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 +

Monday, August 20, 2007

What does "Early College" mean?

Everywhere, the world over, educational systems and standards differ. This makes it very difficult to understand what one nation's educational accomplishments mean without some research.

In America, there is a phenomenon known as "Early College". This is where a child aged under 18 goes to a "College" where the usual age of admission is 18. The procedure is undertaken not infrequently to address the educational needs of gifted children, showing precocity, who might otherwise become bored, disheartened and otherwise switched off, by an unchallenging education, at school. This seems like a good idea, therefore: but what does it mean? What is College?

Every country above the most primitive level, has Universities. Yet, not all Universities are the same. In particular, there is a divide between what an American University is and does - and what Universities in the rest of the world tend to be about - and provide.

In many countries, University is meant for an elite: it is not meant for all. In America, "College" is a much more common experience than it is for the nationals of many other countries. There is a reason for this. In most Western countries, a first degree is used for professional education. In America, a first degree is usually used for general education. What this means is that American Universities are actually doing what is done in secondary school/high school in Europe and all those countries that follow a European style of education (which includes Australia and parts of Asia, and even Africa, as I understand it).

In England, general education is completed, normally, at the age of 16. This is a typical age around the world for general education to have been completed. Then specialist education begins. In America, general education is completed by taking a four year degree: thus it is complete at the age of 22. This means that there is a very important difference between American and European education systems that must be understood if the two are to be compared. An American with a first degree has just completed their general education. A European with a first degree, has, in many cases, completed their professional education, AND their general education.

So, how may we compare the American system to the rest of the world? Well, the website of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, compares requirements for admission to a medical degree, by applicants from different countries of the world. Distilling the essence of what it says is simple. A school leaver from secondary school/high school, aged 18, from anywhere in the world is, in theory, ready to start a medical degree in Ireland (if they are of good grades etc.). Yet, for an American applicant, A BACHELOR'S DEGREE is required for Admission to the normal program. Otherwise candidates have to undergo a special extended program longer than the usual degree.

This site equates an American Bachelor's degree as being equivalent to a high school education in the developed world - or in fact less. It states that an American Bachelor's degree is comparable to Year 11 of the Australian education system: that is, the age of attainment reached at the age of 17, by an Australian "high school" student.

Thus, back to my first question: what does Early College mean, in the American context? It means a high school educational opportunity, in the context of almost all the developed world. It does not mean "University-level" when compared to those who follow a European model.

As I have noted before, in other posts, this difference between the American system and the rest of the world, is due to the emphasis on breadth, at the expense of depth, in the American education sytem up to and including a Bachelor's degree. Most of the rest of the world looks into subjects at depth, much earlier on in a student's education.

This analysis of education systems helps us understand an interesting cultural observation. There are quite a few American kids in Early College, if internet boards are anything to go by. There are virtually none in University in the rest of the world. The reason for this is now clear: like is not being compared with like. An American student in Early College is studying material that a sixteen year old would study in High School/Secondary School in the rest-of-the-world system. Thus to compare like with like, we must look for rest-of-the-world students who have been accelerated to the later stages of High School/Secondary School. We do, in fact, find such students - although they are rare. (I do not have access to numerical data, but I have read of a few cases, in my lifetime). Furthermore, we also find some children who ARE in University while quite young - but these are few, in the rest-of-the-world. They are studying a Bachelor's degree in the main: this is equivalent to an American Doctoral degree.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and eight months, or Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, genetics, left-handedness, College, University, Chemistry, Science, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults, and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:56 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand what you are saying about breadth vs. depth however, I think you may be overgeneralizing about the meaning of Bachelor's and Doctoral degrees in the US.

There are several different tiers of "college" education here. We have "community colleges" which typically offer two-year Associate's degrees and are often utilized for "early college". Community colleges are at the lowest rung of depth and rigor of the colleges.

Then there are four-year colleges, which are mostly private institutions with a certain focus, e.g. liberal arts, engineering, etc. These offer greater depth than the community colleges and offer Bachelor's and sometimes Master's degrees. They vary greatly in the depth and rigor of their programs.

