Specialization & The Perils of Child Prodigies

Arnold Toynbee, Marshall McLuhan, Kevin Bassana and Peter Drucker  have written extensively on the origin of specialization as it applies to both education, music, labor, history and warfare.  But Ruth Slenczynska has addressed the lives of child prodigies in her autobiography, “Forbidden Childhood.”

June marks the birthday of Mozart, a child prodigy if ever there were one.  There are others like him, namely Mendelssohn, Chopin, David Helfgott and Ervin Nyiregyhazi.  Ruth Slenczynska has had the courage to write about what is viewed by many as divine intervention in the display of virtuosity.  The object of envy, these children seem to live lives of charmed talent, fame and fortune.  Only a writer who succumbed and mastered such perils has authority to persuade parents and onlookers to notice the price paid for overspecialization.

Toynbee’s twelve volume study of the rise and fall of twenty-one civilizations dominated the literary scene for several decades.  He argued persuasively that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be grounded in a mean.  An excessive challenge will crush the nascent drive, insufficient challenge will cause stagnation.  Toynbee revealed that the breakdown in civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, attacks from outside, loss of control over other populations, but from the deterioration of leaders, their inability to sustain growth through attempts to gain traction in a solution to the posed challenge.  He asked:  ‘how do the lame and crippled respond to their handicaps in a society of active warriors?  They become specialists like the Greek god Vulcan, the smith and armorer.  How do whole active communities act when conquered and enslaved?  They specialize and become indispensable to their masters.  The long history of enslavement and the collapse into specialization as a counter-irritant has put the stigma of servitude and pusillanimity (cowardice) on the figure of the specialist.”

Peter Drucker and Marshall McLuhan revealed the social and psychological consequences that technological implosion displays interpersonally in a world that for a millennium has been organized and informed from mass.  Overspecialization today is most certainly a death sentence.  This ought to inform our mode of education and leisure.  But human beings are lagging indicators.  Without embracing the personal challenges poised by the social impact of technology, we become enormities subject to failure and final breakdown.

Joseph Bloch taught piano at the Julliard School for 50 years, he finds the mixed history of child prodigies unsurprising.  “Almost no one has a career without having been a prodigy.  Yet I can give you names of many prodigies at Julliard who never amounted to anything later in life.”

Singer Gertrude Mara spent her first years tied to a chair whenever her father went to work and became permanently disabled.  The most outrageous example of manipulation and outright abuse is detailed in ‘Forbidden Childhood’.  “Everytime I made a mistake he leaned over and, very methodically, without a word, slapped me across the face.”  She wrote of the nine hour training sessions, which began when most children are just learning how to walk.  “If the mistake was bad enough, I was almost hurled bodily from the piano.  Their were no dolls, skipping ropes, no pets, no marbles, only the piano and the slaps, which gradually progressed to blows.”

Today Dr. Ruth Slenczysnka is a professor of classical music at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.  She takes special interest to reveal to students the absolute need to learn either a subject outside of fine arts or business if you are going to earn a living.  She fervently admonishes the public interest in prodigies as wrongheaded, unsavory a kind of vestigial pedophilia.  For Dr. Slencznska, the culture of family life, motivation, energy and self image are foundational if anyone is to survive.  “If not, the result can be a life long commitment to music or a lifelong commitment to a psychiatrist.”

Being Polish she views music as analogous to a sacramental act, in that we are shaped by the encounter of prosody.  Music becomes a personal depth charge; a communion that shapes, imparts an epiphany with true moral consequences.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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