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PRECOCITY IN CHILDREN
Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.
Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Education. New York: Pitman & Sons, 1922, 1331 - 1332. (Appears originally as an appendix in Philistine & Genius.)
By precocity I mean the manifestation of the child's mental functions at a period earlier than the one observed in the past and present generations of children.
In the course of his growth and development the individual unfolds his inner powers through acquisition of the stored-up experiences of previous generations.
The well known biogenetic law may, with some modifications, be applied to mental life. The development of the individual is an abbreviated reproduction of the evolution of the species. Briefly put: Ontogenesis is an epitome of Phylogenesis. This biogenetic law holds true in the domain of education. The stored-up experiences of the race are condensed, foreshortened, and recapitulated in the child's life history. This process of progressive "precocity," or of foreshortening of education, has been going on unconsciously in the course of human evolution. We have reached a stage when man can be made conscious of this fundamental process, thus getting control over his own growth and development.
Although the process of foreshortening of education has been taking place throughout the history of mankind, and especially of civilized humanity, still the process has remained imperceptible on account of its extremely slow rate of progress. Hence the fact of "precocity," or of early development of children, has been hitherto regarded as rare, as phenomenal. Like all rare phenomena, precocity, or early child development, is considered as unique, as abnormal, and even as pathological. In fact, many still regard precocity as some form of malady akin to mental alienation.
It is well to bear in mind that phenomena, at first scarce and rare, may under favorable conditions become sufficiently numerous to be quite common. In fact, we may lay it down as a law that all discoveries, inventions, and changes in general, economical, political, social, mental, moral, and religious, first appear on a small scale in limited areas from which they spread in various directions. Organisms start, as variations or mutations, from minute nuclei of growth; species have their origin in small centres and restricted areas. A new species may begin with some apparently insignificant variation which may grow and develop, and which, from a certain standpoint, may be regarded as an abnormality.
What at present is considered as "precocity," and hence as an abnormality, may really be the foreshadowing of the future. The apparently precocious variation may and will turn out a normal phenomenon. The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. Early education, precocity, is to become the corner stone of human life. At present the preliminary period of child education is unduly retarded to the detriment of the individual and society.
The truth is, we do not realize the importance of early training. We begin education late in the child's life, when dispositions have become formed and habits have become rigid. This delay seriously injures the growth of the child by lowering the level of mental activity. The critical points of formation of mental interests are allowed to slip by, leaving the individual irresponsive to mental, æsthetic, and moral interests. The critical turning points, when the best energies could be brought out, are not taken care of at the right moment.
The mental functions become prematurely atrophied and degenerated. When we later on attempt to awaken those functions, we are surprised to find them absent. We labor under the false impression that the child is naturally inapt and deficient. To make up for this apparent deficiency we force the child's mind into narrow channels, crippling and deforming it into mean mediocrity. The child is run into the rigid moulds of home, school, and college with the result of permanent mutilation of originality and genius. The individual is deformed, because the critical spirit of inquiry and originality is racked on the Procrustes' bed of home and school. The unfortunate thing about it is the firm belief that the crippled spirit of the child is a congenital mediocrity. Instead of shouldering the fault, we put the burden on heredity. Darwinism with its spontaneous variation and hereditary transmission, Austro-Germanic Mendelism, accompanied by a widespread propaganda of Eugenics, have blotted out from view the far more fundamental factors of environment and education which play such a paramount role in man's life.
We may profit by recent studies in Psychopathology. In my investigations I have shown the important role which early child experience plays in the patient's life. Psychopathic affections can be traced to child fears which become afterwards reinforced by unfavorable conditions of life. This is formulated in my works on psychopathology. Psychopathology clearly brings out the significant fact that a good start in early childhood is of the utmost consequence to the individual. Only a good education in early life can save man from the innumerable psychopathic maladies to which he is subject. The seeds of vicious habits and of criminal tendencies can be eliminated in early childhood.
Early development or what is termed "precocity" in children will not only prevent vice, crime, and disease, but will strengthen the individual along all lines, physical, mental, and moral. We should be careful not to cast the child's mind into ready made moulds, not to subject his mind, his character to the yoke of meaningless mannerisms and rigid formalities. We should have respect for the child's personality. We should remember that there is genius in every healthy, normal child.
We are blind to the child's latent genius, because we look to brute force as our standard. Like savages, we are afraid of genius, especially when it is manifested as "precocity in children." This abject fear of genius and of precocity is one of the most pernicious philistine superstitions, causing the retardation of the progress of humanity. The fear of mental precocity is essentially the phobia of the inveterate philistine.
We should bear in mind that the philistine is an insignificant, though exact part of a huge social machine, of a Frankenstein "kultur" before which the philistine prostrates himself in dust, a social monster of which he is proud to form an irresponsible mite. Whether he be an atom of a political organization, of a nation, or of a military kultur-system, the philistine is trained to be content to play the same ignoble, slavish role of submission, obedience, and irresponsibility. Without personal conscience, without personal will, without personal initiative, the impersonal philistine is like the stupid genie of Aladdin's lamp who slavishly obeys the master of the magic lamp.
