressed the
    kids to also discuss their frustrations - a darker side of intense
    commitment that too often gets left out, notes Felice Kaufmann, a
    psychologist who has been following up on a similar group, called the
    Presidential Scholars. The young scientists obliged. Stephanie Hon,
    for example, was crushed to think six weeks of research had been in
    vain, only to discover that a computer glitch accounted for her
    nonresults - "the best of both worlds," as she put it, "taste the
    failure but still have the success." No one could say these fellows
    lack tenacity. What they wouldn't be confused with, though, is that
    figure of lab lore, the unkempt obsessive pursuing the experiment
    everybody says is fruitless, or the kid outdoors absorbed for hours
    watching insects. These are well-connected youths with timely projects
    - security devices and computer innovations, as well as urgent
    diseases - who have kept very busy excelling at a well-tailored array
    of other interests as well, from the saxophone to ballroom dancing and
    the Boy Scouts.

    The musician fellows did not blend in quite so effortlessly that
    evening, since two of the four of them looked rather young to be
    mingling at a reception in such an elegant setting: Marc Yu, who plays
    the cello in addition to the piano, and the 12-year-old Karsten Gimre,
    also a pianist (as well as a sophomore at Pacific University in Forest
    Grove, Ore., majoring in math and physics). When it comes to "true"
    prodigies, preadolescents with spectacular abilities, the Davidson
    Institute follows the historical pattern of finding them mainly in the
    realm of music. In publicly touting the very young performers as
    prodigies, the Institute steps into an ongoing debate. For at least a
    quarter century now, there has been "a benevolent conspiracy" among
    influential musical figures to fend off burnout by trying to foster "a
    more humanistic, nonexploitative approach to the development of
    talent," as the writer Marie Winn put it in a New York Times Magazine
    article in 1979. What a researcher named Jeanne Bamberger has termed a
    "midlife" crisis seems to occur for prodigious young musicians: a
    transitional period of cognitive and emotional maturation during which
    only some performers manage to move beyond intuitive imitation to a
    more reflective sense of direction. Parents must carve out space for
    precocious players to "have a childhood. . .an adolescence," according
    to influential figures like Itzhak Perlman; resist the pressure, they
    urge, to "get management" and a packed schedule of practice and

    Yet pressure also unavoidably goes with the terrain of musical
    promise. After all, even if most musicians with phenomenal early
    talent won't emerge as great

    mature artists, the stars of the future will surely have been young
    phenomenons. Marc's mother is well aware of that - and knows that
    constructive practice at Marc's age requires an adult at his side. So
    does Marc, who appreciates how much work his idols Yo-Yo Ma and Lang
    Lang devoted to honing the technique that no virtuoso can do without.
    The message for kids that Marc passed on in his session with the
    Davidsons will no doubt be their most used quotation. "You should play
    Game Boy less," he said in his slightly lisping cadence, "and you
    should practice more." Marc's cello teacher understandably worries
    about all the attention (he has been on "The Tonight Show" and
    "Oprah"), yet this bubbly boy who can bear down on his music with
    undaunted intensity seems proof of the pleasure - never mind future
    fame - this kind of driven focus can bring.

    Karsten, who by age 6 had already placed first in the International
    Young Artists Concert at the Kennedy Center, couldn't help casting
    more of a shadow with his listlessness in his morning session with the
    Davidsons. To their opening question about how he got started on the
    piano, he quietly replied: "Actually, I didn't want to do it. My
    mother wanted me to have something to do when I was older. And then I
    liked it." Asked at the end about what lay ahead, he said, "I really
    don't know what I'm doing," adding with a sigh that he would "just
    graduate in math and physics." By then it had become clear that
    Karsten, even before facing any subtle maturational challenges of
    adolescence, had run into a physical obstacle: elbow tendonitis had
    forced a hiatus in his playing, he said, and now his wrist hurt.
    Though he is feeling better, it was the kind of setback that could
    well leave a phenomenal performer sounding temporarily adrift.

    As the Library of Congress reception was breaking up, the literary
    laureate was standing off to the side, feeling "very weird," she
    commented. Heidi Kaloustian, the only fellow in literature, hastened
    to say she had "great respect for science," but the evening had
    brought home to her just what a different place she was in from the
    young researchers. A professional path seemed to open out before them,
    with scientific papers already in the works for some, patent
    possibilities in view for others, further lab options surely ahead for
    all. Almost as if in sisterly solidarity, Maia Cabeza, the lone girl
    musician, came up to ask Heidi eagerly whether her portfolio - which,
    along with her poetry, contains a striking trio of fictional portraits
    of female coming-of-age ordeals in other cultures - was going to be
    published. Trying not to sound too appalled, Heidi answered: "I
    wouldn't dream of trying. I have so much more to learn." Heidi
    confided that the fellowship, though hugely welcome, has also been
    daunting. "I have to top something when I'm not even sure how I did
    it." It is not that she lacked teachers; she felt indebted to one in
    particular, and had a fabulous summer with other artistic kids at the
    Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. Her spirited mother, an avid reader
    and nurse, who, instead of whisking her daughters to a round of
    activities, made sure they had lots of time with books, clearly has
    inspired confidence in her daughter. Still, to have an imagination
    like Heidi's is to be aware of how mysterious the future twists and
    turns may be (and how rarely $50,000 drops down on struggling

