Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Opal Mehta and the Prodigy Puzzle, Redux (another long post)

A few months ago on this blog, I wrote about the dearth of literary prodigies. Mathematicians? Musicians? Sure. But you don't see a lot of teens and early 20-somethings cranking out great literature. I said this was partly due to young people not having experienced the full range of human emotions. But then I was happy to learn a 17-year-old Indian-American woman named Kaavya Viswanathan had written a funny, smart book called "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" about the trials of getting into Harvard. She got a $500,000 3-book contract (the stuff we writers dream about, by the way).

Well, the story appears to be too good to true. Viswanathan lifted whole passages from another young adult novel, then claimed she'd merely "internalized" them from reading the other author's books so many times. Disturbing to me -- though not to others -- is that she shares the book's copyright with a book packager. Apparently, even the idea of this book was not entirely Viswanathan's own. A company helped shape it to be more marketable, and took a chunk of the payment. Normally, an author's agent and publisher help with this, so the fact that her publisher enlisted a book packager implies that they were really pushing to get a young author out there when perhaps Viswanathan's career would have benefitted from waiting (Or not. Many authors would kill to get on the Today show, even if it was because they were accused of plaigerizing).

Anyway, I've been reading about Viswanathan/Opal Mehta at the same time that I saw an Oprah show yesterday on "Little Geniuses." Some of the kids really were. A 16-year-old girl was able to compose piano pieces based on a random series of notes chosen by Oprah. Now, there are rules to that game which makes it less mind-blowing than on first glance, but it's still very impressive.

Others just seemed, well, as well-packaged as Opal Mehta wound up being to get into Harvard. A young man named Noah McCullough was trotted out as a potential presidential candidate in 2032. He's actually written a book (published by Random House) of presidential trivia. He gave pretty vague answers to the political questions, which had Oprah saying she'd vote for him (in reality, he did a political tour last year that was arranged by a Social Security privatization group -- something I support, but which I'm fairly sure Oprah does not -- but hey, why grill a kid on his actual positions?).

Anyway, he reminded me a lot of a kid I went to high school with. This kid had also calculuated the date he intended to become president, and when exactly he could run for Congress. He wore blazers and campaigned in the halls, etc. I Googled my old classmate for the fun of it the other day. He's a corporate lawyer in Illinois. Nothing wrong with that at all. But we've passed the date when he could become a Congressman. Indeed, he could be getting on people's radar screens to run for president in 2012. He isn't.

Saying you want to do something as a kid, and having people humor you or trot you out as the "face" of saving Social Security is one thing. Actually doing it as an adult is another. Likewise, young McCullough may want to run in 2032 as a 37-year-old, but if there's a popular Republican incumbent then, his party won't allow him to. This is the nature of looking at the harsh moment when dreams have to become reality, when one no longer inhabits the when-I-grow-up world. I worry McCullough will hit puberty, get other interests, use his Social Security tour as a package to get into a good college, then encounter a dozen other kids who will campaign just as hard for freshman class president as he does. He'll lose to the kid from a school that sent the most kids to his particular university. And McCullough will say the heck with politics and wind up working for McKinsey.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I truly want bright young kids to have big opportunities. I also know that prodigies stuck in the limelight have a way of flaming out. The problem is that this winds up lending credence to the idea that prodigies flame out, and thus they shouldn't be given special opportunities when they are little.

But gifted kids need to be challenged regardless of what they'll accomplish later in life. That's a matter of simple fairness, not just investing in the future. I'm thrilled that McCullough has been able to indulge his love of presidential trivia. I wish more kids could dive so deeply into something they love. And I was thrilled that Viswanathan got a chance to write. But now any other 17-year-old coming to a publisher with a novel will be greeted with a cold stare. All because some packagers wanted to make a quick buck and pulled a novel out of this young woman quicker than she could actually write it herself, and because a publisher wanted to get a fresh new face out there so badly they didn't vet the manuscript.

I think we need less talk of prodigies, and more of meeting kids' needs. When all highly gifted kids have a chance to satisfy their passions and learn as quickly as they desire, then so-called "prodigies" will be less of media events. They'll just be kids doing what they love. Then, all talented 17-year-old writers will have access to grown-up writers who can help them improve their craft and perhaps try for publication if their pieces are good. The few whose schools or families figure out how to play the game won't be delivered to book publishers keen on making a splash. They won't be seen as newsworthy solely because of their age. And, as a result, we'll have fewer flame-outs.


Stormia said...

Good post, but my comment doesn't have anything to do with it. I've been reading various posts from the carnival of education today at, and I happened upon this:
and I wondered what you'd think of the three-pigs analogy.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Keely- it's an interesting analogy (though I got confused between the widgets and the three little pigs!). Yes, errors can be fatal when kids don't start with a good foundation. From the perspective of this blog, though, I think schools still produce too many brick houses with poor construction -- which is pretty much inexplicable.

Anonymous said...

re: social security privatization,

If social security is privatized, how is the government going to pay off current retirees, plus keep up workers' accounts and maintain the social insurance part (ie, death benefit, disability)?

