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Existential Intelligence in Gifted Children

On January 2, 2018, Business Insider posted an article about teen prodigy, Braxton Moral, who is set to receive both a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree from the Harvard Extension School this May. Howard Gardner wrote the following reflection in response to the article.


With respect to the theory of multiple intelligences, one of the criteria for an intelligence is that there are large individual differences among young people, and these can be identified early in life. And so, for example, by definition, musical prodigies exhibit high musical intelligence, young athletes display high bodily intelligence, chess players are mathematically and spatially precocious, and so on.

In recent decades, I have speculated about the possibility of “existential intelligence”—what I paraphrase as the “intelligence of big questions.” I deliberately choose this rather colorless descriptor, in preference to more loaded terms like “spiritual” or even “religious intelligence.” I have also quipped that every child raises big questions—but the child with existential intelligence searches for answers; and the child continues to raise and ponder questions that are stimulated by more or less acceptable answers to the initial ones. And so I was interested to learn that Braxton Moral, an extremely precocious high school and college graduate at age 16, is reported to have had an “existential crisis” while in fifth grade.

Assuming that the report is accurate, Braxton raised philosophical and religious questions while still a young boy and was so vexed that he sought higher education to help him think through these enigmas. According to Ellen Winner, gifted children and prodigies exhibit a “rage to master” and are not easily derailed from their area of fascination—be it musical sounds, chess moves, or the arc of a tennis ball. From what I know about his childhood, Mahatma Gandhi also was precocious in the existential realm.

I would welcome other examples of “existential precocity”–the questions asked by highly gifted children, as well as how these children went about trying to answer their own questions. For contrast, I would also welcome examples of the kinds of big questions that typical children pose, with information about how much they pushed to try to get answers.

Also, as a researcher currently focused on higher education, I would add that receiving a college degree “in extension school,” as Braxton has, is not the same as receiving it in a four-year residential school. Such a college education occurs much in interaction with peers, both in sessions and classrooms, in extracurricular activities, and in late night “bull.” A young person can be precocious in one sphere while quite ordinary in others. Such was the case with Michael Kearney, a scholastic prodigy, who, after four years of college before adolescence, had as his goal becoming a talk show host! Indeed, and famously, both Norbert Wiener and William James Sidis were enrolled in college at an early age by their academic parents. And both experienced significant personality upsets in later life. There are no easy solutions for exceptional islands of intellectual talents.

- Howard Gardner


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