    Unexpectedly, given that nonverbal brilliance is popularly associated
    with an aura of weirdness, it is the Davidson Fellows outside the
    realms of math, science and technology who look quirky by comparison,
    kids who have embarked on sometimes unwieldy projects that propel them
    they are not quite sure where. With criteria far less clear-cut in the
    nonquantitative fields, the institute's judges (who are anonymous) are
    evidently eager to reward reach and a degree of intellectual
    nonconformity, and on one occasion extreme youth: a 10-year-old named
    Alexandra Morris received a fellowship for her literary work. (There
    is even an "outside the box" category, though so far no winners.) The
    first year of the fellowships, 2001, 15-year-old Daniel Ohrenstein was
    awarded for tackling "The Endeavor of Seeing the Essential Nature of
    Existence," a series of rather woolly philosophical lectures that
    Ohrenstein, now an engineering major, says he shies from rereading
    since he has become a convert to "clear thinking" and "vowed never to
    use the words 'everything' and 'nothing' again." That same year,
    16-year-old Rachel Emery says she was rescued by the Davidson award
    she won for an existential-fantasy novella written in what her mother
    calls the depths of depression. An eclectic energy has fueled her
    subsequent course through Simon's Rock, an experimental college
    designed for high-school-age students, and on to Wellesley, where she
    continues to work on several novels and to be, as she puts it,
    "constitutionally incapable of attempting anything on a reasonable

    For caution about forecasting and scripting the futures of the highly
    gifted, there is no better place to look than the past. History has
    plenty of humbling examples, one of them cited by the psychologist
    Howard Gruber, who observed that "any fellowship-awards committee
    comparing young [Thomas] Huxley's plans when setting out on the voyage
    of the Rattlesnake with young Darwin's plans when setting out on the
    voyage of the Beagle - both wrote them down in a page or so - would
    have given first place to Huxley and put Darwin on the waiting list."
    It was precisely Huxley's impressive "hard-edged analytic
    objectivism," Gruber speculated, that may have proved a handicap,
    where Darwin's vaguer, receptive cast of mind was crucial. "When
    someone asked Albert Einstein, 'What is your key to success?' " Dean
    Keith Simonton says, his answer was "I'm just curious." Simonton went
    on: "How do you cultivate that? It's a hard thing to do." He notes
    that Einstein himself "couldn't be mentored, refused to listen to his
    teachers, went his own way."

    Nobody, of course, expects to handpick the next Einstein. Still, it is
    worth remembering that the solicitously individualized "scaffolding"
    for the highly gifted that experts currently recommend, and the
    pre-professional alacrity that programs like the Hopkins Center for
    Talented Youth and the Davidson Fellowships often reward, are
    themselves experiments in progress. Look at eminences in the past, and
    what stands out in their childhoods is an animus toward school, a
    tolerance for solitude and families with lots of books. What also
    stands out is families with "wobble" - which means stress and, often,
    risk-taking parents with strong opinions - rather than bastions of
    supportiveness where a child's giftedness is ever in self-conscious
    focus. Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics and himself a
    prodigy who went to Tufts at 11 and Harvard at 15, wrote that
    prodigious children need to develop a "reasonably thick skin" - to
    feel they aren't demonized and will find a niche, but not to expect
    the world to supply a spotlight. Simonton speaks of the importance of
    being able to be "on the failure track for a while, take time off,
    take a real risk." Creativity and innovation, he says he is convinced,
    depend on "exposure to the unusual, to the diverse, to heterogeneity,"
    which inspires a "recognition that there are a lot of different ways
    of looking at different things." There are also all kinds of ways that
    this "awareness that there's more than one possible world" can dawn.
    (The fact that it is built into the immigrant experience is one
    reason, on top of an ethos of incredibly hard work, that Simonton says
    he believes kids of recently arrived families so often dominate the
    ranks of the spectacularly talented.)

    No one would recommend throwing more obstacles in highly gifted
    children's way. But as experts sound the alarm about the brilliant
    minds that aren't being found or are being frustrated, it is some
    solace to think that the real geniuses aren't necessarily being
    denied. They are biding their time and will take us by surprise.

    Ann Hulbert, a contributing writer, is the author of "Raising America:
    Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children."

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