In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 2 Jun 98

The Angst of Genius

AL:   Concerning William James Sidis ... David Slater (A Prometheus member, methinks) wrote a compelling (IMNSHO) article entitled "The Greatest Mind Ever - A Lesson From History" for the Prometheus Society magazine, and it was recently posted to the "Thinkers International" mailing list, to which I'm currently subscribed. As a newlywed contemplating having children, I'm fascinated and saddened by this story. It's more than a little frightening to realize the immense power we wield in raising children - in Sidis' case, parental pressure to become a super-genius destroyed him. I know I'll certainly think twice now before forcing Latin verbs down my infant's gullet.

Has anyone here read David Slater's article, or any other material about Sidis?** Did it touch a nerve?

JW:   I had read about William Sidis a long time ago. Supposedly, his father was obsessed with the idea of making his son a super-genius. As a child, instead of learning about fairy tales, Sidis learned of Latin and mathematics.

I heard that at the age of fourteen, I believe, he was lecturing on the fourth dimension in front of many educated individuals. This was when his bizarre malady surfaced. He was supposed to have had an uncontrollable fit of laughter. I also heard that thereafter, when attempting to lecture, or undertake some other type of intellectual endeavor, he would suffer from these laughter fits. It was said that he died at a young age. He had been supporting himself as a janitor, or something of this sort. I read about William Sidis a long time ago, in the book called Stranger Than Science.

His was quite a tragic story. Such an incredibly brilliant mind, gone to waste. I too, believe it is important to let your children enjoy their childhood.

JCC:   Yes, Andrea, I recall a brief article about his troubled life, some years ago, if it was in fact the same story. I fear that variations on the theme exist in significant numbers ... and it's not at all certain that matters have improved over time. It seems wise to allow learning to be a delight rather than a forced issue. At least allow the delight of learning until such time as tedium and/or inept teachers spoil things rather much. I was most fortunate to have enjoyed two highly gifted teachers in succession in the closing years of primary school ... and a few inspiring ones in subsequent years.

It seems also better to know some of the unpleasant realities of humankind at an early age rather than be taught myth, propaganda, and fantasy under the guise of fact, much in keeping with the noble words of Hypatia***.

A bright child, as any child, can benefit from the loving, wise parent who provides reliable "survival facts" and guidance in nurturing the skills of critical thinking which will serve so well in steering a happier course through life's journey.

LDL:   Something deep within told me that I didn't have enough of what it takes to be great at any one thing and still be good at everything else. Although there are some I've met who seem to do precisely that.

JPr:   I am great at precisely one thing, and maybe a little good at some others. I have focused all my energies on education of deaf, blind and deafblind kids. To me, nothing else matters. I often wonder if I could have been a good engineer or architect -- I think not. I could probably have been a good physician, but I chose this route instead. I can't make a fortune at it, but I am known all over the world in my tiny little fishbowl {grin} -- for what it's worth. There is so much else I don't know -- but I do know how these three groups of kids learn best and how we can help them move on to their maximum potential. I guess that makes me one of the folks in your second sentence?

LDL:   For my own taste, though, I thought a specialty would be boring, so I chose to dabble in everything. I've never regretted it and I think I don't flatter myself too much when I say that I generally am reasonably good at everything I do.

JPr:   I like having one specialty, and I don't mind that I am not good at all at other things. I am fascinated, though, by folks like you who can do so many things.

LDL:   Starting with our genetic potentials, we build ourselves in whatever way we react to our environment and our own internalized actualization. Consequently there are many people I have met who can not get qualifying scores on the power tests or the standardized tests, who are in our peer group.

JPr:   Yup. That's why I don't get excited about the scores, either. If there was a Mega test focused on deafblindness, I would score in the 99.9999 percentile {g}. In fact, on the NTE special education section, I did score about that high. Didn't get me into Mensa, though. Oh, well!

LDL:   It is possible that beyond a certain minimum intelligence level is not what defines human any more than a specific physical form.

JPr:   There are humans who have very minimum intelligence levels and are still human... and there are animals with fairly developed problem-solving skills. I wonder if this is less about being human or human-like than it is about being a thinking organism, with the potential for problem-solving and logical thinking. Just a thought...

I am not familiar with the Turing test.

JCC:   Essentially the model of Alan Turing on computer intelligence, when in a blind interaction, the human examiner cannot determine whether the conversation partner at the other end is another human or a machine simulation of an intelligent being.

Turing himself is such an interesting figure, one who made significant accomplishments for his country only to be hounded to death through military homophobia a few decades back.

EM:   Dear friends, I, for one, am not surprised by talking gorillas, the AOL Political Chat Group attracts quite a few of them every evening. On another topic, that of extreme intelligence, what good is it? To pose the question in another manner, why should anyone want to have the highest (largest) amount of a quality that is far from universally, even generally, admired?

When I was still new in Mensa, some long years ago, I became very concerned about how the American public seemed to view this organization of which I had just become a member. Baltimore had at that time a radio talk show host named Allen Christian (Julia will remember him) who was very popular for several years. On one of his programs, he was interviewing two teenage girls who had just won Merit Scholarships of some sort, and they were representative of the National Honor Society. They had exceeded hundreds, if not thousands of other contestants, and were certainly qualifiers for the i.q. societies.

After a few minutes of discussion, Allen asked them if they had considered membership in Mensa, along with their other demonstrated academic accomplishments. They seemed genuinely shocked, aghast would not be incorrect, at the suggestion. They instantly responded that the idea was outlandish, they had never considered it, and certainly they never would. As a radio listener, and newly hatched member of Mensa, I was equally shocked at the vehemence of their response, and attitude. Allen did not regard their response as unusual, and he smoothly went on to other subjects in the interview. I must admit I was a bit annoyed, but extremely curious about the matter as well. The girls were clearly pleased and charmingly modest about their academic or intellectual prowess as revealed in academic accomplishment. Why then, were they hostile to the idea of a group such as Mensa?

Oh, dear, now the discussion strays into a morass of quicksand decorated with snakes and alligators. The first idea is that of the great American anti-intellectual attitude, the frontiersman with his musket, a strong, stalwart semi-literate, quick to dispatch b'ars, Indians, and heretics. The second is the idea of fairness, you work hard, run a 4.0 average, and get the good job offers from Salomon Brothers upon graduation, and make $350,000 a year at the age of 27. The third idea is an ingrained resentment of perceived hereditary advantage. If a high school dropout can qualify for Mensa, what good is it? If a person with a master's degree in English cannot qualify, how fair is it?

The American public demands a license, or permit to have, or demonstrate, intelligence. A doctorate, or other honorific title, will permit the bearer to use academic speech patterns without public resentment. The person without such credentialing is at risk of arousing envy and resentment of his/her peers, and must adopt protective coloring in the form speech patterns, and expressed ideas, appropriate to his/her social group and placement.

I once discussed Mensa briefly with a psychiatrist who was a member of the American Psychiatric Association. He gave the opinion that Mensa was a bad idea, far too elitist. I inquired if the American Psychiatric Association might be just the slightest bit elitist? He was indignant, and assured me that such could not possibly be the case, the very idea was ridiculous.

** David Slater's article is linked here, and also on the main page.

*** Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 - 415 CE): "Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth --- often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable."

Osen, Lynn M., Women in Mathematics, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974., citing p.84 of Elbert Hubbard's 1908 biographical work on Hypatia.

Return to Colloquy main page