The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The confederacy of dunces

"When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."—Jonathan Swift: Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting.

Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745, was an Irish literary genius, born in Dublin on November 30 1667. He lived the life of a satirist - at war with the world he saw around him, using words as his weapons. Given the litigious world in which he lived (which might sound familiar to anyone living in the modern Western world), he often wrote under pseudonyms. He is most famed for writing Gulliver's Travels, a satire on his times, and its problems. The quotation above is, perhaps, his most famous remark.

I bring up the matter of Jonathan Swift's remark, for a very important reason. People of genius, whether they be gifted children or talented adults, often find themselves opposed by others. Their new ideas are blocked at every turn by the concerted opposition of their ungifted brethren. This is not a new phenomenon, as the remark of Jonathan Swift, above, makes clear.

I have seen this force at work in my own life - and have read of many examples of an innovator, or creative person, meeting great resistance, from the society around them.

Rather than give you my own examples, at this time, I would like to invite you to comment on any experience that you or your gifted children may have had with this tendency. It may appear in two main forms - and a third unfortunate one. One is the resistance to adopting a new idea - people often find reasons why it won't work or they shouldn't do it. (Alternatively they might just plagiarize you!) Another category is resistance to the genius themselves: ensuring that the gifted individual cannot proceed with their project, idea, plan. There is a final category of resistance. In some times and societies, someone with a new or awkward idea is eliminated, permanently.

So, if you are a creative person, or have creative friends and relatives - and have any experience, major or minor, that supports Jonathan Swift's contention, please comment on this post. Thanks.

(If you would like to learn about a scientific child prodigy, Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, and his gifted brothers, go to: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:43 PM 


Anonymous Anna Stanton said...

Thank you for your post again.
Unfortunately I regularly come across examples that support Jonathan Swift. Most of which regard my son Jack's school situation.

Last week Jack came out of his reception class distraught and in floods of tears. I tried to sooth him by asking what was wrong, but he simply looked at me with such desperation in his eyes and clung to my leg sobbing. I was so shaken by this i was literally lost for words. It was then a friend of mine, whose daughter is in Jack's class, and who had be helping in the class that day, came over and explained to me that during craft time Jack had collected all the bendy straws and "with amazing skill" created a model of a kidney nephron with them. The teacher asked him what he was doing. At his reply she shouted at him 'not to be so silly' completely ignoring the fact he had made a very accurate model. She then proceeded to dismantle it in front of Jack telling him he was 'naughty to lie to her and waste valuable material.' He was sent to stare at a blank wall was the rest of the afternoon.

I am completely outraged by this treatment. Jack was made to feel guilty about displaying his ability and punished by being starved of stimulation. I confronted the teacher told me bluntly the children were meant to be making pictures of themselves and Jack was therefore deservant of his punishment. She refuses to listen to any argument hinting on giftedness and the need for Jack to be handled sensitively. I've come to a point where I just don't know what to do. I can't continue to look into his desperate eyes knowing I can't do anything to help him.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for writing of Jack's situation.

I join you in being appalled and would urge you to do something about Jack's school: perhaps you could find another class at the same school (if other teachers do not share his dreadful teacher's character) - or move him to another school altogether. His teacher is clearly one of those who are too stupid to comprehend the idea of one more intelligent than themselves. I use the word stupid deliberately - because I have encountered the same type of person many times in my life - and they are a plague upon the gifted. One with the character of your son's teacher will do everything she can to oppose him and stand in his way, to diminish, disparage and discourage him. I have seen the type: they are to be found throughout life in many places, roles and forms. You must do what you can to protect him from her - and her like. As an adult, he would be equipped to pour his own scorn upon her - or simply ignore her - but, as a child, and a young one at that, he has no such armoury.

I suffered similar treatment at an even younger age than Jack - and recognise at once the teacher who shouts when presented with evidence of one who transcends her experience. These teachers are extremely dangerous to gifted children - and I have never forgotten the one whom I have just mentioned - for all the wrong reasons.

You mentioned in an earlier post that you suspected Jack was gifted - suspect no more: a child who attempts to model human anatomy in that manner is most definitely so. It calls to mind my son Ainan's liking of building complex geometric structures when he was three/four years old. This understanding of and appreciation of complex form is not commonly found in a young child and mark's Jack out as gifted.

He sounds like he has an interest in life - as in biology. He might like to consider research, rather than medicine. I say this because research requires greater intelligence than medicine. He sounds like he has the mental muscle for the more demanding role. Or perhaps he could do both, as some do, which gives the researcher better access to people for clinical trials etc.

Encourage Jack. Protect him. Nurture him. Steel him against a world which will often, sometimes always, be unkind. I do not know why this is so - but it was my life - and it looks to be Jack's life.

You need to do some school and teacher shopping. Interview schools, in your area, speak to the teachers who would teach your son if you moved school (do the same at first in his school, to check if there is a better alternative there) and inquire about your right to move him, if he is in a state school. I was in a state school in London until 9 years old - and learnt very little that I didn't teach myself - but boy do I recognize the treatment your son just received.

Perhaps you could speak to the head of his school and explain the situation. You might be lucky. They might be understanding. Whatever the outcome at least you have explored the options. At the very least, he needs to be with a different teacher.

