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Child prodigies: on giftedness and child celebrities in modern France

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ChildPro (Child prodigies: on giftedness and child celebrities in modern France)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2021-03-31

Using a historical approach, ChildPro brought light into the fascination with child prodigies and giftedness showing its implications in the western popular and scientific culture.

Although there is no scholarly agreement on how to define giftedness there is a consensus on why it is important: understanding giftedness, and especially, gifted children, means understanding human potential and development. Conceptions of giftedness affect education and parenting and can create unrealistic expectations in adults and children. Most European countries have national associations for gifted children who counsel families, schools and governments. Yet, a commercial approach trivializes giftedness, selling it as a highly desirable (almost unproblematic) quality in children.

Child prodigies manifest an extreme form of giftedness. They are generally defined as a type of gifted children aged ten or younger, capable of performing at a professional level in skill-demanding domains, such as music and the arts, chess, mathematics and sports. Research on the topic has been chiefly developed within psychology and remains quite ahistorical. Meanwhile, historical research on prodigies focused on case studies, failing to account for today’s interest in gifted children.

ChildPro went beyond these two approaches and explored how the history of child prodigies can help to explain the current fascination with giftedness. The project addressed child prodigies as a cultural phenomenon that: influenced the western scientific interest in giftedness, and built a long-lasting entertainment culture around gifted children. In this way, ChildPro reflected on a timely and socially sensitive topic.
ChildPro examined child prodigies, from virtuosos to chess players and math geniuses, in cultural and scientific settings (such as the theatre and the laboratory) in nineteenth and early twentieth century France, and analyzed their transformation into child celebrities and scientific subjects. In this way, ChildPro demonstrated that the child prodigy phenomenon lies in a space where popular and scholarly discourse and practices interact, and where scientific research is not immune to the trends of celebrity culture.

Furthermore, ChildPro provided an overview of the question of the general education of child prodigies in the nineteenth century. In an era remembered for the progress made against illiteracy, many prodigies admired by European audiences were uneducated children who only learned to read and write at the age of twelve or later; that is, once their years of stardom began to fade or when their lack of schooling began to have a negative effect. Sometimes, the parents’ choice to neglect the prodigies' elementary studies was unintentional, as they were convinced that, with their children’s exceptional talent, postponing their instruction would not harm them. In the end, this research showed the need to develop appropriate legislation to protect children known for their gifts and talents.
Historians have been illuminating the role of history in contemporary society. Addressing child prodigies as an on-going cultural phenomenon, and relating it to current research on giftedness and celebrity, this project began to develop a new approach to the child prodigy phenomenon.

With this new approach, ChildPro has been able to provide a comprehensive historical background of the western scientific interest in giftedness (especially in France), and showed how gifted children began to be consumed as media celebrities before the advent of the child star in film and popular music. In this way, ChildPro exposed commercial interests surrounding child prodigies, including the marketing of their gifts, and contributed to historicize the impact of celebrity in children.

The evolution of child prodigies in adulthood represents an on-going debate in studies on giftedness. ChildPro examined early and current psychological perspectives surrounding this debate and reflected on their impact in contemporary conceptions of high ability. Overall, the project provided a much-needed historical background for future scholarship on the child prodigy phenomenon and other forms of extreme giftedness, which is necessary to address both past and present dynamics concerning the scientific and cultural interest in children known for their gifts and talents.
Le petit prodige, N°14, Frédéric Bouchot, Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet (CC0 1.0)