Growing Up Gifted

It seems that Hollywood can’t get enough of mathematicians. Most recently, Gifted hit theaters. It’s the story of the mathematically gifted seven-year-old Mary who is living with her uncle in Florida. We follow Mary’s struggle adjusting to a typical public school classroom, while the conflicting desires of the adults in the film — her uncle, teacher, grandmother and neighbor — to allow her a normal childhood while making sure to nourish her talents, play out around her. As the film progresses we learn that Mary’s mother was a genius herself, who died while on the cusp of proving the existence and smoothness of the Navier-Stokes equations, one of the as-yet outstanding Millennium Problems.

The movie didn’t actually involve all that much math, save for occasional references to differential equations and some teary-eyed discussion of the problem that got away. But it did capture something charming and lovely about the sometimes non-trivial dynamics of teaching exceptionally gifted children and the captivating allure of mathematics.

I stumbled upon a blog written by several educators and researchers at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, who are not necessarily experts in mathematics, who write about whether its depiction of giftedness in the classroom was accurate and well-handled. They bring up several good points, including how different the landscape can be for a student depending on whether their parents and educators are completely aware of all of the resources available to them. They also bring up an important point that I think the movie very conspicuously missed: being mathematically gifted and being social are not necessarily in opposition to one another.

The movie concluded with a cameo from mathematician, math blogger, and recent Erdős-Bacon number-haver Jordan Ellenberg, who consulted on mathematics in the film.

In 2014, Ellenberg wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal, The Wrong Way to Treat Child Geniuses, (sorry about the paywall) about the disproportionate and sometimes wrongheaded way that society thinks about genius in children. Ellenberg cites a Vanderbilt University study that tracked the achievements of a cohort of children identified as gifted at an early age. He was part of this cohort, a fact he discusses in a recent interview with math blogger Anthony Bonato. Ellenberg and his cohort do have a disproportionate amount of success, especially as success is defined in the academic realm, but he points out, “most child prodigies are highly successful—but most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies.” The cult of genius, he claims, might do more to scare otherwise top-notch people away from math and science than it does to foster the geniuses.

The idea that math is an area strictly reserved for super geniuses is generally speaking, a very bad one. Evelyn Lamb wrote about some of the specific problems in the genius myth as it corresponds to the retention of women in STEM fields. Lamb also wrote about how the media contributes to this stereotype.

Fields Medalist and math blogger Terry Tao, who also consulted on the film, has written about the short-sightedness of over-hyping giftedness when it comes to mathematics. Tao writes, “I find the reality of mathematical research today – in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck – to be far more satisfying than the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of ‘geniuses’.” Tao has also written about strategies for gifted education, and points readers to several articles about his experience growing up gifted.

These are all interesting points, and as a mathematician and educator I would strongly recommend watching this movie, if only as a well-scored and reasonably entertaining springboard to launch into all of the rich ideas surrounding giftedness, the cult of genius, and the strange otherness of mathematics.

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