Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"...But there's plenty of normal teenager too"

This post is an introduction, of sorts, to a longer post I hope to put up later this week. I recently read an article in the New York Times about 2007 Davidson Fellow Yuqing Meng. The article tells of this young man's amazing musical gifts (and, it turns out, physics gifts, too), but the title is really bugging me. Here it is: "A Prodigy, Sure, but There's Plenty of Normal Teenager, Too."

It's bugging me because I've been reading a fascinating book called Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg. The author has agreed to a Gifted Exchange interview, so we'll post more on the book later. But one of the takeaways from this book is the idea that extreme interest and gifts in certain subjects (often math and science, but certainly classical music too) imply that someone is unlikeable, likely to be unlucky in love, and unattractive as well. This is a stereotype that stems from general American anti-intellectualism, and is taken quite literally by young children, because, well, children are literal minded. Prodigies by definition show extreme interest and gifts in something -- often something deemed a little hard or foreign to the rest of us -- and so, by definition they must be strange, weird and probably a little off. Not someone you'd want to hang out with.

Since in journalism, profiles are generally supposed to make you like the person, the journalist must inevitably contend with this stereotype. And so profiles of prodigies inevitably contain paragraphs about how the child in question is actually so normal. I have personal experience with this; an article on me in the South Bend Tribune after I did the incredibly geeky thing of score an 800 on the math SAT section in 8th grade made sure to mention that I was on the cheerleading squad. See, she's not really a nerd! Because a nerd is the worst thing you can be.

Likewise, our headline writer here at the New York Times wants to assure us that though Meng is obviously much better at piano than the rest of us, and better at physics, we should take comfort that he is just a "normal teenager" who is worried about where he'll go to college. See, he's not a nerd either! This genre of article also tends to make a big deal of prodigies' community service pursuits. It's another thing that humanizes them and makes them not seem part of the despised "other."

1 comment:

Catana said...

I'm kind of torn about the Times article. On the one hand, it would be nice for the highly gifted not to be perceived as weird. On the other hand, it's very typical, and not really too much different from a 1940s Life Magazine article quoted in Genius Revisited. Life had interviewed some of the Hunter High School students--average IQ 157--and said "they are more humble than cocky about their inteligence... Although their interests were advanced, their plans for the future have a refreshing normality." Prodigality and high levels of intelligence aren't normal, and it seems that the only way the average person can cope with that at all is to try to normalize them as much as possible. It amounts to a kind of compartmentalization--if I can view you as like me, I can forget about what makes you unlike me. There's probably no way out of this dilemma for the gifted.