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, June 30, 2008

Education should be free.

Education should be free, everywhere, everywhen. There should be no fees at any stage of the educational process. To do otherwise, is to compromise the whole purpose, nature and intent of education itself.

Why do I say this? Well, to ask a fee for education - any fee at all - is to ensure that some potential students will be excluded not on the basis of ability but on the inability to pay. The higher the fee, the higher the barrier to those of limited means and the more who will be excluded.

Singapore, like America charges for its education. Thus, like America it is an unequal system where opportunities differ depending on the wealth of one's family. This should not be so.

Today, Ainan returned to Singapore Polytechnic to continue with Chemistry. Unprecedentedly, however, he laboured alone in the labs, the seat beside him, where his lab partner had sat, on all other occasions, remained empty.

Half-way through the class, I asked the lecturer if she knew where Ainan's lab partner was: was she sick...or had she dropped out of the course?

The answer was as feared. Ainan's experimental partner had returned home to Malaysia. The lecturer then voiced my own thought: "I don't know why...she had no problems with the lab work."

I agreed with her. Ainan's partner had been as competent as she had been warm, to Ainan. I very much doubted whether a lack of ability to cope was the reason.

"I think it is probably financial. Singapore is very expensive for a Malaysian - and the economy is not good now."

The lecturer agreed. "Such a pity...she was such a nice girl, too."

"Yes." She had been a very good partner for Ainan.

As I returned to the bench to sit beside Ainan, I reflected on what this meant. Ainan's lab partner had come all the way from Malaysia, to secure a "better education" for herself. She had parted from home and family to do so. Now, however, in all likelihood, she had been forced to give up her dream to return home to Malaysia, her qualification incomplete, her education cut short. The probable reason: money.

I don't think that a lack of money should be allowed to impede anyone's education. Education should be regarded as a basic right - and should be as free as the air we breathe (presently free anyway...). To place a charge upon it, is to ensure that many cannot benefit from it. This means that families whose circumstances are straitened may pass on their limited circumstances to their offspring, whose limited educations will perpetuate the same straitened circumstances. A greater injustice is harder to imagine. Each generation should be allowed to be set free from the limitations of the one before - and the only means to allow that is to ensure that all education is free to all.

Some will object that the girl in question is Malaysian and should therefore pay for a Singaporean education. However, were education free to outsiders Singapore would find little trouble in drawing the best from around the world to its doors - some of whom would go on to settle here. So, there is an advantage even in such a policy.

Whether or not education should be free to non-nationals is not a central issue. The point is that education, in Singapore and America, is not even free to nationals. It should be.

When I grew up, in the UK, Universities were free to all. Indeed, the State paid a fee to each student to cover their living costs at University. This meant that there was social justice: even the poorest could afford to get a University education. It meant that there was great social mobility, with those of poorest background able to rise to the top of the professional tree, if they made the necessary effort - for the doors were not barred by financial means. It strikes me as a better system than those nations that seek a fee everytime knowledge is imparted. Such countries are paying a very high price in the lost potential of their youth.

I wonder, now, whether Ainan's lab partner will ever become the Chemist she had dreamed of being. Will her family be able to afford her education? Will she have to settle for a lesser role in life, wishing away her days on might-have-beens? It is sad - for she would have been a warm and welcome presence in any lab - for not only was she able, but amiable too.

I wish her well on finding a way forward - and I wish well, too, all who are in her situation: stalled in their educations for want of the money to pay for them.

There is a better way: education should be free for all, everywhere, everywhen.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight 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 @ 8:40 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The singapore "education" system is production system to meet the demands of the economy. Have u checked who is the education minister?

Ainan is very lucky to have a parent like you who have BOTH the means and willpower\mindset to allow the child an education (and not a vocational training). I feel so guilty that I cant afford my own kids the same.

Off topic, but a few of my chinese and indian classmates did study for free and the ones who are any good ALL took the FIRST plane out of Singapore. Moral hazard thing.

It will take more than just free education to attract the brightest to stay in Singapore. On the other hand, in case u are wondering, singapore inc do not need the brightest. just the bright-enuff and toe-the-line folks to keep the FDI-addicted, MNC\GLC led economy running.


9:22 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi NoName,

If, as you opine, Singapore only needs the second rate to keep ticking over - then it can only be a nation that aspires to be second rate. If it ever wishes to be first rate it can only do so by the efforts of quite a few first rate people. No number of second rate people are going to get it there.

