Tuesday, April 23, 2013

William Sidis and The Nature of Education.

I let the 115th birthday of William Sidis pass by without comment earlier this month, but he's been on my mind since.

I encountered his story in my first year of law school; a child prodigy (at 11, the youngest person to enroll at Harvard, ever), he became famous for his precocity.  My sense (and Wikipedia agrees) is that Sidis was very much a product of his parents.  Sidis apparently could read the New York Times at 18 months, and by age 9 knew eight different languages.  At age 11, Sidis delivered a lecture on higher mathematics at the Harvard Mathematical Club, and at 17 enrolled in Harvard Law School.

Despite the amazing success of Sidis as a youth, I don't think any parent would wish Sidis' future on their child.  By 21, he was in jail for rioting. When the New Yorker ran an article and a cartoon some years later discussing how he had become an eccentric recluse, Sidis sued for invasion of privacy, took it to the Supreme Court, and lost. It's not hard to see why Sidis was so incensed by the article -- few would enjoy the New Yorker describing their life as lonely, living in a hall bedroom in Boston's shabby "South End."

Sidis died shortly thereafter at age 45, of a cerebral hemmorage. 

Sidis has long been a cautionary guide post about how not to bring up children, and his parents were criticized extensively. Sidis himself was portrayed derisively in newspapers even as a child. You can see the presumption in the New Yorker cartoon I've included above, from the article that provided the basis for Sidis' suit. The comic portrays Sidis as a snotty kid, a punk, know-it-all prick.

Here's the thing.  William Sidis was from Southie.  And that immediately reminded me of the following clip from Good Will Hunting:

"But he's a bit defensive ... I need someone who can get through to him."
"Like me."
"Yeah, like you."
"Well, because you have the same kind of background."
"What background?"
"Well, you're from the same neighborhood."
"He's from Southie?"
"Boy genius from Southie ... how many shrinks you go to before me?"
Which makes me pause when I consider William Sidis now.

Few viewers of Good Will Hunting today would consider it implausible that the brilliant mathematician would be so out of touch that it would take him five tries to think of getting someone to talk to Will from the same neighborhood, from the same tradition, from the same culture. We find it believable that the mighty, the wealthy, the brilliant, and the powerful are unable to communicate with the poor.

Yet at the same time, we sense that Robin Williams' character immediately understands things about Matt Damon's that Stellan Skarsgård's will never comprehend. It is Robin Williams' ability to speak to he who Stellan Skarsgård cannot that is the work of genius depicted in the film.  It is Robin Williams' ability to communicate between the prodigy and the professor.

I take that lesson and look at William Sidis. And I am forced to ponder the nature of education.