> The reason you get child prodigies in chess, arithmetic, and classical composition is that they are all worlds of discontinuous, parceled-up possibilities.
Reading an excerpt from an old Wired interview with Brian Eno at Peter Lindberg’s weblog, I was struck by this particular statement, concerning that most curious of phenomena: the child prodigy.
I’ve never been very impressed by child prodigies. For some time it’s been my suspicion that they’re cheating somewhat; that their advanced expertise — based on the recognition of patterns, on the calculation of logic — is a short-cut to genius. Their skills are to be encouraged, certainly, but they’re not particularly earth-shattering. Autistic children often have remarkable artithmetic abilities, too, but surely they’re much less gifted than they are afflicted.
British kids getting A-levels in computing, maths or science are ten a penny nowadays. Yet you don’t see any child prodigies in the humanities, do you? Eight-year-olds being certified by Microsoft or 14-year-olds reading science at Oxford (though their days may be numbered) make me yawn, uninterested. (I’d lump in here the celebrated spelling bee champions of America: they can spell the words, but do they know what they mean?)
If, however, a child their age was an English undergraduate? Or a teenager was reading for a doctorate in philosophy? That would surprise me.
There is a reason why you get young prodigies in chess, arithmetic, classical composition, computing, physics and other structural, systems-based disciplines — and not in the liberal arts, in English or in philosophy, where you need to understand, not just know; where you need to comprehend the interconnected wonder of everything, of the whole vista of knowledge, and not just its divisible elements. Even in logic or mathematics there’s an undeniable beauty, an abstract quality that even I, as someone who hates maths, can recognise.
But can they? Somehow I doubt it.