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 +

Saturday, February 02, 2008

"Child Prodigy Veterinarian" Courtney Oliver, 10

My site has received a lot of hits over the past couple of days, for the following phrase: "Child Prodigy Veterinarian". I was, I confess, both surprised and interested by this, since it takes many years to qualify as a veterinarian and there is a lot to learn. A child prodigy veterinarian would, therefore, be a very unusual case - indeed, as far as I know, there has never been one. It turned out, however, that, on investigation, there still isn't a child prodigy veterinarian: quite simply, Courtney Oliver, although acclaimed by many media and blog sites, as a "vet" isn't a veterinarian at all. She is, in fact, a case of exaggeration.

What did I learn as I investigated the matter? Well, there are three levels of participants in the veterinarian world. There are veterinarians who are, basically, animal doctors. This is quite a high and learned position. Then there are veterinarian technicians. This is a lesser role involving basic procedures with the animals such as drawing blood and the like. Then, at the entry level in the veterinarian world, there are the veterinarian assistants. They perform the most basic tasks such as washing the animals, feeding them, fetching things, cleaning and disinfecting cages and work areas, sterilizing lab and surgical equipment, helping to provide routine post-operative care, administering medication to the animals, orally and topically and preparing samples for lab examination, under supervision. Courtney Oliver is not a vet, she is not a vet technician, she is a veterinary assistant.

I was rather shocked by this. You see Yahoo on whom I rely for much of my news information, had hailed her as a "College Graduate" and "Veterinarian" aged 10. This really drew my attention since, being immersed in all matters to do with prodigy, I knew at once that I had never heard of a child prodigy veterinarian (who actually fit the definition of prodigy...there is at least one who is in the late teens). I also knew that the world record for a College Graduate (under the American system) was 10 years and 4 months. So, to be a "College Graduate" at 10 is really quite something. Yet, none of this is true. Courtney Oliver is, according to many websites, not a College Graduate at all. Her actual qualification is a Certificate as a Veterinary Assistant. This is a much lower level of qualification than a College Degree. In fact, it took her but eight months to complete.

So the deeper I looked, the less I found, of actual substance in this matter. She isn't a vet. She isn't a graduate. She is however all over the tv news channels, the media and the internet, as being both. So, the question is: what happened here? How did a simple certificate in a relatively menial job, become exaggerated into a College Degree and a qualification as a Veterinarian? It is difficult to tease out what transpired - except to note one thing. The girl herself describes her qualification as a "Degree", by answering in the affirmative, when the reporter asks her if she has a College Degree, by going: "uhumm". The odd thing is, she looked away from the interviewer, not meeting his eye, before she did so. That doesn't particularly inspire confidence in the answer.

It may well be, therefore, that the exaggeration originates with the girl's family, given the girl's answer to that important question. However, I think the media has played a big role here, by not taking the time to understand the world of the veterinarian. Had they done so, they would have noted the sharp distinction between each level of qualification in that world. They would have come to understand what a veterinarian assistant was, and better known how to play the story.

Courtney Oliver has been acclaimed as a 10 year old Veterinarian, when she isn't one. There is a great but hidden harm in this misdescription. You see, what happens if the day comes when a ten year old REALLY does qualify as a Veterinarian. That true child prodigy veterinarian would be ignored by all. Any media outlet would say: "Oh...we are not covering your story, because it has already been done. Go away." Well, it hasn't been done. There has never been a true child prodigy veterinarian - and Courtney Oliver isn't one, either. It would be a sad day, indeed, were a child ever to achieve such an historic level of understanding of the Veterinarian field to actually be a Veterinarian at 10 - and then to have their achievement ignored, overlooked and unacknowledged.

This hyping of Courtney Oliver's achievement beyond what she actually achieved, is very harmful to an unknown future child who might actually achieve the feat that is claimed for her - but which she has not achieved. That true child prodigy Veterinarian is destined to be overlooked.

There are possible social forces that explain this story's growth and exaggeration. America likes to be proud of Americans - and here is an American girl to be proud the thinking goes: "Let's boast of this one, shall we?"

America is right to be proud of its young achievers, of its child prodigies. It is right to acclaim them and, one hopes, offer them appropriate opportunities. However, it is very, very important to ensure that the "child prodigies" in question, have actually achieved what they are acclaimed for. Courtney Oliver has achieved something unusual. She is a certified veterinary assistant. That is something she should be proud of - it is also something her nation can be proud of. It is that for which she should be acclaimed. They should shout about her certificate as a veterinary assistant. It is a worthy achievement. However, they should not then overstate the situation. They should not praise her for things she has not done. To do so, is to harm the prospects of other children who actually may achieve, one day, what is claimed for her. It is detrimental, in fact, to all child prodigies, the world over - for it makes their true achievements seem less remarkable than they are - because hers have been overstated.

