December 1995


Recently some "experts" on the education of gifted children sounded off in the papers. Even if precocious children were allowed to take exams at an early age and were very successful, their lives often went wrong thereafter, at least in the sense that they failed to be spectacularly successful in adult life. The implication of this seemed to be, as usual, that allowing anyone to do anything younger than the average age was positively risky for their chances in life, so everyone should be very careful not to let their children do anything exceptional except under the guidance of experts such as these.


So let us ask what right such people have to regard themselves as experts anyway. When you employ an expert landscape gardener or tax consultant, he is supposed to use his expertise to help you achieve the end results that you consider desirable in the light of your preferences in life. An educational expert is usually recognised as such by society at large, some educational authority or university, and his function is to bring about the end results that society at large will consider most desirable. He is not answerable for the consequences of his advice to a parent who is paying him directly, still less to the child whose life he may be ruining. There is thus no reason at all to suppose that educational experts are good at making things turn out favourably for those on whose behalf (allegedly) they are consulted. In fact, since to reaction of any individual to another individual who is cleverer than himself is likely to be jealousy, an educational expert functioning as an agent of society is only likely to be an expert in how to do harm to anyone who is too clever.


One reason that the precocious do not succeed correspondingly in later life may just be that it is very difficult for the really able to find career channels in the modern world; the academic world is certainly less willing to recognise ability or provide the possibly unusual opportunities which it may need than it was fifty years ago (and then it was not very).


Few child geniuses make the transition to adult genius, the article claims, implying that childhood genius need not be taken seriously nor its frustration and torment regretted. Mozart is cited as an example of one child genius who did make the grade; but many special factors went into that. Mozart was at first taught by his father; it is a difficult thing to be a successful child prodigy in any field without support, and probably teaching, from a parent or close relative. People are not motivated to do real good to one another and the willingness to teach really well is rare, almost as rare as the willingness to give large sums of money, another practice which is rare outside of close family relationships. Mozart's successful transition to the role of adult genius depended on the fact that his productions had a commercial value.


The patronage of geniuses has usually depended on the fact that patrons wanted their products. Sculptors, painters, musicians and landscape designers have, on the whole, found it easier to get support than philosophers and scientists, who did their work only if they were rich enough to provide themselves with the time and circumstances that made it possible. Few now considered geniuses have been supported by people who thought it was a pity that the world should be deprived of their uniquely valuable contributions.