The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Raising Wunderkinder

Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies

Ann Hulbert

New York, NY: Knopf, 2018.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

Child prodigies take us to the heart of a central conflict in democratic education: Should we focus our national energies on equality—raising everyone to a level—or on elevating the best to their potential? Ideally, we might do both, and we try to, even in the face of limited resources. But even if resources were unlimited, the tension between these two ends would persist: The very existence of outstanding genius sabotages the search for a satisfactory “level” to which everyone else might be brought.

Then again, perhaps excellence does not exist, at least not as we conventionally understand it. “We have set up the notion of mind at large, of intellectual method that is the same for all,” John Dewey complained in “The Nature of Method,” a chapter in his 1916 book Democracy and Education. “Then,” he wrote,

we regard individuals as differing in the quantity of mind with which they are charged…. The measure of difference between the average student and the genius is a measure of the absence of originality in the former. But this notion of mind in general is a fiction. How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning.

Progressive education since Dewey has sought to circumvent the conflict between the best and the average by emphasizing a vision of a cohesive “democratic society” that prizes individual flexibility and openness over exemplary personal accomplishment. What then is to be done for the handful of children who are too advanced to ignore, who write stories, compose music, and prove theorems before they’re potty trained?

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Rita Koganzon is associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy, and a lecturer in the politics department at the University of Virginia.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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