Best wishes

9:35 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

The true value of education is compromised when it is treated as a commodity. Once a price is put on something, in this instance education, the process becomes open to greed, manipulation, and deceit. Schools become businesses and children are treated as customers (rather than students who are fundamentally entitled to education.) It's a shame, really. Imagine all of the academic talent left behind due to insufficient funds.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Etch said...


Although i agree with u on the fact that everyone has a right to be educated, i urge your understanding that it is impossible for education to be free.

Education cannot be free simply because it does not come without a cost.

It is a simple case of demand and supply. If everyone were to be educated for free, i would imagine demand for education to be overwhelming. However, consider the supply of education. Schools need to be build and teaching equipment purchased. Aside from such fixed costs, we have operating costs such as the salaries of the teachers and other management staff to pay.

Now assume that these costs are borne by the government (i can think of no other organisation who might be willing and have the ability to bear such a cost indefinitely), we now are faced with the problem of the source of funds for the government to pay these costs. This is a problem solved simply by eg. taxation.

Now, herein lies a problem. Taxation of Singapore citizens to pay for a Malaysian's education in Singapore will almost certainly lead to an uproar, i am sure it is clear why. To tax the Malaysian for studying in Singapore would ultimately bring us back a full circle where the Malaysian is in effect paying for education in Singapore just via a different method. Even so, in an ordinary case of a Singaporean student in the above circumstance, it should be clear that payment for education is still being made. I suppose that u could swap taxation for any form of government fund source and still find the problem of Singaporeans ultimately having to pay for the Malaysian's education if it were the case that it was free.

Allow me to further illustrate why education cannot be free. Suppose that education was a resource, as u have mentioned, air. It is evident that there is a limited number of places in schools. This implies that the acceptance of 1 student uses up 1 unit of education as a resource. This is different from something such as air, where its consumption does not prevent any one else from consuming it. This is the reason why education cannot be fully funded by the government. It is not non-excludable, which is an important property of a public good. By enrolling your child in a school, u have necessarily deprived another of a place in the school. I sincerely do not mean this in an offensive manner, but i must ask this: what right do you have to exclude another from education if education were free?
(i do not mean to say that payment for education amounts to having the right to exclude someone else from a formal education, but instead trying to bring home my point that there are only so many people that can be formally educated in schools)

I would say that even if education were free, by simply being schooled, u have deprived another of an education. Such is the contradiction of your proposal. Recognize that education is not a public good like a lighthouse or streetlamps and i believe you will understand why payment is required, however unfair it may seem to be.

That aside surely you must know that there are financial assistance plans for students who are in financial difficulty. These plans (either loans or subsidies, i am not sure) are implemented in the mindset that no one would have to give up his/her education just because of financial difficulties. Again i am not sure about the difficulties of applying/qualifying for such assistance but it is a source of help to turn to for those able and competent students whose families are unable to fund their education.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Etch, thank you for your comment.

Firstly, Education CAN BE FREE. It IS free in many European countries - and those countries allow other Europeans to study there for FREE, too.

How does this work? Simple: they are reciprocal in their arrangement, meaning a Spanish person for instance, can study in London and a British person can study in Spain. The same could be done in Asia, where there the will.

What is the advantage of this? Well, good students would go where the opportunity was best - so providing that opportunity would draw students to a nation. Some would settle.

Yes, education must be paid for by taxation. That is the best way. In that way, the richer end up subsidizing the education of the poorer who would not be able to afford to be educated otherwise. It is a fairer system than not affording them an education.

Public assistance schemes ONLY work in a society that really wants them to work. Singapore doesn't. The money involved is always too little in countries that don't really mean it. There are a lot of additional costs involved in being educated that would not be covered by such schemes.

Education is not a resource - because you can make more of it. It is not fixed. It is expandable. It can be essentially unlimited in that there can be as much as you require, depending on how much emphasis a society puts on education and the right of access to it.

Just because something is not done in Singapore that does NOT mean it cannot be done. Singapore is very stingy, as a society, in the way it supports its people and their aspirations. All major European countries do a better job of things in that respect.

I went to Cambridge University. It didn't cost a penny.

That is the way it should be in Singapore.

An advanced society should have free education. I would say that Europe is the most advanced society on Earth, by this measure.

