The Polgar Sisters and American Education

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Strange things have been happening in the world of chess lately. On the one hand, although world champion Gary Kasparov recently managed to trounce Deep Thought, this strong computer program has defeated almost everyone below Mr. Kasparov in rank--a record that seems to portend the eventual eclipse of human by machine intelligence. On the other hand, the advent of the Polgar girls appears to open up vast new possibilities of human mental development.

Three Hungarian sisters, Zsuzsa, Zsofia, and Judit Polgar, have achieved "grandmaster" results in their teens, and the youngest, Judit, is the highest-ranked player of her age ever--higher even than Bobby Fischer at a comparable age. What is amazing about these accomplishments is that women chess players, despite a half-century of organized, well-supported competition in Eastern Europe, have never approached the strongest men's rankings, let alone topped them; and that there are few, if any, other examples of one family having produced three budding grandmasters.

As the sisters continue to break records on the international circuit, they are interesting and valuable in themselves; but far more important to the future of education in the United States and elsewhere is the theory that produced them. That theory is the invention of the girls' father, a brilliant maverick named Laszlo Polgar, who has yet to publish his ideas. But enough information has filtered back through interviews with the girls and their parents, most recently in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, for some preliminary speculation to begin.

After a study of 400 exceptional people, Mr. Polgar discovered that all had begun to specialize very early. As his daughters were born, he applied his findings to their education, with the avowed intention of producing "geniuses" in several fields. Though he wished to try mathematics, foreign languages, and chess, he had money only to retain teachers in chess.

With the birth of his first daughter, he and his wife, Klara, quit their jobs as teachers to supervise their children's complete education. The sisters were not allowed to attend school, although they did take the necessary examinations. They concentrated on chess theory and practice for several hours a day; members of the Hungarian chess team were retained to teach them. Because of their father's pugnacity in dealing with the chess bureaucracy, the sisters were allowed, against all rules, to play in men's tournaments. Every book and every picture in the family's apartment is related to chess.

Yet outside observers report that the girls appear normal and not at all neurotic. Their mother says that her girls are not geniuses, and Mr. Polgar claims that he could achieve the same results in any field with any normal child.

The Guardian quotes Mr. Polgar as follows: "The period from 3 to 6 is the most important and should be utilized much better than it is today. Children like to solve problems. The richer the content of the problem solved, the happier the child. Learning was a greater pleasure for my children than sterile play for play's sake."

Statements such as these make it possible to view the Polgar sisters in the same light as Tennessee walking horses, which are forced from an early age to walk with an unnatural gait: They achieve uniqueness at a terrible price. Most Americans would probably see the girls in this way, since most have been taught to believe in a broadly based skills and liberal-arts curriculum. "Narrow specialization" is routinely blamed by commentators for allegedly poor teaching and learning in universities, for instance. We also know that some experiments to raise children with unusually high iqs have resulted in mental disaster for the children themselves.

But we must set one simple fact against this understandably negative gut-response to Mr. Polgar's methods: Whether or not they answer our ideal of the "well rounded" student, they seem to work. Is it possible that "genius," now thought to be largely a genetic matter, may prove to be more the result of the right kind of nurture?

Is there even such a thing as "genius" at all, or only exceptional, expert performance caused by the proper cultivating of a normal intellect? Or is it rather that Zsuzsa, Zsofia, and Judit, as the daughters of a highly creative and intelligent father and mother, were in fact born with exceptional abilities? (Even in that case, however, Mr. Polgar's methods would be worth serious study, for they have certainly given his daughters direction and achievement.) Mr. Polgar's perilous but successful experiment raises all of these classical, much debated questions with a vengeance.

In any case, Mr. Polgar's idea that early nurture is extremely important is confirmed by a recent study of violinists. Researchers found that the crucial difference between the most promising violin students and others was that, by age 18, the former had spent, on average, 2,000 more hours practicing than had the less promising students. The top students also reported that their early musical experiences were playful rather than serious, and that their parents had been essential in encouraging them to practice regularly.

In addition to the nature-versus-nurture speculations aroused by this study and the Polgar phenomenon, there is a more practical consideration: Could Mr. Polgar's theory be adapted to a traditional school system?

Mr. Polgar claims that true learning can happen only between loved ones--in the sisters' case, in the warm confines of an orthodox Jewish family in which the relationship between teacher and taught seems to resemble that of a devoted rabbi and a beloved disciple. Any school system would be hard-pressed even to approximate such an atmosphere. But there are certain things that schools could do to at least partially replicate these conditions.

The possible application of Mr. Polgar's theory to an American setting raises the following tentative questions, and they challenge some of our most cherished educational beliefs:

Should children be encouraged to specialize in a subject or subjects they like as early as possible, even in preschool?

Should teachers, from the earliest childhood years, be subject specialists rather than general primary-school teachers?

Should teachers be carefully selected for their ability to love and nurture children rather than, as at present, for their ability to pass education classes?

Should children study with specialists in small groups or have daily one-on-one tutorial sessions in addition to--or instead of--regular classes?

Should college students begin their majors immediately, as in some European systems, instead of being given two years of general studies first? Should this period be cut or otherwise modified?

Should training workshops be established for parents of children in this system?

Given our present support for rounded childrearing, these questions may stir parents' apprehension rather than their enthusiasm. As the parent of three children, I admit to the same fear.

But wait a minute. Aren't most middle-class parents doing something like this already? My children have become avid readers because their parents are great readers. Musically inclined parents regularly start their children's instrumental practice at a very early age. Parents who know several languages usually try to teach them to their children early on.

The difference between these kinds of practices and what Mr. Polgar has done lies largely in his rigor and single-mindedness. In the case of well-disposed but more liberal and easy-going parents, might reinforcement from a specialist school system pro8duce results similar to Mr. Polgar's?

While we consider the possible dangers to children of the Polgar method, we ought to think of the benefits, too. Youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds no less than middle-class children could profit if they were given individual, focused attention from the start of their schooling. Certainly the nation as a whole would benefit from increased levels of expertise among its citizens.

Nations that make the most of their intellectual resources will prosper, while those that take a looser, more laissez-faire attitude toward the use of human resources--as the United States now does--will be at risk. The question is not whether we should consider Mr. Polgar's theory, but whether we can afford to ignore it. Look out, Deep Thought, here we all come--maybe.

Vol. 09, Issue 38, Page 23

Published in Print: June 13, 1990, as The Polgar Sisters and American Education
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