The May 1960 edition of Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts featured an article by Harold G. McCurdy, author of The Personality of Shakespeare: A Venture in Psychological Method (1953) and then professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. “The Childhood Pattern of Genius,” based on a (presumably longer and more scholarly) paper first published in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and later in a report of the Smithsonian Institution, has enjoyed a bit of fame more than five decades after its publication because its concluding paragraph serves as a sort of “So there!” response to queries — both implied and expressed — about the methods and motives of home educators.
Not content to discuss a potentially truncated and/or inaccurate transcript of the quote, I tracked down a copy of the magazine, a hard-bound gem of a publication that includes such delights as an image of the Bed of Ware (so famous, apparently, that it merited mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) in a piece about civilization’s best beds; “An Eastern Art Goes Western,” James A. Michener’s exploration of traditional Japanese wood block complemented by numerous (and gorgeous) full-color images; and mention of Burnham’s “White City” of 1893 in an article about the 1964 Fair.
In summary, the present survey of biographical information on a sample of twenty men of genius suggests that the typical developmental pattern includes as important aspects: (1) a high degree of attention focused upon the child by parents and other adults, expressed in intensive educational measures and, usually, abundant love; (2) isolation from other children, especially outside the family; and (3) a rich efflorescence of fantasy as a reaction to the preceding conditions. It might be remarked that the mass education of our public school system is, in its way, a vast experiment on the effect of reducing all three factors to a minimum; accordingly, it should tend to suppress the occurrence of genius.
McCurdy’s “twenty men of genius” included such notables as John Stuart Mill, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Blaise Pascal, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Voltaire, John Quincy Adams, and William Pit, and the writer maintains that his “brief sketches” of their lives
confirm the rule that children of genius are exposed to significantly great amounts of intellectual stimulation by adults and experience very restricted contacts with other children of their own age. Nor should we overlook the fact that books themselves, to which these children were so much attached, are representatives of the adult world. […] Books extend the boundaries of the adult empire.
My first thought after reading the article was, Were there no women of genius? And my second? What a dubious business this is, appropriating a fifty-five-year-old study about genius as a validation of home education. Certainly, McCurdy notes that mass education “is, in its way, a vast experiment on the effect of reducing” the important aspects of the childhood pattern of genius, but he also contends that “Genius by any definition is rare.”
Indeed, it is.