Best wishes

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that education for Singaporeans should be free. At this moment, a 4 year course in a local u is about SGC$20,000. Polyechnic education is about $6,000. Yes if it was fully subsidised by the government, more students who are able will apply to study, instead of self-censoring themselves, so as to provide for their younger brothers and sisters etc. If you think that such instances do not exist in singapore, you are probably the priviledged ones in middle class.
I do wonder - is Cambridge still free for all its UK citizens today?

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Mr Valentine

As you can clearly see from Etch's post, many singaporeans cant think beyond their textbooks and are quite happy being 2nd rate (but stable and seemingly safe society).

(Nevermind we have billions of budget surplus and spend way too much on the army.)

Out of curiousity, in which way is SG first rate? I admit that I take much for granted.


10:02 AM  
Anonymous Shannon said...

Colleges claim not to discriminate based on socioeconomic status, but it's difficult to reconcile these policies with $50,000+ annual tuitions, admission decisions that favor past and present donors, as well as the high ratio of financially advantaged students on university campuses. In line with eliminating academic aristocracy:

a) Education should be viewed as a fundamental right in all parts of the world regardless of race, gender, religion, national origin, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status.

b) Funding disparities between schools in high and low income neighborhoods should be subject to greater scrutiny.

c) Students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds should not be subject to predatory lending. Many graduates are shouldering private school loans with 9 - 10% interest rates. A less economically advantaged student may end up paying a million dollars (with compounding interest) for an education that cost another person $100,000. The interest rates on government and private school loans should be capped, or the result of these financial aid "awards" and programs will end in greater disparities between rich and poor.

e) The bottom-line is that education should not be treated as a commodity in the sense that top university spots go to those that may appear to be in a position to make the highest donations, but acceptance should be based on academic talent and promise, alone.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Onlooker said...

Agreed. Therefore no need to classify students.
"Education should be free ( for everybody)."

1:26 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am unaware of the present situation re. Cambridge, having left England in 1999. I will investigate.


1:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am not sure that, in truth, Singapore is first rate in anything, if genuinely compared to all alternatives on Earth. It would do, however, "quite well" in a fair number of categories - and very badly in certain others (I think you can guess the kind of areas that would not bear comparison to advanced Western style democracies).

Thanks for your comment.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Nevin said...


You went to cambridge and it didn't cost a penny. But there was a prerequisite. You had to have good grades. I think its fair to assume that if your academic was middling, enrolling in Cambridge for free would not be a possibility.

While Education is not a resource, it nevertheless involves questions of scarcity. A school occupies space that could be used for an office, a hospital, or housing. Same with the people. Salaries have to be paid, utilities have to be paid.

In Europe, education is free, but deceptively so. Somebody has to pay and in the end it is ultimately funded by both direct and indirect taxation.

But i certainly agree that education is a public good, in that left to their own devices, education will likely be under consumed. This it is necessary to generate this "positive externality" if i may use an economic jargon to either subsidize or provide free education. The question is first, to what level should education be free, and second how much taxation should be leveled, and whether it is sustainable.

Bear in mind that when education is funded totally by tax money, one inevitably does without the frills. Whether a top notch education can be funded sole by public coffers is suspect.

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't free to attend Cambridge or any other uni in the UK, for that matter.

And, to boot, if you are a UK citizen who decides to come back for uni, you'd better be in the country 4 years in advance to qualify for UK rates. Otherwise, you won't have the status of "home student" and will be required to pay foreign student rates.And at Cambridge, that can be around 12,000 pounds!

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Etch said...


I would like to clarify what i mean by education cannot be free. What i meant was that education is provided with a cost. You indirectly (taxes) or directly (through school fees) have to pay for it.

Perhaps i was hasty in likening education to a resource, i agree it is not. In fact it is more of a service. It is true that in theory u can make more of it, as much as u require. However, at any one point in time, it the number of places are limited. Take an example, hotels. U can make as many hotels that u require, but at any point in time, the total number of hotels is fixed, and correspondingly, so is the total number of tourists able to check in to the hotel. U can build more, but it takes time and some tourists would have to go without hotel rooms. Same with schools, every school can only accept a certain number of students, once all the vacancies are taken up,u can build a new school, yes, but what about those who require an education now?