Finally, we have the Universities which may be state-run or private institutions offering a variety of degrees up to Doctoral degrees. These large institutions also vary greatly in their depth and rigor.

In the US, you must know where a person earned his degree to know the level of depth and rigor that was required.

A PhD from Harvard or Stanford is certainly more than a Bachelor's degree at most European Universities.

4:09 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your post and further explanation of the educational offerings of the USA.

You should note that the comparison between systems that I am making is supported by the studies of others, in education, in many countries. I shall reference some of this work further in other posts.

As to the comparison of US Doctoral degrees with European Bachelor's degrees: I am not alone in drawing the comparison. It should be understood what a European Bachelor's degree actually is: it is a specialized professional education in one subject, by and large. This doesn't happen in the US until Doctoral level. A European is considered "qualified" in most professions with this Bachelor's degree alone. A US professional must seek a Doctoral degree to achieve equivalent qualification.

Since there is some misunderstanding of this issue, I will post further on it, in greater depth, where it is more likely to be read than in this post.

In time, we will come to understand each other's national educational systems better - which is, of course, all to the good.

Thanks for entering the dialogue, therefore.

Kind regards

Valentine Cawley

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps one can compare the merits of a master's degree in the US to a bachelor's degree in some European countries, but one can't really compare a doctoral degree because it requires a dissertation consisting of original research.

As an aside, there traditionally has been a great deal of variation in degrees offered in different European countries. For example, in the past, a typical first university degree in Germany was the "Diplom", which often took longer than four years. Many countries are adopting the "Bologna Process" to make their university systems more compatible.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The comparison between a European Bachelor's degree and a US Doctoral degree arises from the course content. You see a US Doctoral degree, unusually from a European perspective, is a TAUGHT degree with usually two and a half or more years of coursework. The reason for this is straightforward: the US student is playing catch-up, by studying specialized material normally contained within a European Bachelor's degree. It is in this respect that they are the same type of degree.

As for research being a distinguishing characteristic, this, too, is not as clearcut as one might suppose. You see some Western - but non-American universities - require a research component of their Bachelor's students, before they are allowed to graduate with Honours. Thus a non-American Bachelor's degree may, in fact, involve research, too. The only difference then is the period of research. The US PhD will normally have several years of research (depending on how slow/quick the student is). A Bachelor's degree with research will usually only have one year of research involved.

A standard UK PhD involves no taught component at all and is all research (usually for three years). Thus all the taught elements have already been covered in the Bachelor's degree, in most cases.

There is no doubt that the US system is very slow to specialize and it is this that accounts for their lag with respect to the pace of European education (one supposes). It should be no surprise that the taught component of a US degree is basically echoing the taught component of a UK Bachelor's degree - because the UK specializes very early (at 16). The US does not do this until 22. This makes the situation inevitable.

Best wishes

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chief difference between a doctoral thesis and other theses is not the length of time required, but the significance of the research results. A doctoral thesis should be of sufficient quality to be publishable in a fully refereed international journal. A quote from Prof. John Chennick of Carleton University elaborates:

There are different expectations for Master's theses and for Doctoral theses. This difference is not in format but in the significance and level of discovery as evidenced by the problem to be solved and the summary of contributions; a Doctoral thesis necessarily requires a more difficult problem to be solved, and consequently more substantial contributions.

The contribution to knowledge of a Master's thesis can be in the nature of an incremental improvement in an area of knowledge, or the application of known techniques in a new area. The Ph.D. must be a substantial and innovative contribution to knowledge.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for the clarification regarding theses. I suppose that, in theory, a particularly creative student at Bachelor's (with a research component) might actually match a PhD - through writing a publishable piece of research on a difficult problem - but wouldn't receive a doctorate for it! (Unless the University was particularly nice about it.)

All of this discussion illustrates that it is difficult to compare the US system with the rest of the world easily: for what the US does at Doctoral level is a blend of what Europe does at differing levels.

In the end, one hopes, they both produce researchers, however.

6:56 AM  

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