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Created: November 20, 2005
Latest Update: November 20, 2005
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/20/magazine/20prodigies.html. Original URL, consulted: November 20, 2005.
November 20, 2005
The Prodigy Puzzle
By ANN HULBERT
'So you're the geniuses," Senator Carl Levin said, looking pleased as he peered over his glasses. He was addressing the flaxen-haired Heidi Kaloustian, a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan, and John Zhou, a superfriendly 17-year-old senior at Detroit Country Day School, unusual visitors to Room 269 of the Russell Office Building on Capitol Hill. Michigan had distinguished itself, Levin had been informed: the state boasted two Davidson Fellows, and he had clearly been told these teenagers came trailing brainy superlatives. "Genius loves company," announced the September press release about the students who had won scholarships awarded annually since 2001 by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a foundation that supports "profoundly intelligent" youths, a more recent term for off-the-charts children. "Seventeen prodigies," the press release went on, were "to be honored at the Library of Congress for contributions to society" in the fields of science, math, technology, music and literature.
Even among these superstars, the young Michiganders stood out. All the accolades and attention added up to a thrilling but evidently also somewhat disorienting experience, at least for one of them. "I'm generally pretty shy, hesitant to show my work," Heidi told me over the summer - a reticence that had only partly been drummed out of her by joining her high school's poetry-slam team at a teacher's insistence. Sitting on the couch awaiting the senator, she looked slightly dazed at being in the limelight: Heidi was one of the four Davidson "fellow laureates" this year - recipients of the top $50,000 scholarship awards for projects they had submitted. She was also the first laureate ever in literature, with a writing portfolio she titled "The Roots of All Things." John, a scientist whose 2005 accomplishments also included semifinalist standing in the national math, physics and biology olympiads, was taking his $25,000 award in stride. He was one of five winners at that level. The remaining eight Fellows received $10,000 each - money to be disbursed for approved educational purposes for up to 10 years.
Apparently feeling his visitors deserved more than the usual small talk, Senator Levin forged on with "Where are your souls?"
"You mean what are our projects?" John responded, ready with the title of his: "A Study of Possible Interactions Among Rev1, Rev3 and Rev7 Proteins From Saccharomyces Cerevisiae." John laughed along with everyone else when Levin remarked, "I understood the word 'protein,' " and with the confident charm of a youth who has spent lots of time with adults, he told the senator he really enjoyed seeing him at a recent AIDS walk in Michigan (for which John had organized a school team). Turning to Heidi, who explained that she wrote both poetry and prose, Levin was prompted to joke, "So writers are worth twice as much as scientists these days?" It was a short step to reminiscences about college-tuition bills for his own daughters. The Senate photographer then sprang into action, arranging a classic portrait of future promise: professorial senator in the middle, flanked on one side by a bright-eyed youth and on the other by a mother wearing a grin her child might later tell her looks goofy.
For the Davidson Fellows who came to Washington in late September for a gathering that culminated in an evening reception at the Library of Congress, the visit to Capitol Hill was more than a photo op. It was an effort to help promote the vision of their patrons, the founders of the Reno-based Davidson Institute, Bob and Jan Davidson. Drawing on a fortune earned in the educational-software business, the Davidsons established themselves as a well-endowed new presence on the gifted-education scene in 1999. Their goal is not just to support extraordinary youthful achievements, though their contributions to the cause of enriching precocious childhoods have been wide-ranging. The institute's enterprises include, in addition to the fellowships, a free consulting service now assisting 750 "Young Scholars" between the ages of 4 and 18 who qualify with top test scores (99.9th percentile, I.Q.'s of at least 145) or, for those without a battery of assessments, portfolio submissions. The Davidsons have also begun the Think Summer Institute, offering college courses for 12- to 15-year-olds. Next fall the Davidson Academy, a public middle and high school for the profoundly gifted, will open on the Reno campus of the University of Nevada. How much pleasure the Davidsons, in their early 60's, take in celebrating the accomplishments of the fellows was obvious at the reception: Bob, strong-jawed and a jokester, and the elfin Jan glowed like godparents as they beckoned the multicultural array of prize-winners up to the dais to speak about their projects - "prodigious work," a term the Institute favors, ranging from the adorable 6-year-old Marc Yu's piano performance to the 17-year-old Kadir Annamalai's work on the "growth of germanium nanowires," useful in thermoelectric devices.
