John Stuart Mill was one of the most intellectually gifted men of his generation, with an I.Q. estimated to have been 159, or better than 99.99% of the population. Yet he almost didn,t make it; suffering a mental crisis in which he contemplated suicide. The situation was indeed Oedipal, and the father its object.
A prodigy is a child who, before the age of ten, performs at the level of a highly trained adult in some cognitively demanding domain . As a uniquely defined category of extreme precocity, the prodigy came into being about fifty years ago,in spite of the fact that “prodigy” has been used loosely to refer to extraordinary youngsters for many years. Historically, the term meant any unnatural occurrence portending change . It referred to an entire range of phenomena extending across happenings notable as uncanny or extraordinary:- nary and the existence of humans or animals regarded as “freaks.” Eventually, as the term began to refer more narrowly to extreme human precocity, the “sign” or “portent” aspect of its meaning was dropped, while the essential connotation of ”unnatural” or “inexplicable” remained. Within this narrowed context, “prodigy” continued to be used to refer to a range of types of precocity. With the advent of IQ and its general acceptance as the gauge of giftedness, prodigies were subsumed under the IQ umbrella . Children composing sonatas at the age of six were assumed to have high IQs with penchants for given fields. James Mill’s education of his son, to be a prodigy in childhood and a philosopher in manhood; is a classic story of a pedagogic success. But the emotional scars left on John Stuart Mill make it also a classic example of generational conflict. Mill had an extremely high IQ but not a prodigy per se and the failure to live up to these expectations by his stage manager father nearly destroyed him. D.H. Feldman introduced a precise definition of “prodigy” and highlighted the domain-specific nature of prodigious talent, simultaneously challenging the power of either Piagetian conceptualizations or IQ to explain the prodigy phenomenon; And proposed a developmental theory (Co-incidence) to explain prodigious achievement as a separate category of intelligence.
The history of intellectuals is strewn with the debris of childhood prodigies who failed to make the grade as adults. Burn-out, arrested development, psychological and physical problems – they have all taken their toll. Pushy parents are also a source of grief, and there is no way of predicting how many young potentials will turn out. This was particularly the case with Mill.
Besides Greek and Latin, what did James Mill give his son? Initially, he provided him with the perfect model of the ”mightiest, wisest” being in the world; only in young manhood did John Stuart acknowledge the flaws. Even then he was still under his father’s spel to such an extent that he claimed, ”In the power of influencing by mere force of ind and character, the convictions and purposes of others… he left, as far as my knowledge extends, no equal among men….”
With his self made father coaching the son in his lessons, the final result was not a pretty picture. Rationally, the education was splendid; emotionally, it was debilitating. On the one hand his father showered extraordinary attention on the boy, calculated to appeal to his narcissistic tendencies. On the other, he mercilessly disparaged him, even to the point of mocking and caricaturing his reading of sentences. In one way the father offered a splendid picture of a self-made man with whom John Stuart could proudly identify. In another way, James Mill made his son to feel a failure, who had also failed his father, without any hope of growing up to be like his father.
…”Hollingworth (1942) conducted case studies of twelve children (eight boys and four girls) testing above 180 IQ on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. She found that, although no one characteristic could be singled out as identifying accelerated development, early talking and reading most clearly differentiated these children from the average. Since the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought that Terman aimed at identifying was chiefly language-based conceptual facility, this is not a surprising finding. Early talking and reading are likely manifestations of high-level verbal-conceptual ability.”
Hollingworth identified three major adjustment problems risked by children of above-180 IQ . First, they failed to develop desirable work habits in school settings geared to average children’s capacities. In such settings, they spent considerable time in idleness and daydreaming. Consequently, they learned to dislike school.
A second problem documented by Hollingworth was these children’s difficulty in finding satisfying companionship and their consequent social isolation. While they typically attempted play with others, their efforts commonly failed since age-mates did not share their interests, vocabulary, or desire for more complex activities. Older children might satisfy the extraordinarily gifted child’s need for intellectual rapport, but physically the younger child was at a disadvantage. Thus, Hollingworth believed that these children must be educated for leisure.
