Monday, March 17, 2008

Channel Four's Geniuses An Appalling Omen

Television Ontario (TVO), one of the bright-spots in Canadian broadcasting, has a weekly feature called The View From Here. TVFH is a one-and-a-half-hour slot dedicated to showing out-of-market documentaries that are so obscure they can't even be downloaded. These films are almost always extremely well-done. And, more often than not, they make you angry. Last night wasn't exceptional in either case. The program was a British Channel 4 documentary entitled, simply enough, Child Geniuses. The documentary probed into the lives of about ten preteen "geniuses"--the scare quotes will be explained later--as they progressed through the rigours of their "exceptional" days.

There was something so cold and soulless about these children that, frankly, was frightening. Watching them interact with the absent interviewer, I felt forced, at times, to change the channel, spiriting these children off into the digital aether.

Granted, there are children with tremendous intellectual capabilities who, because of their extreme rationality cannot interact with peers. But while these children are intellectually advanced, they seem to exist in a kind of emotional vacuum wherein every last atom of sympathy and empathy has been removed to make room for an uncontrolled narcissism. It's evidenced in the frequency and adjectival ornamenting of the proliferating IQ SCORE. Everyone's been tested, and they're all more than willing to tell you how smart they are. The children are taught by the parents, and the parents flaunt their little deities like golden calves.

But some of this is understandable. A ten-year-old child with a 170 IQ can read a novel by Saul Bellow. But that ten-year-old child cannot understand the novel in the same way they can understand the Krebs Cycle. There is intellectual knowledge, there is experiential knowledge, and there is the ability to integrate the two. None of the child geniuses showed an ability to reach beyond their own individual self-created paradigm. And that is awful. Because their parents don't seem to care whether their child can "feel." These are the next generation of racial purists--self-aggrandizing, rational people who believe in the strict rule of unemotional logic.

One family, the Grafton-Clarks, typified the kind of disgraceful devotional solipsism that the filmmaker sought to uncover. The matriarch of the family, a blank, cloying woman, held her children in such reverence as to suggest their eventualy deification as the next Great Men and Great Women of British science and industry. The father sat silently as the mother detailed how, under her stewardship, these children would be shepherded through PhDs, MDs, and post-doctoral fellowships. The children, she said, were members of several societies for gifted adolescents. That their next ten years would be consumed by constant scholarship was not just a given, it was a mandate.

The question is Why? Why several societies? Why any? Your children are very bright; they've been raised in a home where play time was replaced with study time. When they were three they were made to read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. So of course they learned, and of course they're bright. But why thrust them into societies, why jockey for the highest IQ prize?

The film showed the four GC children seated in their parlour--a horrible, grey room in which they doubtlessly gather daily to read from morning 'til bedtime. One girl, aged ten I think, was wearing a black blazer and reading MacBeth. Another, slightly younger, was reading the Bible as an intellectual exercise. She was, according to the mother, a religious scholar and philosopher. The youngest son, a boy suffering from undiagnosed autism, was reading a book of street maps. All were wan and slightly haggard. All this as the mother stood by, beaming. Her children, she said, prefer to isolate themselves in the family home. The other parents are jealous of their achievements. I guess these other parents won't applaud as IQ scores snap and pop from the matriarch's throat.

Of the children featured, only one stood out as an inevitable product of what we'd call genius. His name is Michael Dowling, and because he's so clearly gifted, there's probably no other path for him than the one his mother's chosen. He's eleven, and he enjoys reading Thucydides while cloistered in a Victorian household library. Not that this child was likable--his facade of adult rationality was strident to say the least. But it was clear that he wasn't being prodded into this by his parents. And he wasn't heartless or suicidal. So good luck to him.

The worst--by far the worst--child featured was one named Dante. This boy was such a fine example of pathological psychosis that the director seemed markedly reticent around him. At eleven, Dante had expressed a desire to commit suicide; he showed an interest in swords and martial arts; he was both manic and narcissistic; his philosophy (he was filmed discoursing with an Oxford professor) was shallow and nihilistic. He came to the breakfast table wrapped in a comforter/toga, and aggressively directed shallow questions regarding his absent feelings, warning the interviewer that he was a private person. And it was a warning.

None of the children admitted to having a single friend.

So, no, we aren't jealous of these manchildren and womenchildren. Their lives are a kind of ascetic stoicism that even Zeno would have renounced. No one would want to live this way, divorced completely from society. We turn away because we can't abide the egotism--theirs and their parents. We're not fans of the reclusive, brooding intellect.

Intelligence without humility is pathetic martyrdom. And that's just not tolerated anymore.

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