It is the Davidsons' other, related aim that calls forth a different kind of fervor. Authors (with Laura Vanderkam) of a book called "Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Minds" (2004), they are on a mission to remedy what they are convinced is a widespread neglect of exceptionally talented children. That means challenging the American myth that they are weirdos or Wunderkinder best left to their own devices or made to march with the crowd. "By denying our most intelligent students an education appropriate to their abilities," Jan Davidson warns a nation in the midst of a No Child Left Behind crusade, "we may also be denying civilization a giant leap forward." Precocious children are not only avid learners eager for more than ordinary schools often provide, the Davidsons emphasize; they are also a precious - and imperiled - resource for the future. The Davidsons, joined by many other advocates of the gifted, maintain that it is these precocious children who, if handled right, will be the creative adults propelling the nation ahead in an ever more competitive world. As things stand, the argument goes, the highly gifted child is an endangered species in need of outspoken champions like the Davidsons, who are role models for the "supportive, advocating parent" they endorse.
The youths have their chance to engage in advocacy, too, and the Davidsons had selected very personable prodigies to visit Washington to publicize the don't-hold-children-back message. (Video presentations are part of the fellowship application process.) "Rounded like an egg" is the simile John Zhou used in the SAT-prep classes he taught (though he himself, a perfect scorer, didn't take any), where he recommends blending a well-honed talent with other interests to "erase the image of the nerd or the geek" - a balanced profile the Davidsons would surely endorse. Their fellows fitted it and proved ideal ambassadors of well-tended youthful brilliance. Admirably poised, they were getting precocious practice for the future eminence that, they were told more than once that day, awaits them.
The Davidsons are not the first Americans dedicated to cultivating early promise and dismantling the popular image of highly gifted children as misfits, an affront to a nation founded on egalitarian principles. More than three-quarters of a century ago, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, armed with his newly minted I.Q. test, set out to challenge the myth that unusually intelligent and talented children are "puny, overspecialized in their abilities and interests, emotionally unstable, socially unadaptable, psychotic and morally undependable." His longitudinal "Genetic Studies of Genius" aimed to prove the opposite: highly gifted youths tended not only to enjoy more wholesome childhoods than ordinary kids but also to become extraordinary adults. His labors have since helped spawn a rich field of research and outreach devoted to exceptionally gifted children - though you might not guess it from the embattled rhetoric employed by gifted-child advocates in general, not just the Davidson Institute.
The lament uttered half a century ago that in philistine America "there are no little leagues of the mind" could not be made in our turn-of-the-millennium meritocracy. Thanks precisely to programs like those run by the Davidson Institute, there is what you might call a farm system devoted to finding talent and developing it, and though the process isn't streamlined, it has become ever more extensive. You merely have to look at the résumés of the Davidson Fellows, which list a stunning array of distinctions - from music and Intel competitions to math and science olympiads to participation in highly selective summer programs. Even as they sound the alarm, prominent advocates themselves celebrate the widening span of resources. Consider, for example, "A Nation Deceived," the Templeton National Report on Acceleration issued last year and subtitled, "How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students." In its brief for more grade skipping and subject acceleration, it indicts an educational system that indeed gives talented students short shrift. (Federal money for the "gifted and talented" is minuscule compared with the quarter billion in this year's No Child Left Behind budget, and state and local efforts, though often better, are uneven.) Yet in the course of promoting the benefits of leaping ahead, "A Nation Deceived" also extols "a whole host of outside-of-school opportunities, including award ceremonies, summer programs, after-school or Saturday programs, distance-learning programs and weekend workshops and seminars," to which the talent search serves as a "gateway" for the topmost students, who also have a variety of early college options to consider, like California State University at Los Angeles's lively early-entrance program. Julian Stanley, a Johns Hopkins psychology professor and a pioneer of the gifted-child movement, marveled not long before he died last summer at age 87 at how a dearth of opportunities had given way to a "wealth of facilitative options."
Perhaps the time has come to examine a rather different myth, embraced by gifted-child advocates themselves: that children of unusual intelligence and accomplishments remain a misunderstood, marginalized resource in a culture obsessed with equity and prone to conformity. In fact, youthful prodigiousness is the leading edge of a wider cultural preoccupation with early high performance in our meritocratic era. Among the educated elite, the superchild has become the model child, and the model parent is an informed advocate with an eye trained on his or her child's future prospects. The unusual fate of the precocious child - to become adultified early and yet to remain hovered over for longer - is echoed in the situation of the privileged child, ushered along a highly scheduled path of credentialed performance from cradle onward, with college and career ever in mind.
In short, thanks not least to the gifted-child movement itself, the mission of discovering and molding precocious talent has been mainstreamed more successfully than anyone expected. Once in a while, the more mundane variety of Ivy League-aspiring kids and their ambitious parents pause to ask themselves whether the ethos entails too much early pressure to compete. For truly extraordinary kids, a different version of the question arises, but it is considered less often: could it be that in the quest to pinpoint and promote exceptional youthful promise, testers and contests and advocates may have unwittingly introduced early pressure to conform, not to the crowd but to an assiduously monitored, preprofessionalized and future-oriented trajectory? If the mold-breaking creativity and innovation that advocates invoke are what society wants more of, perhaps it is worth asking whether anointing the ranks of talent-search stars with a sense of foreordained distinction and steering them onto a prize- and degree-laden fast track, the earlier the better, may have its costs. Of course, it is every parent's hope to help satisfy highly gifted children's zeal for mastery and give them fulfilling childhoods, and programs like those the Davidson Institute runs help make that easier. But a look back over a century suggests it may be hubris if the goal of the guidance is to shape truly exceptional destinies in adulthood.
