A nice, bio-sketch piece from the BBC came flying across my Twitter feed from fellow educational pioneer, John Hagel (tip of the hat — John goes through a TON of content, sorts it, and posts it on Twitter!) This one, titled Child prodigies: How geniuses navigate the uncertain journey to adulthood, narrates the journeys of a number of prodigies who mostly either finished college early, or in other ways became known at an early age for musical performance. The piece was probably spurred by the recent mini-controversy over Laurent Simons, the Belgian prodigy who looked to break the record for earliest college graduate (his major was in electrical engineering) at the age of 10. He was, depending on your perspective, thwarted/didn’t cut the mustard/whatever! by the university he was enrolled in. And in light of that, his parents yanked him out to attend school in the United States.
The more interesting part of the piece is really NOT the idea that a 10-year-old can graduate from college, or play concert-level violin. Neuro-differentiated youngsters, possessing brains that run at the functional computer equivalent of increased clock rates, are going to show up on the tails of various intelligence measure distributions. They’re going to finish college faster because their brains in isolation are going to run faster.
What’s more fascinating is that they, through the process of their innate capacity, along with learned specialization, usually do NOT turn into creative geniuses. As I’ve discussed extensively on this blog, empathetic interaction is far more likely to yield creative solutions that leaving one, ungrounded person with their own thoughts. So it’s no surprise that these young people specialize in things requiring knowledge sophistication — and race through universities, also dedicated to exactly that same type of thought pattern/value set. Creative genius is almost always cross-paradigmatic, borrowing from different perspectives, than the narrow, parthenogenesis of further refinement that happens inside universities.
Here’s the picture I’m fond of using showing the difference between evolution and complexity, and sophistication, for your reference.
If you key into one part of this graph, consider the “reliability vs. validity” aspect. A prodigy violin player can practice over and over a particular sequence so they play it perfectly — thus emphasizing reliability. But even the best young player requires coaching from a master in order to deliver nuance in their playing, or communicate through their music moods expressed in the composition, such as loss of a loved one, or Alexander Nevsky beating the Livonian Order on the ice in Prokofiev’s masterpiece. A young person simply doesn’t have the life experience, and must rely on mirroring empathy. Their master must provide the grounding validity.
Limiting cases, such as these talented young people are especially useful for generalized insight into sentience. Not because of their externally validated accomplishments, like graduating from Oxford early. But because what they cannot do points to ways we must change, and establish behavior reward. The future, if we are going to have one, and the answers to the big questions are going to rely on connected thought, across disciplines and people. It will be empathetic.