Despite the fact that we have had several contrary examples in history, many of us still want to hold onto the convenient assumption that nature is neatly organised, regular, and predictable with good science.
Henry Adams says “chaos was the law of nature; order was the dream of man”. This is the other extreme, for nature is not entirely chaotic. There is so much order and pattern to cite, plus some degree of predictability. The error is in using such to conclude and act as though nature is monolithic.
For our comfort on planet Earth as human beings, it helps a lot to study nature and draw out patterns (laws) along which we can tailor our lives, especially if we cannot change it. This is the major basis of studies on human nature as happens in biology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, medicine, etc. Getting anything wrong can be quite costly.
Yet still, even with all the studies, much still eludes us. Nature continues to surprise us with the infiniteness of its creativity both in orderly and chaotic ways. Every once in a while, we are hit with mystical elements that fail to fit into our conventions established on assumptions of relative homogeneity in human development and potential. Unsure about what to do with such cases yet we can’t wish them away, in the meantime, we often tend to force them into our conventions.
This is one of the often overlooked forms of social violence in dealing with natural difference. Society sets standards on the basis of averages that are estimated to accommodate the majority. A standard door is about seven feet high, which is meant to be inclusive of both the ‘normally tall’ and the ‘normally short’.
But we have sometimes seen some of our Dinka brothers and sisters uncomfortably bending through such ‘standard doors’. In the logic of society, these are outliers. In some instances, they will be categorised as ‘abnormal’.
In many ways, the ‘normal’ majority are insensitive social dictators that only extend the boundary of normality when ‘others’ make sense to them. Otherwise, the general principle is: ‘either you fit in, or we won’t let you be’.
This brings me to the case of Uganda’s seven-year old Fresh Kid (Patrick Ssenyonjo) who has been in our headlines for his musical talent and arguments around his education plus upbringing. In psychology, children like him are known as ‘child prodigies’. They are rare cases, characterised by manifestation of great talent (above normal) at something while below the age of ten. They defy our standard definition of a child.
According to Ellen Winner, a psychology of art professor at Boston College, these children also tend to be socially different. Whereas they might want to relate with other children, they often end up in loneliness around other children because they may not find those like themselves.
Amongst fellow children, “they feel like they don’t have anybody to connect with”. The school environment for ‘normal’ children turns out to be a degrading space for such children, where suffocation of intellectual and art growth is inevitable in trying to follow the ‘normal’ pace.
At about two interviews, Fresh Kid was asked whether he associates and plays with other children. His answer was: ‘nze sizanya na ba tooto’ (I don’t play with kids). This attitude could be partly a construct of his mentors and environment; but seen against his general demeanour and answer to other questions, one can’t fail to notice that this boy is an adult in a child’s body. It is one other case of nature screaming at us: ‘so you think you know me well?’ And we scream back: ‘yes, no matter who you are, you must be what we know’.
There are many such other cases in human history, some quite lucky to be born where their extraordinary gifts were not killed by social governmentality’s obsession with homogeneity through which we find consolation for our own mediocrity.
The famous German classical musician, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), is said to have been competent on the keyboard, violin and composition by the age of five. And he was helped to grow into unprecedented musical greatness.
Michael Jackson started performing at the age of five and only attended school up to the age of 11. The rest of his education was self-taught, plus the world. He could serve as a typical example of an extremely talented different case that grew into ‘weirdness’ and early death out of not being understood and sufficiently helped both by family and wider society.
Here is where the argument for balancing between advancing the current interests of child prodigies and catering for their future interests that they might have no proper judgement about is. Certainly, when society notices unusual talent in a child, there is always a likelihood for the child, who is at that point so obsessed with his/her gift, being exploited. Such children need to be protected from such vultures that may disguise as mentors.
But this protection has to be done so carefully as not to frustrate the burning talent. Whereas such children need education too on other necessary knowledge for human living, the standard school is clearly not their place. What they need is tailor-made tutorship.
Through such an approach, for instance, mathematician Ruth Lawrence managed to enter Oxford University at the age of 10, beating all other 530 candidates at a mathematics interview. She graduated in 1985 at 13, having studied for two instead of three years. One year later, she attained another bachelors in Physics, and three years later a PhD at 17!
Standard schools and their durations are meant to train the ‘usual’ child through the stages of standard human development as he/she discovers where their talent/interests are and nurtures them through a gradual process of growth.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.