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 +

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Education of a Nation.

Every little thing about a school is a messenger. The messages that each aspect carries is that of the priorities and nature of the nation in which the school stands. Overseas readers might be surprised at the messages that Singaporean schools embody.

Firstly, I would like you to think on this question: what is a wall in a classroom? What should such a wall be used for? Well, one wall of a classroom will have a blackboard or whiteboard on it. Other walls might have windows. At least one wall may have a noticeboard. But what should you do with spare space that has no other function than to hold up the roof? I invite you to consider the wildest ideas that might come to mind. Have a guess what a wall might be used for, in Singapore.

Recently, I came upon a wall in a classroom that had been rather interestingly decorated. It had been converted into a mural. This mural was at the back of the classroom and was rather large. It would be seen everytime any student entered the classroom. It would be seen throughout the day, by the teacher, who would be constantly reminded of it. What do you think the mural was about? Have a think.

The mural was about money. This school had put a permanent shrine to money up on the wall of a secondary school classroom. It was a secondary one classroom and so this would be the first year of senior school, for all those impressionable kids who would sit in front of this altar to money behind them.

The mural consisted of two children in a playground on a "see-saw". They were a boy and a girl. Interestingly, the see-saw was perfectly level. It was neither up nor down. The left hand side of the see-saw was marked: "Debit", the right hand side of the see-saw was marked, "Credit". Floating in the air above the boy to the left were the words: "Assets, Expenses, Drawings". Floating above the girl to the right, were the words: "Liabilities, Revenue, Capital". The playground was a representation of the world of finance.

Now, the school could have instructed anything in the world to be painted on that wall. Anything from human history, art, science, nature or culture could have been placed on that wall for the kids to consider, all year long. Yet, what they chose to put there was a shrine to money.

We all know that money is important in the adult world - but is it the most important thing in the world? Is it the sole thing that should be chosen to put on the wall of a school classroom? Is it right and proper that children should be inculcated with an obsession with and veneration for money at such a vulnerable age? What kind of children are they likely to become, if they are not so subtly brainwashed in this manner, to think highly and often of money? Are they going to be shallow people or deep ones? Will they live meaningful lives or trivial ones? Will they make a contribution to society or take something out of it? Will they be happy or sad? Will they live well, or poorly? Will they know the importance of love, friendship, honesty, integrity, goodness and truth? Or will they think that these stand in the way of Money?

I think the answer to all of these questions will be negative, where the children who lived all year long in the shadow of Money are concerned. The influence on their outlook and values can only be narrowing in scope.

We are repeatedly told, in Singapore, that state education is not just about education per se, but about "national education" - by which it means conforming to the requirements of the society and adopting its mindset. One of those requirements, from this example, appears to be to set Money up as one's God and to submit one's life and will to its pursuit.

Any society that makes Money its sole aim is a society that cannot be stable, permanent or fruitful. For Money, alone, does not confer any quality on its people, apart from greed. A society that aims to be rich in non-monetary terms (that is, in all the terms that make life worth living and enjoyable), needs to instil in its children a love not of money, but of life, itself, in all its variety and splendour. A society should aim to cultivate the depth of its people (in the sense of inner richness) - and not just the size of their avarice. Any society that aims to enrich itself in this more meaningful way, will become a society respected through the ages (just think of the Ancient Greeks of Athens). Any society that aims, instead, for Money, alone, as its aim, will be forgotten and reviled, as soon as the last skyscraper falls (which they will, of course, in time). So, which is Singapore: a society to be respected through the ages - or one to be forgotten, in time, as no more than a shallow hiatus in a deeper nothingness?

That mural, perhaps, provides us the answer.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and five months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and ten months, and Tiarnan, twenty-seven months, 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:23 PM 


Blogger Nisha said...

Unfortunately, i must agree that many Singaporeans do tend to value money a little too much. However, from your description, it seems like the terms used in the mural are terms used in Principles of Accounts, a subject i took in secondary school. Could it be a representation of that?

1:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Cawley, let's look at things from another angle, albeit a more positive one:

As a financial services professional, I help my clients with their financial planning. Over the past years, I have met many working adults. Years of education have enabled them to excel in one or a few of many areas -- languages, sciences, mathematics, humanities, arts, sports, etc. Yet, many of them lack money management skills. This is the result of no emphasis at all from our local education system.

The first time I ever learnt about time value of money (an extremely important concept) was at age 18, in University. Most people never do.

In other words, most of us grew up learning how to excel in our work and earn a good income without learning how to budget our spending, save for rainy days, invest for our old age, etc. Of course, only a minority can understand the terms & conditions of the loans we take, and the financial instruments that we have to choose from. (It is a reasonable assumption that almost every Singaporean has savings and CPF accounts, and have to make some form of financial decision throughout their lives.)