Long before 20th-century psychology turned its attention to young geniuses, children with extraordinary powers were enshrined in myth as figures to be at once feared and revered. Baby Hercules had occasion to display his prowess in strangling serpents because jealous Juno, angered that Jupiter had sired a son with a mere mortal, dispatched snakes to his cradle. Twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple after Passover, "sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions," invites not only astonishment "at his understanding and answers," but also rebukes from his bewildered parents; they're unsettled by his insistence that he "must be about my Father's business," well aware that he isn't referring to Joseph. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, perhaps the first early Christian attempt to fill in Jesus' life before that temple story, awe is mixed with terror. Jesus is an alarming little boy who doesn't merely make real birds out of clay and work other miracles but causes the death of those who scold him for not resting on the Sabbath and shames masters who try to instruct him in his letters. From the divine/demonic child of antiquity to the Romantic era's idealization of the innocent imaginative genius was perhaps not as big a leap as it seems: the prodigy was the very emblem of prophecy, in touch with mystical truth and powers outside of human time. In his different guises, the phenomenal young emissary came bearing an implicit message: adults beware.
Lewis Terman, however, was not a man readily daunted, and his endeavor embodied the ambitions and the confusions - and the elusive predictions - that have marked gifted research and development ever since. Five years after he revised Alfred Binet's intelligence test, creating what became known as the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test, he put it to use in a pioneering survey of a little-understood population. When Terman began seeking gifted California schoolchildren to participate in his "Genetic Studies of Genius" in 1921, he was undertaking the first youthful talent search, eager not just to explore the nature of gifted children but ultimately to predict and improve their chances of future greatness. Convinced that intellectual capacity was innate, he was a eugenicist eager to see the brightest selected out and trained up to guide society. But he was also aware that no one knew when or how, much less which, buds of brilliance might ultimately produce glorious flowers. Terman became determined to see to it that the proverb "early ripe, early rotten" wouldn't describe their fate. He would do his best to boost, not just stand back and trace, the trajectories of subjects, whose well-rounded giftedness augured such promise.
If that interfered with the purity of his findings and predictions, so, too, did Terman's methods for choosing his subjects. His approach made it less than surprising that the Termites, as the study participants were nicknamed, proved exemplary schoolchildren, not lopsided or eccentric at all. Terman's tool, the I.Q. test, was devised in and for an academic context, focusing on verbal and quantitative reasoning and memory skills, which meant scores at the high end correlated closely with classroom success. He was in search of the overall high performers, and his fieldwork further ensured a sample low on idiosyncratic characters. Since Terman didn't have the resources to comprehensively test the more than a quarter-million students in the California school districts he was looking at, he enlisted teachers to help make the first cut. They supplied him with the kids they considered the best, a group unlikely to include "some nerdy person in the corner mumbling to himself," points out Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who specializes in the scientific study of historical genius. Testing this cohort - as well as other batches of bright children he rounded up earlier - Terman emerged with an overwhelmingly white and middle-class sample of roughly 1,500 students whose average age was 11 and whose I.Q.'s ranged between 135 and 200, about the top 1 percent. (The mean I.Q. in this group was 151, and 77 subjects tested at 170 or higher.) It is worth noting that his methods selected for a conscientious breed of parents as well, given that lengthy questionnaires about their children were part of the drill.
The data reviewed in the first volume of findings, in 1925, demolished "the widespread opinion that typically the intellectually precocious child is weak, undersized or nervously unstable." Terman's inventories - of physical and personality traits, books read, intellectual and recreational interests, family background - revealed children physically superior as well as more trustworthy and honest, and much better at school (where about 85 percent of them had skipped grades) than a nongifted group used for a rough comparison. On the East Coast, a fellow psychologist, Leta Hollingworth of Columbia University Teachers College - a forerunner whom the Davidsons salute - chimed in with similar positive findings about the gifted students she studied in two public schools. For the rare specimens with I.Q.'s of 180 or higher, the record was somewhat more mixed on the question of social adjustment (more recent studies on "psychological well-being" continue to conflict); Hollingworth drew particular attention to the problem of disengagement at school. But home life in their samples' comparatively well-off and small families seemed enviable. "Fortunately," Hollingworth wrote, "the majority of gifted children fall by heredity into the hands of superior parents, who are themselves of fine character and worthy to 'set example.' "
With this portrait, the pioneers confronted a tension that exists to this day in the quest to rally support for the select cohort. Such a positive account of gifted children was good for their image, but less so for the message that, as Terman proclaimed at the close of the first volume, "the great problems of genius" require urgent attention. The young geniuses seemed to be doing nicely - perhaps all too competently, in fact. In the 1930 follow-up volume to "Genetic Studies of Genius," the Terman team betrayed a hint of defensiveness that reappeared in the 25-year and 35-year follow-ups. Anticipating later critics, they cautioned against undue expectations. "The title is not meant to imply that the thousand or more subjects who have entered into the investigations described are all potential geniuses in the more common meaning of that term. A few of the group may ultimately achieve that degree of distinction, but not more than a few."
