No admissions officer in this country would have opened the portals of her university to Esther Okade, the phenomenal British-Born Nigerian girl who at age six earned a credit in mathematics at the General Certificate of Secondary Education examination and a B grade in Pure Mathematics at the advanced level, four years later. She would simply have pointed to the statutory minimum entry age of sixteen, while stealthily conceding, if pressed, that over the years fourteen and fifteen-year-old boys and girls have sneaked in, brandishing falsified birthday certificates. By contrast, Britain, which recently favoured ten-year-old Esther with a place at the Open University has cheerfully accepted children, including several Nigerians from the mathematically gifted Imafidon family, Anne-Marie at thirteen, Christiana at eleven, etc. into its universities.
However, some Nigerians of a certain age will remember that it happened once, that a child, a wunderkind named Biodun Abari, did seek admission into a Nigerian university. The Abari case was a cause célèbre, occasioning an impassioned public debate and the convening of an emergency university senate meeting. It was in 1992 and Biodun, armed with school certificate credits and a high enough JAMB score, was prima-facie qualified to enter the Lagos State University (LASU). Far too young to go through with a sleight-of-hand age declaration, the boy, all of twelve years old, had to plead for a waiver through his mother.
According to Mrs. Abari she had asked God for a child who would be of stellar brilliance like Wole Soyinka, the playwright whose office she passed daily on her way to lectures at the University of Ife as an undergraduate. Biodun was duly born, leapfrogged through primary school by spending just a term in each class-year and cruised (with intensive coaching) through secondary school, finishing brilliantly at eleven. In the event, the Lagos state University Senate granted Biodun Abari admission, setting a precedent she (LASU) is sure never to follow, for Abari, lacking parental tutelage in the liberal university environment, had a difficult and painful undergraduate career vitiated by campus-cult membership.
Speeded-up education, especially in the form of home schooling, which Esther Okade enjoyed, seems to be a rising trend. According to Rebecca Davis a, journalist, writing in 2012, “The idea that a child prodigy can be made rather than given birth to is one that has attracted some popularity in recent years. “Parents want to make prodigies of their children. Is it worthwhile to do so? Here, there is a prior question, “Is your child talented enough to be a prodigy? “Without a doubt every child is special but then not every child is extraordinary. Childhood specialists posit that our early years – up to age ten – constitute the most productive phase of our lives, with our cognitive capacity and performance effortlessly at a peak. We exhibit the keenest concentration and in three brief years attain a basic mastery of our mother tongue, a feat so marvelous as to make linguists reckon it a sheer miracle. Still, children obey the inevitable (statistical) normal curve: a few fall below average, a vast multitude occupy the middle and a minuscule few operate in the prodigy range. Hence parents should beware of thinking every child a prodigy without losing sight of the fact that every child has potentials worth nurturing. That a child is not a prodigy does not mean he is not a potential super achiever in adulthood as David Shenk superbly argues in his book, The Genius in All of Us.
What is the eager, zealous parent to do with his or her children? The best counsel appears to be: from nature comes the gift, let nature take its course; therefore tend your child lightly as would a gardener a beautiful blossoming garden, untroubled by pests or weeds. The lives and careers of Carl Friedrich Gauss, Evariste Galois and John von Neumann, three illustrious mathematicians, who without parental pressure were first child prodigies and later (adult) geniuses, are cases in point. When parents bluster in, hurrying and harrying talent, the best results may not occur. For example, Norbert Wiener was a prodigy of mathematics in the mould of von Neumann but he chafed at the control his father exercised over him as evident in his autobiography I Am A Mathematician. Worse was the tragic life story of John Sidis, a parent-driven American mathematical prodigy born in the late nineteenth century who entered Harvard at eleven, graduated at sixteen, lectured there briefly, resigned to attend law school, then lapsed into eccentricity in his later years, avoiding mathematics altogether.
Let us face it: it is too early to go to the university at ten. The mind may be ready but the social and emotional dimensions of behavior and personality are sure to exact a cost. Even fourteen is rather early, as the precocious Funso Adegbola, the late Bola Ige’s daughter, attests. Fifteen is just about right. According to Joshua Lederberg, “Being successful at a very young age gave me the confidence and the capability to try out other things. ”A very young age? Lederberg entered the university at fifteen and was awarded the Nobel at thirty-three. Likewise, J.D. Watson of double–helix fame, gained university admission at fifteen and gained the Nobel Prize at thirty-three.
After studying the adult careers of two hundred and ten prodigies, Professor Joan Freeman, a psychologist, wrote up her research in Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up. Her findings are surprising, serious, sobering: only six of the 210 measured up to their early promise and became “incredibly successful” in later life. Freeman states that fate, personality and grit are as important as gumption in the making of adult success. She further states, “There is a whole person involved in whether a person becomes successful, children can be sick and tired of having their noses to the grindstone.”
Mrs. Omorefe Okade, Esther’s mother has been criticised as a slave-driver. Esther has never attended school but has been home-schooled from infancy by her mother who cites Esther‘s enthusiasm and energy as indices of the girl’s self-motivation. Perhaps missing the point, Mrs. Okade said, far from depriving Esther of her childhood, “For now, we want her to enjoy her childhood as well as her maths.”
Joan Freeman’s research conclusions apart, the career of Ruth Lawrence stands in telling testimony of the danger of pushing children too far too fast. Ruth, born in 1971, sat for the entrance examination to Oxford at ten, in 1981, placing first ahead of 350 other candidates. She had been home-schooled from age five by her father who gave up his job to train her full-time. Her father attended every lecture and tutorial at Oxford with her.
She went on to gain a First in mathematics, after only two years of study, so that she had to wait out a year to be given her degree. Ruth has had an outstanding career as an academic, is married to a mathematician and has a son, Yehuda. However, in the year 2000, in an interview she gave UK’s Sunday Mirror she said, “There will not be any forcing, no attempt to try and push Yehuda faster than he wants to go” Ruth further said that she was “enormously grateful” for what her father did for her but, “I suppose I might have liked my childhood to be different in some ways.”
Kola Amodu, a developmental education enthusiast and researcher, writes from Ibadan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org