Also, what about the cost of maintaining individual accounts for each worker, and the fact that brokers' fees will likely eat up whatever extra profit the worker might make from the investments in that account. Plus the fact that the stock market is now at almost an all time high and P/E ratio, which means of course that future returns on the stock market at this point are likely to be significantly lower than in the past (at least if one invests now). Which means those rosy projections of about 10% or better returns (which are required to make private accounts seem attractive) are pure bluff, or at least require a major drop in the market now to work.

And what will be done to guarantee a basic benefit if a worker's investments go south? This especially includes the situation where there is a serious stock market drop at the time a worker retires, will (s)he have to keep working, or will there be "recession insurance" to protect against that possibility? That's going to cost money too, you know. (oh wait, there's already "recession insurance"; it's called "social security". I think that's why it was invented. *cough* Great Depression *cough*)

All in all, how can social security privatization possibly save any money, except by effectively reducing the overall quality/amount of benefit that the current social security system already provides?

And no, contrary to myth, social security is quite solvent at least to 2042 according to last year's trustees report (most of the dreaded baby boomers will have likely croaked by then. And sure, some medical breakthrough could extend everyone's life expectancy to 200 by then, which might cause problems for the program certainly. We should have such problems...). Also, a treasury bond is a treasury bond is a treasury bond, not an IOU (or at least no more or less an IOU than, say, a bank account or a CD is).

(This makes me wonder if you really made a 650 on the SAT-M in 7th grade, or that perhaps the SAT skeptics are right.)

I know I'm going on a off topic rant, but if you have such an off kilter view of a program that basically works rather well and which is really just a matter of relatively simple accounting (or at least reading good information), how well can you analyze something with much more subtle cost/benefits like gifted education?

Anonymous said...

The trustees' report says SS will be flat broke ("exhausted") by 2042 (based on assumptions and projections that may be too rosy or too dark). Curbing SS benefits and boosting return on SS payments are both necessary.

Nedra said...

Yikes, Anonymous, what cave did you just crawl out of to make that rant? The way you attacked Laura was completely off topic and offensive. There are plenty of intelligent people who support social security privatization and other policy issues that you probably don't like either. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean he/she is stupid. This is not the place to leave screeds about social security, and attacking someone personally is not the way to get people to come over to your side.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Thanks Needra-- I'm happy to take this up with Anonymous 1 elsewhere if he/she will leave a name and or email address. But I was hoping we could talk about prodigies on this thread, and about what happened with the Opal Mehta book. Anyone have thoughts on that?

Jackie said...

About supporting gifted kids and prodigies.....I suspect that if all the kids growing up in our country right now were supported with educations that met their learning styles and needs, and that encouraged intense learning about subjects they love and are good in, all the "establishments" and systems in which we sort of plod along each day would be turned upside down and inside out. Can you say RADICAL CHANGE? Things would be really different, and the world would be really different. I'm starting to suspect that someplace deep in our minds "we" kind of know that and we are being careful how much of that tiger we really want to let out of that bag. Society kind of likes maintaining the status quo...and my child is being very strongly "maintained" right now. :-(

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

The Opal case is 'prodigies gone wild' on several levels.

Level 1 - the USA loves geniuses, especially if they are young and cute. OM is perfect for packaging in that role

Level 2 - The only reason the publishing house even answered her submission was because she is a Harvard student. Society expects Harvard students to be prodigies, making their makeover plausible.

Level 3 - Even better upper class society is obsessed with getting their children into Harved so they can be bestowed the cachet of being a prodigy raising parent. The publisher feeds into this societal obsession by angling the book to strongly imply that reading it is not just for self edification or enjoyment, but may also contain secrets valuable for IL admission (almost a modern day gnosticism).

Level 4 - OM herself clearly bought into levels 1 to 3 big time. Maybe I am projecting back incorrectly but I doubt at her age I ever would have bought that anything I wrote or made was worthy of top of the field level promotion and packaging. Plus I certainly would not have allowed any sort of boy genius spin to be trumpeted around. I believe most teenagers today fall into my camp on this issue. IMO her buying into it reflected her fundamental beliefs about herself (and the interviews I read do not dispel this one bit) that had to derive from the pedestal society puts teens who make it into IL schools.

Level 5 - The publisher clearly knows the whole prodigy act is a load of bunk (I am sure they reject a manuscript from an ILgraduate at least once a week)- hence the wholesale rewriting and reimaging.

Level 6 - I would not be surprised if the publishers themselves leaked the plagerized sections when they found out the sales were not where they hoped. Sadly as much as we love prodigies most people love to see them fall on their face - hard even more. Probably this resentfulness starts in grade school and given the anti intellectual trends in much of society is only reinforced after that.

There are probably even more 'mehta' -levels to this story than I listed above. However overall I believe it indicts the whole system society has created in which academic pedigree is more important than achievement. The real danger I see from this system is that talented children like an OM believe that an IL admission or national academic contests are an ends, not a means to actual achievement. Achievement, like OM's 'novel', is just an entitlement and does not require the dedication and sacrifice requisite to be a significant contributer to any field.