The urge to forecast, then as now, drives research on childhood giftedness - yet as Malcolm Gladwell noted in a recent talk, precocity in general doesn't turn out to be a very reliable predictor of truly exceptional mature performance. When a colleague of Terman's, Catharine Cox, undertook the curious exercise of retrospectively computing the youthful I.Q.'s of 300 adult geniuses in the past (drawing on facts from their biographies), she found they were high - but far from the whole story. She also discovered the importance of other qualities, especially persistence and confidence. And she presciently warned that tests "cannot measure spontaneity of intellectual activity; perhaps, too, they do not sufficiently differentiate between high ability and unique ability, between the able individual and the extraordinary genius."Cox concluded that "the extraordinary genius who achieves the highest eminence is also the gifted individual whom intelligence tests may discover in childhood," with the crucial caveat that "the converse of this proposition is yet to be proved."
Focusing on a small cohort of children with I.Q.'s above 180, Hollingworth's case studies couldn't supply clear-cut evidence that a high-testing childhood was a precursor of later extraordinariness. The few she followed into early maturity excelled in their early 20's at academic and intellectual work, and won honors. But she wasn't sure what to conclude about creativity and originality, plainly disappointed that her sample didn't display more. She speculated that this was partly because of nurture: "so harnessed to the organized pursuit of degrees," in one child's case, and subjected to an "education so scrupulously supervised and so sedulously recorded that he had little time for original projects" in another. "The gifted group at midlife," as the Termites were called in the 35-year follow-up study, were highly educated for the time, professionally very successful and well adjusted. But the Terman team tried not to sound too let down that "a majority of gifted women prefer housewifery to more intellectual pursuits," right in step with postwar America.
In 1956, the year Terman died, a Nobel Prize was awarded to William Shockley, who as a California schoolboy didn't make the cut for the Termites but went on to help invent the transistor (and was later hailed as a catalyst in the creation of Silicon Valley, and also pilloried as a racist eugenicist). In 1968, another reject, Luis Alvarez, won the prize for his work in elementary particle physics. No Termite ever became a Nobel laureate, though some became well-published scientists and multiple patent holders. Alumni include journalists, poets and movie directors as well as professors, among whom psychologists have been particularly distinguished, perhaps not surprisingly. Terman, after all, pulled Stanford strings and did everything he could to help his protégés, who had been selected for what are often now called "schoolhouse gifts" and had grown up as a self-identified group imbued, not least by him, with expectations of academically approved achievement.
The fact that "the group has produced no great musical composer," as the study's authors wistfully noted, "and no great creative artist" perhaps wasn't so surprising, either. In part, of course, that is because such figures don't surface very often. In part, it was because "special abilities" weren't what they were testing for - the I.Q.'s appeal was its assessment of general cognitive ability, and the "globally gifted" child was the figure the Terman group fixed on. But in part it was also because when special talents were spotted in their high I.Q. mix, they resisted systematic analysis. Fewer than half of the kids who had shown distinctive artistic abilities stuck with those interests, though musicians were more likely to. (Even in music, the field best known for spawning prodigies, the yield of distinguished mature artists is low. Out of an unusually large concentration of 70 young musical marvels in the San Francisco area in the 1920's and 30's, only 6 went on to notable adult careers: Leon Fleisher, Ruth Slenczynska and Hephzibah Menuhin on the piano, and Isaac Stern, Ruggiero Ricci and Yehudi Menuhin on the violin.)
Terman and his colleagues focused on a batch of precocious literary girls. The researchers set out to compare their work with the juvenilia of eminent writers of the past. But quality and development tended to be highly uneven. That was obvious, for example, in a sampling of the 100 poems produced between ages 6 and 8 by the prolific Betty Ford, an engaging girl with an I.Q. of 188 who was said to skip and dance as she dictated her poetry, if she wasn't feverishly typing it out by herself. Nor did the juvenilia of the great provide a steady standard. In fact, a panel of judges rated poems by the young Longfellow and Shelley below those of Betty and other nobodys. As Terman's team concluded: "One would hardly be justified in attempting to devise methods for the prediction of adult literary accomplishment. Too many factors other than natural ability go to determine the amount and merit of achievement." The 8-year-old Betty herself suggested as much in "Blackbirds," which the judges rated among the poorest of her poems: "But to tell what I have in mind,/Is harder by far, than to guess/What the twitter of those birds mean,/As they spatter their words about."
