Prodigies’ Progress: Parents and superkids, then and now

Ann Hulbert in Harvard Magazine:

GeniusIn the fall of 1909, when two wonder boys converged on Harvard—among the first, and for a time the most famous, prodigies of the modern era—their parents proudly assumed a Pygmalion role. Norbert Wiener, the nearly 15-year-old son of the university’s first professor of Slavic languages, Leo Wiener, arrived as a graduate student in (at his father’s direction) zoology. William James Sidis (namesake and godson of the renowned Harvard psychologist who had been a mentor to his father, Boris Sidis) was admitted at 11 as a “special student” after strenuous lobbying by his father. The two superprecocious sons of two very upwardly mobile Russian immigrants, outspoken men with accents and bushy mustaches, inspired suspense. The arrival of these brilliant boys with unusual pedigrees fit the mission of Harvard’s outgoing president, Charles William Eliot, a liberal Boston Brahmin and staunch believer in equality of opportunity. He aimed to open the university’s doors to “men with much money, little money, or no money, provided that they all have brains.” And not just brains, Eliot warned complacent WASPs, who mistook “an indifferent good-for-nothing, luxurious person, idling through the precious years of college life” for an ideal gentleman or scholar. Eliot had in mind an elite with “the capacity to prove by hard work that they have also the necessary perseverance and endurance.”

Boris Sidis and his wife, Sarah, had made it their mission to jolt turn-of-the-century Americans with a thrilling, and intimidating, message: learning, if it was begun soon enough, could yield phenomenal results very early and rapidly. Russian Jews, they had fled the pogroms in Ukraine for the garment sweatshops on the United States’ East Coast in the mid-1880s. Within 10 years they had worked their way to the top of American higher education. By 1898, Sarah was a rare woman with an M.D. (from Boston University School of Medicine), and Boris had racked up a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard within four years. But inborn talent had nothing to do with their feats, or their son’s, they insisted. An as-yet-unimagined potential lay in every child, and it was time parents started cultivating it, Boris urged in an address called “Philistine and Genius,” delivered at Harvard’s summer school in 1909. The country, more than ever, needed “the individuality, the originality, the latent powers of talent and genius” too often wasted.

More here.