PS - Enjoyed catching up with your recent posts. I hope my return did not ruin your day!

Laura Vanderkam said...

Hi Jason!

Welcome back. We missed you. The blog is going well -- on track to get 2500 hits this month. I was hoping for 3000 but I'm not willing to sit here and hit refresh 500 times to make that happen :)

To your comments. I believe there is a certain perception of the "IL" as you put it, that is not the reality for the vast majority of IL students. The craze over admissions is fairly localized in wealthy suburbs of NYC, Chicago, PA, possibly California but not even there so much. These are also the places where the influential folks in the media live. Hence, IL admissions becomes more frantic and larger than life than it actually is for most students. I got in to the IL schools I applied to via a simple method: doing well on the SAT the one and only time I took it in high school, getting the best grades possible at my Indiana high school, and writing good admissions essays during my 15 minute "smoke" breaks the summer before my senior year as I worked at Fazoli's Italian Restaurant. There was no packaging involved in this. My parents -- and I-- didn't know how to play the game. No one at my school did. My closest friends at Princeton were equally non-packaged. They were also, I might add, among the brightest people I ever met at that school. Perhaps this has changed in 9 years, but I doubt it has completely. So Kaavya/Opal is tapping more into a fear than a reality.

But I also want to address your point that IL schools are more about prestige than anything else. Those non-packaged kids I met at Princeton -- and continue to encounter at alumni events -- move through life with a competence and confidence that comes from believing they can make whatever they want happen in life. I found this out even more as I've been interviewing people for Grindhopping, the book I'm writing on young entrepreneurs. Some of these young people will walk away from huge signing bonuses and prestigious jobs just because they want to make their own way in life. And you know what? They will. It gets a little tedious to have people joke about IL graduates being all prestige and no substance. Some are. But most aren't.

But anyway, I agree with you that contests and achievement are different things. It's only now that I'm discovering the joy of packaging (I just won a major journalism fellowship Monday -- cool beans! That's possibly the first time in life I've entered a contest and won). For whatever reason at this point in my life, I've found myself surrounded by Rhodes Scholars and the like who haven't particularly distinguished themselves afterwards. It's a different world when getting somewhere doesn't involve filling out an application form and looking to see what won last year. Kaavya/Opal fits into that well-packaged mold very well, and under normal circumstances would fade into general management consulting work after graduation. Alas, given publishing realities --like James Frey's books sticking atop the best-seller list -- I have no doubt that she will continue to get contracts for her books as a result of this debacle. Fame sells. Even if it's notoriety. It's a little frustrating for those of us who go to the trouble of writing our own books.

Jason Smith said...

Hi Laura

With all the hits you are getting I could not have been missed too much.
Congratulations on your site going so well. I appreciate your taking the time to post on such a wide range of gifted related topics and respond to posters. Also kudos on your award. I know you have been working very hard on your writing and I am glad that your efforts have been acknowledged.

Sorry to hit a sore point regarding IL. However things have changed in 9 years. The reason their application numbers have soared is that middle america now also (through media bombardment I believe plus the spate of IL presidents) sees the IL as the major pathway to success in the USA.

Regarding student quality I agree there is really no difference between now and even 25 years ago (other than it being a lot more difficult getting away with giving tough homework assignments - but that is more related to college consumerism than specific to the ILs). The main difference is the degree of packaging the average student goes through before admission. Maybe this is due to media driven hysteria but all the books and articles I have read about the admissions process, or by admissions officers/consultants (they swing back and forth now) regarding IL and even top public schools, supports the view that unless packaging starts in pre school (or you are a great athlete) your only shot is to apply early decision to community college.



PS - I posted my review of the brain growth article on your earlier thread

Anonymous said...

Without hope and vision the world would be even darker than it is. Oprah only allows for general responses that are political in nature. Perhaps if you had been in the audience for taping that day you would have heard specifics that were edited out.

The boy is smart, politically interested and has a goal. So now do we tell all younger children there is no Santa, and we are all going to die?

He is donating part of his proceeds to a good cause, he is a good example to other kids to get involved and vote.

Thank goodness there will be positive people that are not jaded by negative ones who thrive on hope and vision and their extreme giftedness.

Hats off to Noah. I will vote for you my young hopeful friend. Thanks for caring so much Noah, the nation needs more patriotic kids like you. You are hope and I believe you just may be president...if not, I know that you will make a POSITIVE difference in the world and never be negative to the point of having no hope.

Anonymous said...

I agree, hats off to you Noah. You have my vote too. Do you realize Noah went on a nationwide book tour as well? He wrote THE ESSENTIAL BOOK OF PRESIDENTIAL TRIVIA with Random House Publishing. Looks like he is moving and shaking and putting his passion and knowledge to good use. I read the book it is AMAZING! Get it on Amazon, he is headed for bestseller!