The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Friday, February 09, 2007

Where have all the geniuses gone?

There is one thing most geniuses have in common: they are all dead.

Now, clearly more people have lived in the past than are now alive, so one can expect there to be more historical geniuses than living ones: that is an obvious thought, but behind the provocativeness of my opening sentence, there lies an uncomfortable truth. Where are all the geniuses of today? There don't appear to be all that many.

Jason Jones in a comment beneath my previous post, asked whether society was against genius - and, in doing so, chimed well with a thought I have nurtured lifelong. The modern world is, to its very core, inimical to genius. Yet, it has not always been so.

Today, we have schools in which students are expected to learn an ever growing body of knowledge. Most societies expect their students to master this material as they grow up - and, on the surface, this might be seen to be a good thing. It could be if it were done right. Yet, in most societies the student is left with little or no room for their own thought. Their own thought is, in fact, punished by the system and marked down. Variation in answers is not accepted: only the textbook answer is sought.

I have taught in schools in Singapore and I have seen this attitude very clearly among the staff. I was explicitly instructed to create model answers for all essays I set in English Literature and mark the students' work against my own. The expectation of a conformist answer is, therefore, explicitly laid out to the staff, by the educational system. What would happen to an original answer in such a context? It would differ from the model answer, it may in fact cover none of the points expected in the model answer and would receive low marks accordingly. What lesson would the student take away from this? He or she would have been punished for thinking for themselves and would learn that to give an answer other than the expected, is to fail. Success is achieved through conformity to the teacher's requirement. Over time, the impulse to be original would fade in such a student, as the years passed, the impulse would no longer even be a memory and the capacity for original thought itself will have been lost through deliberate disuse. A creative person would have been quietly extinguished. That is what conformist education systems do to creativity.

It is only the potential genius who combines great creativity with a hard, resistant, stubborn, anti-authoritarian character that just will not be put down, that could survive a lifetime of such treatment. Perhaps that is why many geniuses have such a character: they are the ones who have survived the "system". However, perhaps many more, with gentler characters will have been destroyed.

In the classes I taught, it was very noticeable that most of the students were unable to think for themselves. I was teaching the equivalent of eleventh and twelfth grades, at the time, in the main - and by this time, all signs of creativity, had there ever been any, had been eroded from almost all the students. Very frequent, were the cries of "but you haven't told us what to write", or similar remarks. I tried to teach them to think, actively, but most of them were past the point at which they could even make an effort to do so, so foreign was it to their nature. I think the greatest lesson was learnt by the teacher, in that class: conformity in education, leads to the death of minds. I also learnt another lesson: any effort to encourage thinking in those who have learnt to be passive and unexpressive, will be opposed. Thus, at some point, the damage done by conformist education is irreparable, so engrained will their unthinking habits be.

There are many famous people hailed as "geniuses" by the press. Yet, any clearsighted examination of such people leads to an awkward conclusion: they don't appear to have much talent beyond that of achieving media coverage. I could name names in support of this statement, but I would only get sued for telling an obvious truth about them, so I won't. I am sure that anyone who thinks for themselves can identify such empty "talents". Where, then, are all the true geniuses?

I hope that they are out there, somewhere, living lives that haven't yet caught our attention. Yet, why should they want to catch our attention? Such people would have been unwelcome in many school systems, punished for their originality, thought of as "odd" by conformist students, unbefriended for being different, resented, perhaps, by many of the more insecure teachers, when they ask questions that the teacher cannot answer. This ostracization can continue into the work place, where their questioning of the way things are, can soon find them out of a job. Anyone who is truly thinking for themselves will find this world can be a very unfriendly place - for new thoughts have a habit of disturbing entrenched ones, and that makes people uncomfortable and resentful.

Oscar Wilde remarked that: "Genius can do anything but make a living." He probably meant that they are not inclined to work on lesser activities, preferring to work in their special domain, at the expense of a good living. Yet, there is another aspect, too: most organizations do not make way for geniuses to work. The managers are conformists, the whole structure is conformist - and the genius is seen as someone who "doesn't fit". It is not long before the genius, who could contribute so much to the organization, is out of favour, of most organizations.

Perhaps there are as many true geniuses as there ever used to be - but I have the feeling that it is not so. They are, at least, swamped by the deluge of over-hyped talentless mediocrities presented as "geniuses" to us. The label "genius" is over-used today, creating a plethora of fake "geniuses" whose only real gift to the world is their own egos. Genius is even used to describe people whose only qualification is an IQ test result, which as pointed out in my many posts about IQ, in fact says nothing about the capacity to create - which is the cornerstone of true genius.