The Stanford-Binet I.Q. test reached middle age along with the Termites, looking disappointingly staid itself. At least it did from the vantage of those increasingly convinced that youthful giftedness could not be reduced to a fixed and innate general intellectual ability or potential. In postwar America, the terms "gifted" and "talented" crowded out "genius," which sounded suspiciously elitist, and a quest was under way for a wider, democratic conception of human excellence. Psychologists pushed toward a more multifaceted understanding of giftedness, turning their attention to "divergent thinking" and creative capacities - fluency, originality, flexibility - as well as to a wider range of less distinctively intellectual abilities, like "task commitment." It was time, too, to take a more interactive, social view of the emergence and growth of talent, whose very existence in childhood, after all, depended on adult recognition. Youthful giftedness could not be fully appreciated, or cultivated, without viewing it as a social construct, a capacity that flourishes thanks to a confluence of forces: a domain of knowledge with clearly demarcated rules a child can master, adult models and mentors ready to assist and a receptive cultural context. All of these factors help explain why highly structured, permanently valued fields like music and math prove especially hospitable to prodigies. It's also why precocious mental calculators and map makers, for example, were once a sought-after variety of prodigy and no longer are.
Some 50 years after Terman, giftedness was a social construct in flux and in the spotlight. The first federal definition of "children capable of high performance," announced in the Office of Education's Marland Report of 1972, which led to legislation on education for the gifted, was a symptomatic catch-all. The formulation covered students "with demonstrated achievement and/or ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination: general intellectual ability, specific academic aptitude, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability, visual- or performing-arts aptitude, psychomotor ability." The lineup still led off with what Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College and the author of "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities" (1996), describes as "the smooth and even image of the globally gifted child." Yet narrower talents - and perhaps quirkier and more uneven ones - now received independent billing, for the old faith had been shaken that I.Q. and creativity were so closely correlated after all. The problem was, there were no good tools for tracking skills like "creative or productive thinking," and in any case, what could that really mean in childhood, a period dedicated to mastering, not generating, knowledge? Looking back to the 1980's, David Henry Feldman, who teaches child development at Tufts University and is the author, with Lynn T. Goldsmith, of "Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential" (1986), recalls a sense of frustration with psychometricians and with "creativity as measured by creativity tests, as in how many ways can you use or describe a brick" - but also a sense of ferment. He was busy examining the uncanny extremes that Terman's study had skirted - Feldman's book probes six specialized prodigies and their hothouselike homes - and he found himself sharing ideas with an eclectic array of psychologists tackling the development of creativity from different angles. Among them were Howard Gardner, who was soon to begin work on his theory of "multiple intelligences," and Howard Gruber and Dean Keith Simonton, both busy looking at the history of creative eminence.
But the impulse to "recharge" the prodigy notion with some of its "original power and mystery," as Feldman put it in his book, failed to gather scientific momentum, he now ruefully admits. (He awaits further brain research.) In the meantime, a less global assessment method than the I.Q. exam had proved itself ideal for identifying the most familiar item on that Marland Report list of special capacities, "specific academic aptitude." There is nothing like a ready tool, and a numerical measure, to cut a phenomenon down to more accessible - and usable - size in America.
The test was the SAT, which Julian Stanley, who established Johns Hopkins as a center of gifted education and research, went ahead and administered in 1969 to an 8th-grade math whiz he had heard was not only excelling in a summer computer course at Hopkins but also helping graduate students. Joe aced the math portion. It emerged that among children under 13 who scored in the very highest percentiles on grade-level standardized tests, there were some who could match or outperform the average high-school senior SAT-taker, particularly on the math section, but also on the verbal section and sometimes on both. The SAT could thus be used as a device for winnowing the top and tiptop performers in specific areas very early. With the help of colleagues, Stanley inaugurated the Johns Hopkins talent search and began gathering subjects for the second-most-famous longitudinal gifted study: the continuing Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which includes a superselect cohort of students who scored 700 or above on the math or the verbal section before turning 13 (a feat performed by 1 in 10,000 children, those the Davidsons and others label "profoundly gifted"). Intervention was Stanley's real goal, and acceleration - not mere enrichment - became his mission, which meant packing the earliest SMPY phenoms off to college very young. Soon Johns Hopkins had started intensive summer programs where students could devour whole-year math courses, and before long literature classes too, in mere weeks. The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth model caught on. Stanley helped start centers at Duke and Northwestern, and there are now programs as well at the University of Denver, the University of Iowa and Vanderbilt University.