Before thinking of private schools, on a scholarship perhaps, think carefully: if Jack is very bright the same situation can occur too - if the margin of difference is very great between Jack and the others. Unless, of course, the school has a culture that welcomes the gifted. Mine didn't...despite how they portrayed themselves.

The way Jack is being treated can really diminish his gifts: it can make him fear to stand out, fear to be himself. It can destroy him. It is better that he not go to school than that this happen.

We live in a pretty stupid world, in which brilliant people are treated really shabbily. As parents, we may have suffered from ill-treatment ourselves - but as parents we must strive to protect our children from being treated so.

Your son has the gift to become a great man, one day. He already sounds like a great little man. Don't let a herd of stupid teachers stand in his way. I say herd for obvious reasons - though cows are never so unkind.

There are some good teachers in this world, though they are less common than might be hoped: do some interviewing and try to find one - for Jack's sake. Or at least find a teacher who is not malicious and stupid, like his present one. Kind and stupid never did anyone any harm - though one such wouldn't teach him much, it is better than being brutalized in this way.

I wish you luck...and write whenever and on whatever you feel like. I would be delighted to be of help. I don't want another child to suffer as I did - and as Jack is. If my advice can prevent such a childhood outcome, I would be most pleased to have had at least that much beneficial effect on a single gifted child.

This is the same post as the one removed above: I just had to erase a typo!

Best wishes.

10:55 PM  
Anonymous pam h said...

The 'confederacy of dunces' rings so true to me. Not in respect to my own life (I am not clever enough to incur such wrath), but in respect to my mother. In her youth, she was severly bullied by teachers in a religious school which only valued the children of the wealthy families.

It has taken her until now (as a grandmother) to find her own voice. She has recently created a service to fill the needs of a severely under-served population in a VERY small town. This is a population purported to be helped by highly lettered professionals (those with many degrees). My mother has no degrees of any kind. Yet her service is the first of its kind to actually bring about real change in the lives of every person who has availed themselves of it. As a result, she has engendered a vast army of enemies, some of whom are trying to shut her service down while others are imitating her model and taking credit for the idea.

Reading the quote from Jonathan Swift brought her struggle immediately to mind.

Thank you for your words.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Pam for your revealing anecdote.

I would suggest that your protect herself from the plagiarism of "professionals" by approaching the media in her area - and perhaps more broadly - and telling them her story. In doing so, she would establish a connection between herself and the idea that is hers. It could prove a wise investment.

It is ever sad to hear of people attacking those who are making a difference. Why do they do so?

Jealousy. That is all: behind their feigned reasons and disguised intentions that is the only word to be found. They didn't think of it, so they wish to bring her down by doing so.

Encourage her to continue her efforts - but get public credit for them: her enemies will choke on hearing of her coverage.

Kind regards to you both.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Lynn Tan said...

after reading your post Valentine and Anna's post. i would agree in shifting Jack ASAP.. for being a world like this can really destroy his abilities like the world had destroy my friend John's had he been able to be nurtured in a way to be a great man being able to do greater things.. he wont resort to the last thing of dumbing himself to fit in. and now.. recovery for that action would prove to be alil difficult.. never ever let a gifted child having to dumb himself down to fit it. it will be a huge mistake.

now he is like any normal adult.. at the Navy.. doing clerical job.. unless there is a war then he will go to work properly

and thank you for your blog and all the posts... if it is not for this blog, i wont know what big damage has John's environment did to him.Once again, Thank you

10:11 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, a gifted child must always be protected from the animosity of particular the teachers. This is vital if they are to preserve their gifts.

I feel sad about John's case...but this can happen. William James Sidis...prodigy with an IQ estimated at 250 to 300 had a very humble adult working life - never having really found his niche.

Truly such a thing is a tragedy.

Encourage your friend to get active on something mentally challenging again: his brain should wake up, again.

10:42 AM  
Blogger arifa said...

Howard Roark's courtroom speech (from the novel 'The Fountainhead', by Ayn Rand) helped me undertand why this opposition exists. And, more importantly, why it is essential for those with original ideas to continue, unsupported, with their work.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Arifa for the suggestion. I shall try to find the passage...or perhaps you could beat me to it, by scanning it for me (as no doubt you would have a copy and I don't!).

Best wishes

9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you don't my praising a book, but it helped me overcome a lot of mental abuse from my family. Growing up with two very competitive parents, I was led to believe that I was crazy, stupid, and morally suspect. Whenever I came up with a solution, I was told, "There goes Crazy again". My mother's favorite nickname for me was "Mensa", which in Spanish means "stupid". Even though I was offered a place in UC Berkeley based on my PSAT score (in the 1980's), I had no self esteem. If I hadn't felt so guilty about hurting my parents, I would have committed suicide. Eventually, I ran into an awesome book that helped me find myself and reorganize myself so that I could be creative and happy. It was called "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. In a few years, my solutions for two diseases might save millions of lives. I could not have come up with these solutions if my brain had still been filled with junk. I can't praise "The Artist's Way" enough, and recommend it for any frustrated, beaten down genius.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am glad you found your own way forward. I will try to seek out the book you suggest.

Thank you for sharing your experience...perhaps it will help others that you have done so.

Best wishes.

3:51 PM  

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