When someone is talented in a particular area and already self-motivated to practice and improve, is there a need for formal instruction or should that person be allowed to develop on their own and move in new and interesting directions? In the movie, Good Will Hunting, there is an interesting dilemma. The main character in the movie was naturally talented at math. He loved math and solving problems. He was also better at math than most math professors, even one who had won the most prestigious math award. Yet, the award-winning mathematician wanted him to go through formal training to develop his talent. On the other hand, his therapist wanted him to be left alone to continue on his own path. Who was right?
George Gershwin, the great classical jazz composer had a similar dilemma. He wanted to improve his composition and arranging skills. When he brought up the idea of working with a teacher to develop his talents further, he was told that he should stay away from teachers. He would be better as an original than learning the techniques of a teacher who might possibly somehow diminish his originality.
Wolfgang Mozart was another prodigy who took a different path, though not by his own choice. Mozart was very thoroughly trained by his own father in the art of musical performance and composition. While we can all see that the outcome of his musical training did not hold him back from becoming one of the greatest composers in history, what would have happened if things went differently? What if Mozart’s father had left him alone to play around with musical instruments, pencil and paper? Is it possible that he might have become an even greater composer? Would his music have been more original and less like other music of the times?
So, when we see a young artist drawing all over the walls as a baby and growing up, drawing non-stop for hours every day, showing an increasing level of talent and skill with each year, what is the right thing to do? Do we send her to art school? If we insist on the best teachers and training, will we make things better or worse?
Fortunately, we live in a different world from those of Mozart and Gershwin. Even Will, the main character from Good Will Hunting, did not have the learning advantages that children have today. In the beginning of that movie, Will tells another character how he can learn everything he needs to know for free in the public library. Today, he might have mentioned Wikipedia, YouTube and the many top universities that put their best coursework online, such as MIT and Stanford. A student can now sample from the greatest teachers in the world and pick and choose what knowledge will work best for them on their path.
You may say that this is not a good idea. Should the development of talent be self-directed? It all depends. While formal education and training will always have a place in the world for those who need more structure, there are definitely talented artists in the world who are highly motivated to improve on their own and will do best being left alone to explore and learn. This will allow us to have many more great original artists in the world and not just very good imitations of artists from the past.