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.35,” she said… Photo: Peter Stackpole, 1955 - LIFE''" width="402" height="600" />