Prodigy or tragedy?


Monday April 14, 2008

Prodigy or tragedy?


IT’S terrible, but when I read about how Sufiah Yusof, the mathematics prodigy who was admitted to Oxford at the age of 13, has been found prostituting herself in London, the first thing that popped into my head was an old BBC comedy sketch.

It was from the radio show Knowing Me Knowing You, where the idiotic host Alan Partridge (played masterfully by Steve Coogan) was interviewing “Simon”, a child prodigy, who at nine, was Oxford’s youngest ever Fellow.

Partridge set the tone for the entire programme when his first question to the prodigy’s father was: “When did you first realise that Simon was abnormal?” To which the father replied, “Gifted, you mean,” only for Partridge to concur: “Abnormally gifted.”

Sufiah Yusof: Was it worth the psychological trauma to pressure her academically during her growing-up years?

I find Sufiah’s story tragic, but I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I had the same feeling some years ago when I attended the New York premiere of a documentary on, perhaps, Singapore’s most famous gifted student: Grace Quek, better known as Annabel Chong.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chong, she rocketed to worldwide notoriety with The World’s Biggest Gang Bang, a pornographic video of her having non-stop consecutive sex with 251 men (later revealed to be actually “only” around 70).

“Annabel” turned up for a post-screening Q&A session, which I thought she fielded deftly, and I was left with the impression of someone extremely smart, but so full of hurt and rage that she felt compelled to respond in an extreme way.

Some have suggested that the entire exercise was a way to exorcise her trauma after being raped while studying law in London, while she herself has said it was an artistic statement questioning the unfairness of lauding men as “studs” for having multiple sex partners, but not women.

While watching the documentary, I remembered thinking: How uniquely Singaporean of her not to be content with just making porn, but trying to break a record while at it.

I’m not suggesting in any way that the pressure of excelling academically automatically leads to risky sexual behaviour, but I do think that growing up in artificially constructed circumstances can mess you up.

Quite a number of academics in the field of education in New York are increasingly ambivalent about “gifted” programmes. While the goal of helping each child develop his own gifts at his own pace is laudable, often the kids are assessed on very artificially drawn criteria, and set up with expectations that can never be realised when they eventually leave their hermetic existence and rejoin the real world.

In the United States, there’s an industry devoted to stroking parents’ egos about how Junior is a genius, and playing on their status anxieties to sign up for expensive programmes to get a leg-up over the riff-raff.

It gets even more ridiculous when this competitiveness is taken to early childhood (Baby Einstein DVDs) and even pre-natal stages. According to Alissa Quart’s book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma Of The Gifted Child (Penguin Press, 2005), “designating children as gifted, especially extremely gifted, and cultivating that giftedness may be not only a waste of money, but positively harmful. The over-cultivated can develop self-esteem problems and performance anxiety”.

When the news of Sufiah’s admission into Oxford first broke, I met a man who said he wished his son could be just like her. “Isn’t it great to have such a head start over your peers?” he asked me.

I thought back to my hormone and alcohol-fuelled undergraduate experience and said that for a 13-year-old far away from home and mixing with much more mature people, it could be both terrifying, disorienting and lonely.

Being great at sums doesn’t mean much then. What’s the hurry anyway? I asked him. Is it worth the psychological trauma just to get a few years’ seniority, which is ultimately meaningless in the working world? He didn’t seem to understand then. I wonder if he still wishes his child were like Sufiah. – The Straits Times, Singapore / Asia News Network


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