What It's Like Being a Child Genius at University

Bastian Eichenberger was 14 when he enrolled, Vittorio Hösle was 17. They were child prodigies, but looking back, was going to uni at such a young age a good idea?

Sep 20 2018, 11:16am

Bastian Eichenberger | Photo: N. Manuel Eichenberger

The first time that Bastian Eichenberger ever felt fully accepted, was in a laboratory for molecular genetics. The professor introduced him to the students as his colleague, briefly mentioning that the biology student was younger than everyone else in the room. For the 18-year-old, that meant the end of the time in his life in which he was teased for constantly asking more questions and scoring one A+ after the other.

While others his age are usually worrying about their A-Levels, he works as a research fellow, injecting roundworms with protein. Eichenberger is highly gifted. At 14, he finished his high school exams at his school in Switzerland and began studying chemistry in Freiburg, Germany. When that became known, the media started swarming him, calling him a child genius.

Decades earlier, the same thing happened to the now 58-year-old philosopher Vittorio Hösle, who enrolled at uni at the age of 17. In 1982, at 22, he received his doctorate – and became the youngest professor in Germany four years later. The then 17-year-old Boris Becker had just won Wimbledon, and the media dubbed Hösle “the Boris Becker of Philosophy”. Today, Boris Becker is retired from tennis and has since been declared bankrupt, but Vittorio Hösle teaches Philosophy, Politics and Literature at the University of Notre Dame in the US, and has published 16 books.

In Germany, two in 100 people are considered highly gifted. Once their talents are recognised, their academic career is often put in turbo drive – and for a brief time, they’re media darlings. Three years have passed since Eichenberger was a big story, and while two documentaries were made about Hösle, no documentary crews have been on his doorstep for years now. They’ve fulfilled their promise as child prodigies, but do they both consider the decision to go to uni so young to be the right one? I spoke to them both to find out.

As a 14-year-old high school graduate, Bastian Eichberger wanted nothing more than to conduct experiments in an actual laboratory. He told the papers that he wanted to develop medicine for diseases that didn’t have a cure yet. In his second semester at uni, his curriculum finally included some lab hours, but just before he could put on a white coat for the first time, the university denied him access to the lab. For legal reasons, he wasn’t allowed into the laboratory to experiment with the chemicals. They told him they were sorry, but it was too dangerous. He wasn’t angry at his uni, he says, “but I was very disappointed, it hurt my motivation.”

Vittorio Hösle says he can understand how Bastian Eichenberger felt at the time. “When things like that happen, you need a mentor to give you courage, and help you focus,” he says. Hösle had a period during his first year at uni that he wanted to quit his studies. He wondered if he shouldn’t have been studying “something useful”, like medicine.

That changed when he met Dieter Wandschneider, an expert on Hegel, who encouraged him not to give up on Philosophy. Hösle became one of the best known philosophers in Germany, and its youngest professor, too.

Being highly gifted can get boring and lonely – starting at school. Hösle says: “The other kids in my class couldn’t follow the questions I had for our teachers, and I didn’t understand how annoying that was for them.” He skipped two grades, Eichberger skipped four.

Hösle remembers that it only made things slightly easier for him. As a 17-year-old, he had little contact with older students in his class, and he isolated himself socially, retreating into his books – particularly those of Plato and Hegel. His fellow students didn’t appreciate it. In his mid-20s, Hösle stood before people 20 years his senior to defend his postdoctoral thesis, the highest academic degree, and saw in their faces how annoyed they were with him.

“It is important not to be distracted by rejection like that,” he would advise young students like Eichenberger now. Talking about it with peers doesn’t help either, in his experience. He prefers concentrating on what he sees as his “purpose”, writing books.

But being highly gifted doesn’t mean you have to live in permanent isolation, says Hösle. After completing his doctorate, he made up for lost time, went out and left his existence as a loner behind. Over the years, the aversion from his colleagues faded – as did a lot of the age difference between him and them.

Hösle believes that for highly-gifted people, it’s especially important to use their skills for positive and useful things. One time on a flight to Moscow, he sat next to a man who worked in tobacco sales, and asked him why he did a job that made people addicted. The man was very annoyed and couldn’t explain it to him. “I’ll never understand that,” says Hösle.

For Eichenberger, it’s similar – with his research, he wants to develop medicines and cure diseases, but for now, he mostly just wants to learn as much as he can. After being denied access to the laboratory, he switched to biology, and worked hard. Now that he’s 18, he’s finally allowed in the lab he’s wanted to work in for all those years. But he tells me that having worked hard and being exceptionally smart doesn’t guarantee a successful career in academia. When he thinks about his life, he feels that a lot of his path is predetermined – and not just his. “Highly gifted people are expected to be faster and perform great things.” He finished his Bachelor’s degree in the regular study time, along with the other students. Still, he wants to finish his education as soon as possible, so he can enter the real world and start a career.

He hopes that he can someday shed the label of “wunderkind”, that people will value him for what he does, and not just because his IQ is higher than 98 percent of other people in Central Europe. “If people accepted it more easily, I’d be able to focus more on myself and what I want,” he tells me. It’s the kind of life Vittorio Hösle is living now, at 58. In 2013, Pope Francis named him a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Scientists, one of the highest honours for Christian scientists.

Until Eigenberger is able to fly out on his own, his work in the lab helps Bastian to realise his dreams. There, he’s valued for his work, and seen as an equal. His professor graded his Bachelor’s thesis within two weeks – with a perfect grade.

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