"The idea that we should try to make a universal man out of one person isn't appealing to me somehow," Stanley once said, not sharing Terman's interest in the omnibus genius. Instead he and his team emphasized a more specialized vision: to spot children's narrower talent as linguistic or numerical "symbol analyzers" and, by supporting it early and intensively, help spur them on to excel in that field as adults. It is an endeavor, they have pointed out, right in step with the spirit of the information age that was dawning as the SMPY unfolded. What began as a regional talent search has become national, annually testing nearly a quarter-million students. Last year the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth alone recognized about 400 students who scored above 700 on either or both sections - which suggests the net is quite successful in catching the top kids.
In the SMPY's most select group of high scorers - the 1 in 10,000 cohort - almost all have enjoyed some form of academic acceleration, and Stanley's hope of orchestrating self-fulfilling prophecies so far seems mostly to have panned out. Early adolescent math or verbal trajectories are borne out in about two-thirds of the cases, with the notable exception that high verbal males are as likely to pursue an undergraduate degree in the sciences as in the humanities and arts. Advanced degrees are far more common in this SMPY group than in the general population. Participants also more often receive tenure and take out patents, cited as evidence that the SAT measures "much more than book-learning potential." As SMPY researchers await the analysis of data on the cohort at age 50, it is worth noting their scaled-down accomplishment. They have created what amounts to effective early career-profiling - an instrumental goal rather different from the inspirational visions of their predecessors. Where Hollingworth sought cultural "originations" from her highest I.Q. cohort (not just cultural "conservation"), the new mission is to answer the need for "human-capital specialization" by fine-tuning and facilitating particular expertise earlier and faster.
It is hard to say what might have become of these already high-scoring middle schoolers had they never sat for the SAT and enjoyed summer courses and been anointed as extra-special. Stanley and his associates have not aspired to conduct a rigorously controlled experiment. They do like to claim, though, that if they had been in charge, the future Nobel laureates Shockley and Alvarez would have made the cut. What they neglect to note is that the two of them didn't need finding. It is interesting, though, to wonder what difference, if any, it might have made to Shockley's career had his alternately domineering and indulgent mother received guidance in rearing her brilliant but obnoxious son. And who knows what might have happened had Shockley received an early (nonmaternal) imprimatur of promise and a chance to mingle with brilliant peers - rather than the insult, which reportedly rankled him all his life, of scoring too low (129) to qualify for the Terman study. Might he have avoided his late-life notoriety? Or is it conceivable that he might not have helped invent the transistor at all?
There is no predicting the fate of the fellows anointed by the Davidson Institute over the past five years, and of course the award itself is just one identity-marking moment for them. But the emergence of this junior MacArthur grant at the turn of the millennium points up the persistent tensions in talent development. On the one hand, it is worth wondering whether the inflated rhetoric of adult approval might prove a burden of sorts for children who are already much lauded. Leta Hollingworth advised long ago against placing highly gifted children "in a position which will be a constant stimulus to live up to the role of child prodigy" and warned against overusing "genius," a term generally understood to imply domain-altering powers no child can possibly yet have. Confidence is a crucial ingredient of success in carving out a distinctive path, but too many early plaudits can undermine risk-taking and drive. Outsize external expectations can also be daunting for precocious learners and performers as they make the maturational leap from the work of mastering rules and skills to the challenge of asserting more self-conscious control of their gifts.
On the other hand, the Davidsons' revival of the reverent terminology is a reminder that precocious accomplishments are wondrous in themselves: the monumental efforts and results children are capable of can be amazing, never mind what those children may (or may not) go on to become. These are awards for hard-earned achievement, not for test-taking ability or abstract potential, Jan Davidson emphasizes as she explains why she feels it is appropriate for the fellows to speak to the press and be saluted by senators and congressmen. By the same token, she doesn't want to see public attention drawn to the other lucky beneficiaries of the Institute's help, the 750 Young Scholars, who are selected merely "for being smart, a God-given gift." The arduous fellowship application (which asks about the labors and mentors involved, and the social significance envisaged) is wisely geared to older adolescents: despite the talk of "prodigies," only 3 of this year's 17 are younger than 16. In Washington, effusions over the fellows' precocious promise and polish are offset by an emphasis on their persistence and their initiative in seeking out guidance - surely a better identity than "genius" for kids with, let's hope, lots of exploratory stumbling ahead of them.
At the evening reception in the Library of Congress, John Zhou and the other dark-suited teenage scientists seemed to be in their element, chatting over the hors d'oeuvres as if they were veterans of public events like this - which the handsome Lucas Moller, who was clearly practiced at answering lay inquiries, gave every sign of being. Moller, a 17-year-old from Moscow, Idaho, has been researching Mars dust ever since fifth grade, when at the suggestion of his scientist father he submitted an entry to a NASA-sponsored school contest and won. It was the beginning of a relationship with a NASA mentor, which has led him on to other related projects and assorted conferences. The basic pattern proved to be common. Entering competitions and finding internships or connections, governmental or academic: from Stephanie Hon (working on Alzheimer's) to Milana Zaurova (studying malignant brain cancer), nearly every science/technology fellow had a similar tale of closely mentored opportunity to tell in the morning discussions that the Davidsons videotaped for clips to quote from when they lecture. It was not quite grist for the "genius denied" paradigm: if schools couldn't offer direct help, no fellow said schools actively stood in the way.
