Almost exactly a century ago, two Harvard professors””Dr. Boris Sidis, in psychology, and Dr. Leo Wiener, in the Slavic literature department””riled America by showcasing their two prodigy sons and the methods that had produced them, both Harvard-ready math marvels. While 11-year-old William James (Billy) Sidis stunned the university’s Mathematical Club with a lecture on the fourth dimension and 15-year-old Norbert Wiener plunged into graduate studies, Dr. Sidis insisted that anyone could nurture such youthful prowess. The only obstacle, he argued, was the American embrace of mediocrity. “Poor old college owls, academic barn-yard-fowls and worn-out sickly school-bats,” he scolded in his 1911 book Philistine and Genius, “you are panic-stricken by the power of sunlight, you are in agonizing, in mortal terror of critical, reflective thought, you dread and suppress the genius of the young.”
Now it’s Yale’s turn. In a book with a title very much in the pugnacious Sidis spirit, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, a professor at the university’s law school, sets out to provoke with her account of raising two precociously talented daughters. Chua, now making the TV rounds, is well aware her methods will make her readers gasp””with horror but also with unexpected envy.