Many would argue that reality shows are a malaise that’s dragging both free and streaming television to a point even below what is generally regarded as the lowest common denominator. They come in many different models from the electronic Stilnox of Love Island Australia, through the soap opera tedium of Bride And Prejudice to the blatant Judge Judy ripoff that is Trial By Kyle. All the free TV networks are guilty although some would see their reality shows as a cut above the usual sludge.
Take SBS’s current offering Child Genius, a series which I have touched on before in this column. It’s the search to find Australia’s smartest child with all the trappings and background stories that you get in the typical, formula contrived, reality show. Maybe I’m overreacting but I have to ask – why does a network committed to championing cultural diversity endorse what I’m sure many would perceive as a kind of intellectual elitism?
The concept is nothing new as far as Australian TV goes and there has been a stack of quiz and spelling bee shows for kids over the past decades. Only SBS has chosen to anoint the winner with the title of “Genius” and present a cup-like trophy that looks like something awarded at the annual Bong Bong picnic races. There’s no doubting the kids selected for the series are bright and intelligent and have the capacity to rote learn many of the subjects on which they are quizzed.
But cramming the brain with a whole bunch of scientific facts and the spelling of some ridiculously obscure words does not necessarily produce a child of remarkable intellect as the series wants you to think. In one of the early episodes, one of the more precocious contestants proudly proclaims that he has a higher IQ than Albert Einstein, which for the record was supposedly around 160. Wow, you have to wonder whether this kind of academic pampering at such an early age, often driven by over pushy parents, is all that healthy.
Back in the 60s in NSW, when major changes were taking place in the educational system, ‘comprehensive’ high schools were introduced in many areas. Not only were they co-educational but students were often graded according to their academic ability in A, B and C classes. There was even a classification in some schools called ‘General Activities’ for students of a supposedly low intellectual ability. Their curriculum was restricted to basic literacy along with practical courses in metalwork, woodwork and home economics.
The system certainly stigmatised those at the bottom of the academic grading. Kids in the GA classes were often referred to as ‘dumbos’ and ‘retards’ and being in a B or C class also came with a sense of inferiority. I went to one of these so-called comprehensive high schools and hated everything about the way students were intellectually segregated.
Given that experience, I have no problem in admitting that shows like Child Genius really get my egalitarian dander up. There is nothing wrong in rewarding kids for academic achievement and, of course, it should be encouraged. But defining intelligence by the ability to reel off a number of swatted up facts is problematic, to say the least.
Numerous studies have been done tracking the career paths of exceptionally bright children with varying results and conclusions. What’s generally agreed is the difference between a prodigy and a so-called genius. Prodigies are seen as children who master a particular discipline at a very early age like an eight-year-old pianist breezing through Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3. A genius, on the other hand, is often defined as somebody who eschews traditional thinking to develop an idea or theory that has a profound effect on mankind.
Okay, so the SBS series is a reality show, designed to be essentially entertaining and sustain your interest from beginning to end with a bit of drama and tension to spice it up. It’s no doubt well-meaning but let’s hope it’s the last ‘genius’ trophy dished out and any future shows highlight kids for their ideas, sense of community and humanity – not their encyclopaedic memory bank.