In fact, with all the enabling institutions, it was sometimes hard to tell exactly where and how the young scientists' drives originated. Over lunch, John Zhou's mother - whose husband left China after Tiananmen Square, with her following later - confessed that she had despaired that her bored sixth grader's energy was disappearing into computer games, only to be reassured when she succeeded in redirecting it into Web design, and he became a whirlwind of accomplishment (even setting up a site for a branch of his city's library). "I don't know if I was going to fall through the cracks, like my mother said," John said with a laugh. He was more inclined to credit the example of other purposeful kids as the real catalyst for his many endeavors. As a group, the scientific fellows are definitely not lacking in passion, the galvanic trait everyone invokes these days, including the Davidsons and the fellows themselves. Bob and Jan astutely pressed the kids to also discuss their frustrations - a darker side of intense commitment that too often gets left out, notes Felice Kaufmann, a psychologist who has been following up on a similar group, called the Presidential Scholars. The young scientists obliged. Stephanie Hon, for example, was crushed to think six weeks of research had been in vain, only to discover that a computer glitch accounted for her nonresults - "the best of both worlds," as she put it, "taste the failure but still have the success." No one could say these fellows lack tenacity. What they wouldn't be confused with, though, is that figure of lab lore, the unkempt obsessive pursuing the experiment everybody says is fruitless, or the kid outdoors absorbed for hours watching insects. These are well-connected youths with timely projects - security devices and computer innovations, as well as urgent diseases - who have kept very busy excelling at a well-tailored array of other interests as well, from the saxophone to ballroom dancing and the Boy Scouts.
The musician fellows did not blend in quite so effortlessly that evening, since two of the four of them looked rather young to be mingling at a reception in such an elegant setting: Marc Yu, who plays the cello in addition to the piano, and the 12-year-old Karsten Gimre, also a pianist (as well as a sophomore at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., majoring in math and physics). When it comes to "true" prodigies, preadolescents with spectacular abilities, the Davidson Institute follows the historical pattern of finding them mainly in the realm of music. In publicly touting the very young performers as prodigies, the Institute steps into an ongoing debate. For at least a quarter century now, there has been "a benevolent conspiracy" among influential musical figures to fend off burnout by trying to foster "a more humanistic, nonexploitative approach to the development of talent," as the writer Marie Winn put it in a New York Times Magazine article in 1979. What a researcher named Jeanne Bamberger has termed a "midlife" crisis seems to occur for prodigious young musicians: a transitional period of cognitive and emotional maturation during which only some performers manage to move beyond intuitive imitation to a more reflective sense of direction. Parents must carve out space for precocious players to "have a childhood. . .an adolescence," according to influential figures like Itzhak Perlman; resist the pressure, they urge, to "get management" and a packed schedule of practice and performance.
Yet pressure also unavoidably goes with the terrain of musical promise. After all, even if most musicians with phenomenal early talent won't emerge as great mature artists, the stars of the future will surely have been young phenomenons. Marc's mother is well aware of that - and knows that constructive practice at Marc's age requires an adult at his side. So does Marc, who appreciates how much work his idols Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang devoted to honing the technique that no virtuoso can do without. The message for kids that Marc passed on in his session with the Davidsons will no doubt be their most used quotation. "You should play Game Boy less," he said in his slightly lisping cadence, "and you should practice more." Marc's cello teacher understandably worries about all the attention (he has been on "The Tonight Show" and "Oprah"), yet this bubbly boy who can bear down on his music with undaunted intensity seems proof of the pleasure - never mind future fame - this kind of driven focus can bring.
Karsten, who by age 6 had already placed first in the International Young Artists Concert at the Kennedy Center, couldn't help casting more of a shadow with his listlessness in his morning session with the Davidsons. To their opening question about how he got started on the piano, he quietly replied: "Actually, I didn't want to do it. My mother wanted me to have something to do when I was older. And then I liked it." Asked at the end about what lay ahead, he said, "I really don't know what I'm doing," adding with a sigh that he would "just graduate in math and physics." By then it had become clear that Karsten, even before facing any subtle maturational challenges of adolescence, had run into a physical obstacle: elbow tendonitis had forced a hiatus in his playing, he said, and now his wrist hurt. Though he is feeling better, it was the kind of setback that could well leave a phenomenal performer sounding temporarily adrift.
