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Study of Genius by Maurice D. Fisher

It is important for educators of the gifted to study the lives and works of great geniuses. The goal is to use their findings about the nature of genius to improve their own teaching effectiveness and understanding of gifted students. To achieve this goal, educators would need to obtain information about:

(1) interactions with family members and what environmental factors influenced the development of their talents;

(2) early indications of sensibilities to music, art, literature and different subject areas such as mathematics and science;

(3) types and amount of educational experiences they had by means of their first teachers, tutoring or formal schooling;

(4) types and amount of mentoring provided by professional musicians, mathematicians, scientists, artists, and writers, etc.;

(5) progression of their careers with particular attention to the high and low points;

(6) greatest accomplishments and the impact of these accomplishments on their areas of expertise; and

(7) how this information can help to improve the teaching and parenting of gifted students.

Clearly, the study of genius must involve a much greater investment in research and systematic observation than is currently allotted by federal and foundation funding. It is hard to make sense of this topic because descriptions of people designated as being geniuses usually occur when they are adults or after their demise, thus making it difficult to conduct scientific investigations of factors that influenced their development during the early and adolescent years. The best we can usually do is to search for clues from the lives of these individuals that appear to be related to their great accomplishments or outstanding creative endeavors.

What should educators do now to develop some degree of insight into the characteristics of geniuses and highly gifted students? There are thousands of resources available in the form of biographies, psychological studies and Internet sites.1 This task appears to be overwhelming but an accessible starting point would involve studying some of the great geniuses of world history by reading their biographies - for example, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in classical music; Rembrandt, Picasso and O'Keeffe in art; Austen, Dickens and Dickinson in literature; Curie, Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and Wiener in science and mathematics; and Jefferson, Lincoln and Churchill in politics.

Here are some examples of books on Mozart (born 250 years ago in 1756) that indicate his development, career and impact on classical music. From this and additional information on his life one can begin to construct a Life Events Chart that shows the high points of his development and achievements, and summarizes what Mozart's life demonstrates about the development of genius. Future issues of Gifted Education News-Page will elaborate upon this approach.

1For example, Paul Johnson, Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, 2006; Ellen Winner, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, 1996; and David Feldman, Nature's Gambit: Child Prodigies and the Development of Human Potential, 1991.

Early Talents - Mozart (1999) by Peter Gay. New York: Viking.

"THE LIFE OF MOZART is the triumph of genius over precociousness. A few five- or six-year-olds of his time could produce pretty variations on a theme or lure coherent tunes from a harpsichord with its keyboard covered so that they could not see their hands. But unlike other mid-eighteenth century Wunderkinder, Mozart refined his inventions and his performances into breathtaking beauty and never showed the slightest sign of fading into ordinary adolescence, a fate that has always bedeviled prodigies. In the course of a sadly truncated life-he died on December 5, 1791, at the age of thirty-five-Mozart claimed a place at the thinly occupied pantheon of the greatest composers." (Peter Gay, 1999, p. 1)

Personality Characteristic - Mozart (1983) by Wolfgang Hildesheimer. New York: Vintage.

"The 'music lover' has found, usually to his dismay, that Mozart the man was 'all too human' in his life and its external expression. He misses in him the grand gesture, the 'Beethovenesque' will that precedes and points to the creative work, the statement of a life design, the indication of a nuclear idea. It is probably no longer worth taking issue with such a view, especially since we should realize that this stubborn phantom of the "all too human" exists only for those (though they are in the majority) who have never asked themselves if their own secret inner life agrees with what they want other people's assessment of them to be. Yet this censorious description has endured in Mozart literature to this day, and has sometimes brought forth dubious fruit. . . ." (Wolfgang Hildesheimer, 1983, p. 49)

Misinterpretations of the Impact of Life Stresses on his Productivity - Mozart & Constanze (1983) by Francis Carr. New York: Avon Books.