Imagine this situation. Imagine a child prodigy qualifies as a veterinarian at the age of 11 (thus fulfilling the definition of prodigy as being adult achievement, in an adult field, by the age of 11). What would happen to that child? Would doors open? Would opportunities come that child's way? They may not. They won't because people will remember the Courtney Oliver case and dismiss their achievement as being "not as good" and "not the first" or even "just another one". Courtney Oliver has won herself some fame, for her overstated achievement. She has however won a lack of opportunity for any future child who actually achieves what she did not.

One day, there may actually be a true child prodigy veterinarian. However, the Courtney Oliver case of hype, has just ensured that you will never get to hear about them. The media only ever reports "firsts", they are not interested in "seconds". The sad thing is, if there was ever a true child prodigy veterinarian, they would, in fact, be the first in history - even if they remain forever anonymous, owing to the way the media works.

If the exaggeration originates with Courtney Oliver and her family, they should think about the effect on the girl's prospects in the Veterinarian world. That world knows the difference between one qualification and another. They know the basic work of a Veterinary Assistant. I have, in fact, read some Veterinarians posting on the net that the Veterinarian world has been "angered" by these claims. So, it may be that, this exaggeration of Courtney Oliver's actual achievement may not only cause problems for future true prodigies in her discipline - but may actually cause problems for Courtney Oliver herself. If what I have read is true of Veterinarians in general, she has won herself a lot of fame - and lost a lot of future potential colleagues. If I were Courtney Oliver, I would actually make sure I really qualified as a Veterinarian before I boasted about it again.

As a final observation, I have to wonder why America has been so quick to acclaim the achievements of this particular girl - and to exaggerate them highly - when the greater achievements of many other youngters (and oldsters) are ignored.

I would like, however, to congratulate Courtney Oliver on her achievement in becoming a certified veterinary assistant. It is great that a ten year old has done this. Be proud of that...

I hope one day that Courtney Oliver becomes a true vet. There is, however, a long way to go yet. Good luck on the journey Courtney.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:27 PM 


Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I received a comment which I am not going to post for many a reason (not least of which that my children wouldn't like it).

However, I would like to answer one of its basic failures of understanding.

Ainan has proven himself in public examinations and is actually the youngest holder of an O level examination pass, anywhere, as verified by the Singapore Book of Records. The commenter was clearly unaware of this. He also has other qualifications underway - but more of those at the appropriate time.

What I found most interesting about the post is that it appeared to have been written by the parent of an "extremely precocious child". Well, there are other such parents, too you know...and they are easy to identify, if you know what to look for. Do you?

1:34 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have just received another unpostable post - probably from the same person.

Bizarrely, and somewhat paranoidly, they describe my last paragraph as "some kind of threat".

I am very puzzled by this. Which last paragraph do they consider a threat? The one that wishes Courtney Oliver well on the learning journey ahead (in the sincerest of manners) or the one that asks if they actually know how to recognize the families of "extremely precocious children" - and so implicitly understand them.

Neither paragraph seems to contain any kind of threat - nor were they intended to. One is a well-wishing statement. The other is a simple question.

I find it surprising and somewhat perturbing that there are people out there so determined to misunderstand the English language that they could misread a well-wish as a threat.

From the over involvement of the writer of these unpostable posts, one has to wonder at their possible connection to Ms. Oliver herself.

However, both posts were anonymous - so I don't know who they are from.

I am left to wonder, however, what kind of person could so misread kind words as threatening ones.

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing the research posted on Sat, Feb 02, 2008. As a parent who heard this media story sensation on Courtney Oliver, I was disgusted and yet want to push my child to be smarter. One moment, we're having media stories on "Kids Becoming Adults" and this Courtney Oliver story was a perfect example. Then the media indicates that she has a certification which actually qualifies her to be a veterinarian?!?! If that's the case, let's have kids not learn anything except passing certifications and consider them college degrees!

12:24 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your appreciation of my look at the situation. My interest was piqued by the unusual nature of the initial story - but after a little digging around it soon became clear that it was not as first stated.

I hope I have helped clarify the situation for you.

Good luck on raising your child.

9:11 PM  

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