The sad outcome is that our younger generation is now saddled with debts (credit card rollovers, taking up larger home mortgages, upgrading to a more luxurious car, etc.) Since I also volunteer to help newly adjudged bankrupts with their financial planning, it is appalling how the number of bankrupts have grown in Singapore. 996 new bankruptcy orders have been made in the first 5 months of 2008, which makes about 6-7 new bankrupts every day.

Money management skill is a life skill. It is as important as managing our relationships, health and career.

I have been looking forward to the day when our children will correctly understand the value of money and not be overwhelmed by the vast array of marketing tactics that encourage spending (& worse, on credit) instead of saving/investing.

I am relieved that the mural you saw displayed liabilities and not just assets. This is the value that our children must learn: a house is NOT theirs (it technically belongs to the bank) until the home loan is paid off; the same goes for 'their' car.

I am glad that in this aspect, the Singapore education system is finally moving towards the right direction.

Mrs T

P.S. Keep blogging as I truly enjoy reading your thought-provoking entries on education.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Mrs T,

Thank you for your post and your insight from the perspective of a financial planner.

You liked the mural...but there is a difference between educating children in financial matters and in placing a mural on money in front of their eyes, to be seen every day. That action is likely to imprint the issue of money too strongly upon them, until it becomes a consuming matter. That is not healthy for a balanced life, either.

Best wishes

9:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Nisha,

Principles of Accounts is about money, is it not? The mural was about the cenrtral ideas we have surrounding money...which is of relevance to all money related subjects - Accounts included.

You should note that it was not a dedicated Accounts classroom, but an ordinary Sec 1 classroom. There seems to be no good reason for using the wall for that one subject.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully, we can see more holistic education for children on money management skills in the near future.

A world obsessed with materialistic possessions is certainly not healthy for them. The sub-prime crisis that the U.S. is facing right now is a good lesson to learn from.

Mrs T

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Etch said...


while i do think your views on the 'money mural' are well justified and valid, i would like to put it in a different light.

imagine if the theme of the mural was not money, but instead something like for example, friendship.

now let us assume there is someone who believes money is more important than friendship, wouldn't this person have similar thoughts/reflections like yours above? the difference is that this person would be in support of using money as a theme of the mural instead of friendship.

i think that it is simply a matter of difference in beliefs.

anyway, a wall can't teach, it is the teacher in class that does the teaching, and i do think you might be over-emphasizing when you say that such a mural is a shrine to money.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One wall and you call that Education of a Nation?

Go and see Evergreen Secondary School, if you like to see more walls.

BTW, you may have heard, money itself is not evil, understanding money (how it functions) is a good thing.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was thought provoking for me. I have thought about this subject a million times, but still this expanded my thinking. I was just thinking earlier that I feel like I have been "programmed" to be frantic about doing things that are practical - those superficial things that make up the concrete standard of one's living. (Like pursuing money and worrying about finances and working for money.)

I have been programmed to pursue these things even at the expense of enjoying the fruits of all this frantic labor. I have been programmed to ignore my emotional needs, spiritual needs, social needs - all the abstract needs - the things that are TRULY important to me because I was treated as if they are not "worth" anything, and just detract from the pursuit of these practical things.

I have even been taught to fear and loathe the human side of myself because it might interfere with the constant and optimized pursuit of practical things. Practical things should not be so holy. I am glad you used the word "shrine" - thats how it feels. It feels like one can't take even the smallest inch away from practical pursuits, even if it would give back a mile to the subjective side.

Part of this is my culture and the other part was bad parenting.

I recognize the conflict. I recognize that chasing a means will never be fulfilling - because if you are focused on that, you will see no ends on which to apply it. I think that might be part of why greedy people always want more and more and more no matter what they get - they never identify a real goal - they merely chase the means by which a goal might be accomplished, so they never reach a point of completion. They never have an occasion to feel satisfied, so they keep wanting.

I recognize what I really want, but still it is my ingrained force of habit to continue pursuing these practical things frantically and at the expense of my subjective needs.

I think part of the problem is that balance and integration of all the various practical and subjective elements were never modeled for me. Part of the problem is that nobody else ever valued the part of me I'd consider my soul. They loved me with money and neglected the real me. I have to learn to value my true self. I need to figure out why it is important to do that.

Your post showed me a glimpse of this understanding. I enjoyed it! I completely agree that they should not focus so much on money. I can totally see the detrimental effect it will have on them. You're completely right.

Something more appropriate would be a mural of harmonious integration of all the elements of one's life!

- Kathy

4:16 PM  

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