The present horrible European war (predicted in this volume several years before the onset of the war. See pp. 30, 31) is the unfortunate, but natural outcome of philistine education and philistine life. The immediate cause of the war may be traced to politics, greed, competition, to commercial, industrial, cultural, national, international, and racial complications. At bottom, however, the present European war is ultimately due to our pernicious system of training, the bane of our industrial, social life. Millions of men are drilled and disciplined to act as automata; men are trained from childhood, at home, school, college, and university to surrender their individual judgment, and follow blindly an alleged "social consciousness," entrusted, by a set of philistine bureaucrats, to superior leaders, to generals, admirals, and field-marshals. Men are hypnotized by a pernicious and vicious system of training and quasi-education to consider it a high, sacred ideal to obey implicitly the will of a few officials and diplomats, to attack, plunder and slaughter at the command of generals and officers, in the interest of a plutocratic oligarchy, hallowed by the vague shibboleth: "Flag, Country, Patriotism."* The youth of nations is debauched with the belief in the supreme grandeur of delivering their personal responsibility in the keeping of a handful of Byzantine bureaucrats, irresponsible junkers, and half-crazed Cæsars.
The principle "Be Childlike" is paramount in the education of mankind. The child represents the future, all the possibilities, all the coming greatness of the human race. We, the adults, are contaminated by the brutal passions and vices incident to the struggle for existence and self-preservation.
Plasticity of mind is characteristic of genius. Plasticity of mind and body is preeminently characteristic of the child. Adaptability and plasticity are found in all young tissue, muscle, gland, and nerve. As the organism ages, becomes differentiated, and adapted to special functions and conditions of life, it loses its original plasticity. The tissues become fixed and the functions set. The adult's brain and mind begin to work in ruts. The child is superior to the adult.
The child looks at the world with eyes simple, clear, bright, not blinded by the heavy scales of traditions, superstitions, and prejudices of remote ages. The intricate worries, complex fears, selfish motives, brutal passions, greed, revenge, malice, vice, enmity do not as yet mar the soul of the child. Artificial needs, strong animal passions have no firm hold on the child's mind. The child's mind is purer, fresher, brighter, far more original than the adult intelligence with its philistine notions and hide-bound habits of thought and belief.
With age the mind becomes specialized and degraded in quality. Unless checked by a good education and by a persistent course of mental activity, intellectual and other mental interests, the adult mind is apt to deteriorate. Unless controlled by a good education and by intense mental interests, free from service to animal needs, the emotions of self-regard, the impulse of self-preservation with its fear instinct gradually gain in man the upper hand. In the child, on the contrary, the personal interests are relatively weak, and fluctuating, hence the possibility of pure disinterestedness, pure curiosity, love of learning, the root of all originality present both in genius and the child. The child presents the innocence and gentleness of human genius, the adult philistine is the embodiment of the force and cunning of the brute.
We should not be scared by the bug-bear of precocity. We should awaken man's genius by giving the child an early, a "precocious" education. We should bear in mind that the knowledge of our schoolboys and schoolgirls far surpasses that of the ancient sages or of the mediæval doctors. We should learn to understand and to utilize the process of progressive foreshortening of race acquisitions in the history of the individual.
The great biologist, Professor C. S. Minot, comes to a similar conclusion, as the result of his profound biological investigations: "I believe," says Minot, "that this principle of psychological development, paralleling the career of physical development, needs to be more considered in arranging our educational plans. For if it be true that the decline in the power of learning is most rapid at first, it is evident that we want to make as much use of the early years as possible—that the tendency, for instance, which has existed in many of our universities, to postpone the period of entrance into college, is biologically an erroneous tendency. It would be better to have the young man get to college earlier, graduate earlier, get into practical life or into professional schools earlier, while the power of learning is greater."
I may say that within my experience children who had the advantage of an early education and training manifested a higher grade of intellectual and moral life, a far better state of physical health than children brought up under the present retarding and crippling system of education. In conclusion I may add that in order to gain access to man's Reserve Energy we must have recourse to early child education, to the much maligned, and greatly feared "Precocity in Children."
* "The cheapest' form of pride," says Schopenhauer, "is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation it follows that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud; otherwise, he would not have recourse to those which he shares with his fellow-men. . . . Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and glad to defend all its faults and follies, tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his inferiority. . . .National character is only another name for the particular form which the littleness, perversity, and baseness of mankind take in every country.". . . "Narrowness, prejudice, vanity, and self-interest are the main elements of patriotism." . . . "Does not all history show that whenever a king is firmly established on the throne, and the people reach some degree of prosperity, he uses it to lead an army, like a band of robbers, against adjoining countries? Are not almost all wars ultimately undertaken for purpose of plunder?" . . . Schopenhauer prophetically warns his countrymen: "All war is a matter of robbery, and the Germans should take that as a warning."
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