Today, genuine genius receives little welcome in the world. It is unwanted and misunderstood in the classroom. It finds far from a good reception in most work places. It is even isolated socially by those who around who simply won't allow themselves to understand and accept the genius' viewpoint. It is difficult for a genius to find the time and the resources to work on their ideas, since if the idea is new it will probably be thought of as, "off-the-wall" and, therefore, not supported by the common grant giving bodies. Most of those seek to fund that which is clearly applicable, readily grasped, and relatively free of risk. Few funding sources will support anything that seems in the least outre. Genius, as a whole, has a very hard time in the modern world.

As I said at the beginning, it wasn't always so. In Ancient Greece, genius had a place and welcome, in the most part (forgetting the fate of Socrates). There was a flourishing of thought, with the pre-Socratic philosophers beginning the systematic task of understanding the world, inventing philosophy and natural science in the process on through Plato and Aristotle, who became great influences for the next two thousand years of Humanity. In that time, a man of thought was respected indeed, and had a high place in the society. It is doubtless no coincidence that it was in Greece that modern scientific thought began: for there genius was welcome.

Another time that welcomed genius was the Renaissance. Italy abounded with great men and their great deeds - each sponsored readily by a patron, in a time when patrons competed to sponsor great artists and thinkers to allow them to pursue their work. That time of largesse gave the world some of its greatest art and works of human thought. Culture, science and society all burgeoned as one. Why? Because genius was accepted.

Now, we live in times when genius, in fact, receives a hostile reception, for the most part and in most places and societies - no matter what those societies say about themselves and their attitude to "talent". Therein lies the confusion. "Talent" is not genius. It is a much lesser breed. Talent is understandable. Talent is inoffensive since talent is just beyond the horizon. Yet, genius, true genius, remains beyond comprehension - and in most places unsupported. It is time for a return to the patronage of the Renaissance, for the acceptance of genius and for another time of great men, great deeds - and a great society, as a result.

Will it happen? Looking at the way the world is, I doubt it. Modern people would rather bring a genius down than raise them up. Yet, what does raising up a genius achieve? It raises the whole society that enabled the genius to work productively. We all benefit when the greatest among us are able to produce the greatest works that their minds are capable of.

So, if you have it in your power to help a genius, you should. For in doing so, you are helping the whole world become a better, deeper, richer place. That was the spirit of the Renaissance. I would very much like to see that spirit live again.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, intelligence, IQ, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:05 AM 


Anonymous pam h said...

You raise an extremely interesting question.

My view of genius comes from a bias of the deep correlation between genius and mental illness.

It seems to me both populations are unwanted for their quantum difference from 'the norm.'

I have often mused whether they are not two sides of the same coin. I've heard a definition of someone with mental illness as someone whose perception of reality is not the same as the perception of those around them. Hmm. That sounds to me like a good definition of genius.

If a genius lacked that hardness of character that would enable them to withstand 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' then their extraordinarily senstive minds may retreat completely from the world the rest of us inhabit.

That closed world of thought you so admiringly describe in your son may become the refuge for an 'abused' genius. To the rest of the world, that genius may now look 'mentally ill,' for they prefer their closed, safe, predictable, world of thought to our noisome, unordered world.

Thus, perhaps our modern geniuses can be found in the mental wards and homeless shelters of our unaccepting industrial societies?

11:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your post, Pam.

I would agree that genius is readily misunderstood since, by definition, they are able to think of that which no other has - this may lead them to being mislabelled, therefore.

I believe that genius and illness are quite distinct, but that they can be confused in an observer who simply does not understand the genius.

It would be a tragedy indeed were a single genius to end up in either of the situations you mention: mental ward or homeless shelter. Which of these two is the worse? The mental ward, of course, for there they will receive brain damaging "treatments" from the greatest pseudoscience of them all.

Tom Cruise was much vilified for attacking psychiatry - but those who vilified him, clearly know nothing about modern psychiatry. Everything the modern practitioner does causes brain damage to the patient. It is truly appalling what these "doctors" do. All of their frequently used drugs alter the brain, the main class causing progressive, irreversible decline of all major intellectual functions. Then there is electroshock "therapy" - proven to cause visible brain lesions on scans, and shocking memory problems. Of course, don't forget the lobotomy - which is, if you think about it, just another name for murder. So I dearly, dearly hope that geniuses don't fall into their hands.

Best wishes to you, as always.

10:22 AM  

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