Hollingworth’s research suggested that children of extraordinarily high IQ are unlikely to be accepted as leaders by age-mates. Leaders, Hollingworth (1926) concluded, are likely to be “more intelligent, but not too much more intelligent, than the average of the group led” (p. 131). She believed that beyond IQ 160, children have little chance of being popular leaders in a regular school setting. To develop leadership skills, such children needed to be placed in special classes with others like themselves.
Emotional vulnerability was a third problem documented by Hollingworth. These children are able to understand and grapple with major philosophical and ethical issues before they are emotionally ready to do so. Hollingworth cautioned that adults must deal patiently with such vulnerabilities to avoid engendering lifelong emotional problems, concluding, “To have the intelligence of an adult and the emotions of a child combined in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties” (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 282).
….James Mill’s basic problem appears to have involved the typical threat to the self-made man; the need to accept his own desire to be passive and dependent, to be given to and taken care of, as in the case of a helpless child. The threat is that the source of supply may disappear. John Stuart’s problem was quite different; a desperate need to assert his autonomy, without losing all grip on his earlier life and training. The extraordinary thing is that in his early years, John Stuart did not blame his father. Rather, cued by his father’s example, he seems to have transferred his negative feelings to his mother. John Stuart , himself disparaged by his father, identified with the father’s disparagement of the mother; shifting the blame to his mother for his father’s unloving nature. …
The Prodigy, originally dating from 1905, is Hermann Hesses’s bitter indictment of conventional education, a more importantly how gifted children face long odds of succeeding in a banal, mediocre and slow moving world. It is the story of Hans Giebenrath, the brilliant young son of provincial bourgeois in southern Germany who becomes the first boy from his town to pass into a prestigious Protestant theological college. His spirit, however, is systematically broken by his parents and teachers; over-anxious about his success, they forget to consider his health and happiness. Subsiding into a fatal apathy, he is taken home for medical reasons. Here he falls in love, becomes an engineer’s apprentice, learns to drink alcohol and eventually dies by drowning.
John Stuart Mill, was fortunate to escape such a destiny, though he did skate close to the precipice at times. Perhaps it was the utilitarian ideology from Jeremy Bentham; imbibing John Stuart with utilitarian ideological convictions along with the first words he learned.
One curious aftermath is that while James Mill was a tyrant toward his own wife, and carried this into the political arena by denying women the right to vote, his son, sharing the attitude toward the mother, became a leading advocate of women’s rights. The psychodynamics seem complicated to unravel, but are probably crucial. They are also crucial to John Stuart’s own love and sexual life. In 1830 John Stuart was introduced to the wife of John Taylor. Harriet taylor was already the mother of two children and was shortly to have a third. Yet, with her and John Stuart, it was almost love at first sight. Within a short time, to the scandal of all their friends, John Stuart and the Taylors were living in a rather awkward ”menage a trois”. ….
”Baumgarten’s Nine Prodigies. Baumgarten (1930) studied nine child prodigies, including two pianists, two violinists, one orchestra conductor, one artist, one geographer, and one chess prodigy. Focusing on the children’s whole personalities rather than only their achievements, she also examined patterns of abilities. Like Revesz, she wrote of the mixture of adult and child demonstrated by her subjects. They appeared ambitious, pragmatic, wary of those who might harm their careers, passionately devoted to their fields, unafraid of public performance, and desirous of using their gifts to benefit their families.
There were surprising contrasts between various abilities within subjects. Violinists and pianists demonstrated poor hand coordination in bending wire, drawing, and folding and cutting-though one girl violinist had a talent for drawing. A six-year-old boy showing difficulty in making a circle out of two or three sections or a pentagon from two sections was, at the same time, extraordinarily good at map drawing .
On standardized intelligence tests, the children performed well, but not with the degree of extraordinariness conveyed by their special talents. In contemporary IQ terms, the scores ranged from 120 to at least 160. Baumgarten concluded that her subjects’ overall intellectual competence, as reflected in the test results, could not explain their outstanding performances in particular fields and that it was necessary to go beyond such testing to explain prodigious abilities-inheritance, temperament, family, education, environment, and culture must be examined.”