As the Library of Congress reception was breaking up, the literary laureate was standing off to the side, feeling "very weird," she commented. Heidi Kaloustian, the only fellow in literature, hastened to say she had "great respect for science," but the evening had brought home to her just what a different place she was in from the young researchers. A professional path seemed to open out before them, with scientific papers already in the works for some, patent possibilities in view for others, further lab options surely ahead for all. Almost as if in sisterly solidarity, Maia Cabeza, the lone girl musician, came up to ask Heidi eagerly whether her portfolio - which, along with her poetry, contains a striking trio of fictional portraits of female coming-of-age ordeals in other cultures - was going to be published. Trying not to sound too appalled, Heidi answered: "I wouldn't dream of trying. I have so much more to learn." Heidi confided that the fellowship, though hugely welcome, has also been daunting. "I have to top something when I'm not even sure how I did it." It is not that she lacked teachers; she felt indebted to one in particular, and had a fabulous summer with other artistic kids at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. Her spirited mother, an avid reader and nurse, who, instead of whisking her daughters to a round of activities, made sure they had lots of time with books, clearly has inspired confidence in her daughter. Still, to have an imagination like Heidi's is to be aware of how mysterious the future twists and turns may be (and how rarely $50,000 drops down on struggling writers).
Unexpectedly, given that nonverbal brilliance is popularly associated with an aura of weirdness, it is the Davidson Fellows outside the realms of math, science and technology who look quirky by comparison, kids who have embarked on sometimes unwieldy projects that propel them they are not quite sure where. With criteria far less clear-cut in the nonquantitative fields, the institute's judges (who are anonymous) are evidently eager to reward reach and a degree of intellectual nonconformity, and on one occasion extreme youth: a 10-year-old named Alexandra Morris received a fellowship for her literary work. (There is even an "outside the box" category, though so far no winners.) The first year of the fellowships, 2001, 15-year-old Daniel Ohrenstein was awarded for tackling "The Endeavor of Seeing the Essential Nature of Existence," a series of rather woolly philosophical lectures that Ohrenstein, now an engineering major, says he shies from rereading since he has become a convert to "clear thinking" and "vowed never to use the words 'everything' and 'nothing' again." That same year, 16-year-old Rachel Emery says she was rescued by the Davidson award she won for an existential-fantasy novella written in what her mother calls the depths of depression. An eclectic energy has fueled her subsequent course through Simon's Rock, an experimental college designed for high-school-age students, and on to Wellesley, where she continues to work on several novels and to be, as she puts it, "constitutionally incapable of attempting anything on a reasonable scale."
For caution about forecasting and scripting the futures of the highly gifted, there is no better place to look than the past. History has plenty of humbling examples, one of them cited by the psychologist Howard Gruber, who observed that "any fellowship-awards committee comparing young [Thomas] Huxley's plans when setting out on the voyage of the Rattlesnake with young Darwin's plans when setting out on the voyage of the Beagle - both wrote them down in a page or so - would have given first place to Huxley and put Darwin on the waiting list." It was precisely Huxley's impressive "hard-edged analytic objectivism," Gruber speculated, that may have proved a handicap, where Darwin's vaguer, receptive cast of mind was crucial. "When someone asked Albert Einstein, 'What is your key to success?' " Dean Keith Simonton says, his answer was "I'm just curious." Simonton went on: "How do you cultivate that? It's a hard thing to do." He notes that Einstein himself "couldn't be mentored, refused to listen to his teachers, went his own way."
Nobody, of course, expects to handpick the next Einstein. Still, it is worth remembering that the solicitously individualized "scaffolding" for the highly gifted that experts currently recommend, and the pre-professional alacrity that programs like the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Davidson Fellowships often reward, are themselves experiments in progress. Look at eminences in the past, and what stands out in their childhoods is an animus toward school, a tolerance for solitude and families with lots of books. What also stands out is families with "wobble" - which means stress and, often, risk-taking parents with strong opinions - rather than bastions of supportiveness where a child's giftedness is ever in self-conscious focus. Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics and himself a prodigy who went to Tufts at 11 and Harvard at 15, wrote that prodigious children need to develop a "reasonably thick skin" - to feel they aren't demonized and will find a niche, but not to expect the world to supply a spotlight. Simonton speaks of the importance of being able to be "on the failure track for a while, take time off, take a real risk." Creativity and innovation, he says he is convinced, depend on "exposure to the unusual, to the diverse, to heterogeneity," which inspires a "recognition that there are a lot of different ways of looking at different things." There are also all kinds of ways that this "awareness that there's more than one possible world" can dawn. (The fact that it is built into the immigrant experience is one reason, on top of an ethos of incredibly hard work, that Simonton says he believes kids of recently arrived families so often dominate the ranks of the spectacularly talented.)
No one would recommend throwing more obstacles in highly gifted children's way. But as experts sound the alarm about the brilliant minds that aren't being found or are being frustrated, it is some solace to think that the real geniuses aren't necessarily being denied. They are biding their time and will take us by surprise.
Ann Hulbert, a contributing writer, is the author of "Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company