My point is that you can make the price of an education zero, but still not everyone would get it. Which would render your starting point of everyone has a right to be education meaningless.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Nevin,

No-one ever got into Cambridge with "middling grades" - unless you were a member of the Royal family, in which case it was guaranteed admission.

As for free: in my day, Universities...all the public Universities...were free to all comers. Grants of money for support of the student were also available. It was a good system, for it gave completely open access based on ability. It is, I would say, an ideal way of making education accessible to the greatest number.

Education is free in Europe. This is a very good thing. The fact that the taxpayer picks up the fill is morally fine - for it means that those who can afford to pay the taxes are enabling those who could never afford to be educated, to get an education and thereby go on to make a contribution. Everyone benefits when more people in a society are able to make a contribution: it strengthens the whole society.

The European, publicly-funded Universities do, indeed provide a good education. The source of the funds is not the issue - it is how they are used that counts. That they do not deny admission on the basis of wealth is altogether to the good.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In most European countries, public universities are free, but i am sorry to say,those private universities are not. Also universities in England follows a different set of rules. Last i checked, you still need to pay 3000+ pounds per year even if you are an EU citizen.

Before saying that education system can be paid for by using tax revenue similiar to european countries, please keep in mind that some european countries have taxes as high as 40% or more. Yes, they do have some benefits in terms of welfare and education, but they paid a high price too.

Also education is a resource because it is not unlimited as you need infrastructure and human resources. You cannot just build more schools in Singapore just because you think you need them, as in land scarce Singapore, you will be using up a precious commodity.

While i agree that having reciprocal arrangements might work in Europe, sad to say, it will not in Singapore. If you look at the top universities in the world, you will notice that with the exception of England, the best universities are scattered across europe. This shows that the quality of education in european countries are on par with each other. Is this the truth in SEA? Why will any Singaporean give up studying in NUS ranked 19 in the world and go study in University of Malaya (ranked 192)? Or do you think studying in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar is such a good idea? There is just too big a gap in terms of the quality of the universities.

I agree that education should be accessible. However it is just not possible for it to be free in Singapore or in SEA. At least not yet or in the near future. Comparisons with european countries are flawed as with the exception of eastern europe, most of the countries are developed first world countries. The only way we can be as 'advance' as them is when the whole SEA region becomes more developed, and that wont happen in the short term.


9:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for the link to the present Cambridge finance situation. What it actually says, however, is different to your understanding. It speaks of an additional 3K fee for Cambridge (which incidentally NEVER USED TO EXIST in my day), which is only payable once you graduate (it is not required for admission or to study there) IF and ONLY if you are able to pay it back.

It further says that if you are eligible for public support to go to University from either the UK or the EU, then you DON'T HAVE TO PAY THE FEE AT ALL, ever.

So, it is a fee that is only levied on those who can pay it. It is not a fee that would prevent admission due to poverty.

However, I must say that it is disappointing to see that they have introduced this fee at all. It used to be completely free in all circumstances.

You don't need more land to build more school space. Just build taller schools on the existing land. Land is not a limitation at all, therefore.

A society can devote as much or as little to education as it wishes: it just depends on national priority. It is not a resource, but an expandable service to the people.

I have read of many students complaining of the low quality of quite a few lecturers at NUS - so I am not sure how that no.19 position was obtained. It might be a measure of research work - and not teaching. There may, in fact, be better teaching universities in SEA. They just might not rank so highly for research. It is certainly worth looking at.

The European societies do have higher top tax rates than Singapore. They are also, however, a lot kinder, more supportive, more forgiving and generous societies. That makes a lot of difference to the quality of life and opportunities of the people. They are HUMANE societies.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Miao said...


Actually NUS is currently ranked 33rd. It has slipped from its 19th position.

NUS conducts surveys among its students at the end of every semester to collect feedback on its professors, and professors who consistently receive poor remarks over consecutive semesters will be sacked. I was once taught by a terrible professor - he was so abysmal that I found that I gained more by just doing self-revision at home instead of attending his classes (and many of my peers shared my sentiments) - and so I gave him very disparaging comments in my feedback form. He got sacked the next semester. Of course, some professors may do just enough to keep their rice bowls without striving to be better, but I think taking action based on students' feedback do discourage lacklustre teaching and lesson planning.