"1789 IS THE ONLY YEAR in the last fifteen years of Mozart's life in which he wrote no symphony or concerto. We only have sixteen of his letters for this year; most of them are short letters to his wife, written when he was away from Vienna or when she was staying in Baden for her health. The diminished output of work and the anxieties expressed in the letters have led Mozart's biographers, worried by the approaching ignominious burial of the composer, to start looking for tragedies in his life which could account for this shameful end. This insistence on the tragic is in fact wisdom after the event. On examination of the evidence available we can see that it lacks conviction. . . . " (Francis Carr, 1983, p. 86)

Productivity under Stress and the Shortness of his Life - Mozart (1999) by Peter Gay. New York: Viking.

"In the last five or six years of his life, then, amid the most untoward circumstances-competitors more in the court's graces than he, lack of steady employment, financial straits, uncertain health-Mozart worked almost without interruption at the top of his form. If his biographers have found it worth noting that in 1790 he wrote 'merely' one string quintet, his last three string quartets, an adagio and allegro for mechanical organ, and Così fan tutte, this output seemed meager only in comparison with his natural pace. He wrote music that would make later generations hail him with ecstatic exclamations, and drive them to clichés purloined from the vocabulary of religion. If he had only lived just a few years longer! the lament goes. Would he have become a Beethoven before his time?-a much-canvassed conjecture, understandable but really pointless. He would have continued to be Mozart. The world of music must rest content with what he gave it." (Mozart by Peter Gay, 1999, pp. 101-02)

An Assignment for Gifted Students: Analyze the Connection between a Nobel Laureate in Literature, Naguib Mahfouz, and a French Sociologist, Émile Durkheim

Michael E. Walters Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

"My mind is solely in the service of my duty." Arabian Nights and Days (1981, Anchor Books), Naguib Mahfouz, p. 42

"Man is the more vulnerable to self-destruction the more he is detached from any collectivity, that is to say, the more he lives as an egoist." Excerpt from Moral Education, in Émile Durkheim: Selected Writings (1972, Cambridge University Press) by Anthony Giddens, Editor, p. 113

Gifted students possess the ability to make conceptual leaps across different disciplines. The following discussion shows how they can make useful connections between a great author and an influential sociologist. The literary concepts of the Egyptian Nobel writer, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), are connected to the sociological ideas of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French sociologist whose book, Suicide (1897), analyzed the impact of modernity upon traditional societies. Modernity is the impact of change upon a society when it moves from traditional political and religious values to a secular society that emphasizes industrialization, technology and scientific research.

Durkheim became the spokesman for using a secular approach to solving social issues. However, the psychological conflicts of modernity can lead to a state of demoralization which he called anomie. By using everyday, mundane situations in his novel, Arabian Nights and Days (1981), Mahfouz described the anomie occurring in his own nation of Egypt. He used the classic Arabic language to also confront the reader with different elements of The Arabian Nights, e.g., a genie. The social issues covered in this novel are ones that his fellow Egyptians are still wrestling with.

Mahfouz was a participant in the popular culture of his nation. He wrote for Cairo's leading newspapers, and many of his novels were adapted for popular Egyptian films which he rewrote as screenplays. He was a career bureaucrat for thirty-five years and therefore understood the problems of governmental bureaucracy. Mahfouz was also what the French describe as a "boulevardier." A great deal of his social life involved meeting with his friends at the Café Ali Baba in Cairo. Western writers such as Dickens, Balzac and Kafka had a major influence upon him. This is why his series of three novels entitled the Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) had such a great impact on the entire literary world. He became known as the Dickens of the Middle East as a result of writing these books. During his lifetime, he experienced major political conflicts such as the upsurge of Egyptian nationalism, and the Nasser and Sadat regimes. Religious extremists attempted to assassinate him in 1994. He recently died in August 2006 and was given a state funeral.

Gifted students should become familiar with Mahfouz's literary works because his books can give them insights into the current religious and political turmoil in the Muslim world. In addition, they can see how literature and sociology interact by studying such works as Émile Durkheim's On Suicide (1897). By simultaneously examining the writings of these individuals, gifted students can learn about the complimentary aspects of an Egyptian Muslim author and a French Jewish sociologist.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, October-November 2006