NUS spends a lot of money hiring people who are well-known in their respective academic circles. But I agree with you that brilliant scholars do not necessarily make good teachers. My Chinese Studies professor is a Harvard graduate, but his delivery skills are really poor. There may be lecturers who are better at imparting their knowledge to their students in other SEAsian universities, but when it comes to expertise, they may not be able to compete with NUS professors.

Different global rankings are measured by different yardsticks, but NUS has managed to perform decently well in all. Of course I don't deny that the rankings of colleges in other SEAsian countries may be compromised due to certain negligences - some factors may be overlooked - but the fact remains that societies are discriminating and somewhat elitist: If you were an employer, and if two graduates applied for a position in your company (and both seemed equally enthusiastic about getting the job), without any intimate knowledge of their personal strengths and capabilities, would you choose to hire the one with an NUS or NTU degree, or the one who graduated from University of Indonesia? I think the answer is clear for most employers.

Many qualified doctors in Philippines and Vietnam are only allowed to work as nurses in Singapore, because they have not attained the level of expertise required by local hospitals. I used to work in a call center during my holidays, and some of my colleagues are Filipinas who hold university degrees. They told me that their qualifications are not recognised in Singapore, and thus they can only do low-level jobs, such as working as call center operators. I think this already speaks volumes about the quality of the education in other SEAsian countries. Therefore I agree with the anonymous reader who left his comment at 9.25p.m. - introducing reciprocal arrangements in the SEA region is not ideal at the moment.

I think that research performances do indicate something about the quality of education that a university is able to offer. If it is observed that a certain university produces a notable number of researchers, it means that this university is endowed with a lot of advanced facilities and research funds - and thus it is able to provide excellent research opportunities that attract top academics and, more importantly, students. I would prefer doing experiments in a well-equipped laboratory, rather than in a second- or third-rate laboratory. So even though lecturers at other SEAsian colleges may be better teachers, I personally think that many students may still choose to enter a college based solely on its high ranking in the research field (of course, I may be wrong in my assumption) - they get to enjoy access to top-rate equipment, and they may even get a chance to learn alongside well-known academics.

I agree with you that most European countries are humane societies, and I myself would like to study or live there one day. When it comes to education - or, in fact, any area at all - the policies of different countries are shaped differently by the their individual circumstances, surroundings, and the various priorities and values of their people.

Personally, I think that the biggest problem of our present education system in Singapore is not the fact that it charges money for education, but its failure to cherish its talents. Ainan will have a much brighter future elsewhere, regardless of whether education is free in Singapore or not.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

One reason, Miao, that Singapore does not recognize degrees from certain places is educational protectionism: it wants the same people to requalify here, in Singapore, at great expense. It is not just SEA degrees that they don't recognize. I know a Brazilian doctor whose degree is not recognized - despite the fact that she is middle-aged and a highly experienced practitioner!!! Apparently, twenty years as a doctor somewhere else doesn't count. Singapore has very strange ways of judging the value of what others do. It seems to think that it is the best in the world and no-one else can come close. I haven't been struck by any great ability to think among Singaporean qualified doctors. Perhaps I have not imbibed the belief system enough to rate them highly.

In my experience and knowledge, Universities with a research emphasis make very poor places to go to learn anything - for the staff don't usually care much about the students - their interest is in their research.

Thanks for your comment.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

Thanks for informing me of the hidden agendas that might be behind Singapore's refusal to acknowledge degrees conferred by universities in certain countries. Now I know better.


9:22 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

To the anonymous who said education isn't free at Uni in the UK...I looked at the Cambridge rules for finance and they indicate that, if you are "eligible for public assistance" - in other words don't have the money - you don't pay the 3000 pounds fee for Cambridge - and that applies to EU students as well (they don't have to pay either).

I am unsure whether your information re. other unis is accurate - because free University education always used to be a basic principle of British education. If this has changed, that is a great loss.

Foreign student rates - just to clarify - are normally for non-EU students.

It seems, ironically, that, under Labour, the UK is becoming less SOCIALLY minded. Very strange.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Etch, it is not so difficult to provide for educational needs as you believe. It shouldn't be difficult to make sure everyone gets what they want. Why is this so? Well, because at any one time, only a small proportion of a society wants to be in education at any one time. So, provision can be made if one wishes to do so.

No-one should be left out. If they are, in some ways, that is deliberate, a policy decision to make education rare. It doesn't have to be that way.

4:16 PM  

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