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, November 06, 2008

How old is democracy?

How old is democracy? I asked this question, once, of a group of foreign students in Singapore. The answer was telling: silence fell across the room. Then, hesitantly, an Uzbek girl raised her voice: "It is an American invention."

I shook my head and repeated the question: "How old is democracy?"

The Uzbek woman, in her twenties, said: "Fifteen years."

Again, I shook my head.

"Twenty years."

I pursed my lips.

"Twenty five years." she said, stretching it a bit.

My unacknowledging gaze said it all.

Finally, in one huge last effort at pushing the origin of democracy back to the deep past, she guessed: "Forty years!"

"No." I said, quietly, to a listening room.

I found myself amazed. In a room of perhaps twelve Asian students, from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Indonesia, not one had any idea of the origin of democracy, or just how old it was. That these were not children, but students in their twenties (some as old as 28) gave me further pause to consider the state of modern education.

"Two and a half thousand years." I said, to surprise and disbelief all around. "No!" some of them actually said.

"Yes. Democracy was invented by the Ancient Greeks."

"Where?" said the Uzbek girl with the encylopaedic knowledge.


The name didn't seem to register with her at all. It seems that she had not even heard of the country, itself.

"In Athens."

For, as you probably know, a direct democracy (direct voting by the people, not through representatives) took root in Athens in around 510 B.C, owing to changes implemented by Cleisthenes.

Democracy succeeded in Ancient Athens, though it was only adult male citizens who could vote. The model spread throughout the Mediterranean, though none was so successful as Athens (the others tended to restrict voting too much, to those, for instance, who owned their own homes, ie. the rich).

Had Rome not come along the whole world would, no doubt, soon have been democratic...but Rome squashed the flowering democracies and stamped them out in about 100 B.C. That was the end of democracy, for a thousand years, when it was adopted, once more, by some Italian city states (ironic, that, given the history of Rome regarding its suppression), in Pisa, Venice, Florence, Genoa and Siena.

The ignorance of my Asian students regarding democracy left me to wonder about the state of the modern world. How is it possible that some can reach their late twenties (as some of them were) and still not know the first thing about how many modern societies are run? It points to a system of global education (for they came from many different countries) that is simply not preparing the modern, young person, for fully aware participation in modern life. I am left to wonder whether this is a reflection of the dullness of the individuals, or the deficiencies of the system. If it is the former, then it is unfortunate, but largely unavoidable; if it is the latter, then I wonder whether the deficiencies are due to systemic incompetence, or deliberate policy. Perhaps, in some societies, it is deliberate policy to ensure the ignorance of their people, for ignorant people are always easier to deceive and manipulate than an informed populace. Whatever the cause, deliberate or incompetent, the effects remain the same: young, modern people, from around the world, simply know nothing about the world, these days. They have no grasp of what is going on now, around them - and no historical perspective to set it against. They do not have the basic equipment to allow them to begin to reason about what is happening in the world. It is quite shocking to see.

Those who teach, or who have taught, are in a privileged position that allows them to gauge the understanding of their students, on many issues. From that vantage, at the front of the classroom, it is possible to learn much about what is happening in the world, in other countries, particularly in the minds of their people. What I have so often discovered is ignorance, a very profound ignorance on so many basic matters. It leaves me to wonder what they spent their childhoods learning in classrooms, back in their home countries - for little seems to have left a mark.

These classroom observations are supportive of a trend that has been noted, by researchers into intelligence. There is a generation on generation decline in genetic intelligence, throughout Mankind. For the last 150 years or so, each generation of Man has been dimmer than the last. (see Richard Lynn). What I see in the classroom does nothing to disconfirm this finding. I am coming to think that the future of Man may be less bright than the past - in every sense of the word "bright". In such a situation of global decline, every gifted child should be supported to be the best they can be: for such bright people will be needed more than ever, to support the structure of their societies, as engineers, scientists, artists, lawyers, architects and business people etc, as the quality of people in general declines.

I only hope that gifted children are given what they need to flower. They seem all the more exceptional against the backdrop of what I have seen in the classroom over the years.

A final thought: if young people don't know anything about democracy, how difficult would it be to take it away from them? Perhaps that is just why they don't know anything about it...

(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.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 5:19 PM 


Anonymous ParaDoX said...

We should not be surprised at the ignorance of democracy by Asian students. After all, how many countries in Asia possess a healthy democracy system? Most of the time democracy is just yet another political tool. By the way, do you perceive Singapore as a democratic nation? ;)

9:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I don't wish to discuss Singaporean "democracy" too much. However, an observer from the West would find the version of democracy peddled here rather strange. A true democracy offers a genuine choice of parties and politicians for election. Singapore by this criterion cannot truly be said to be making such an offering, since not enough seats are contested to allow an opposition to be elected. Therefore, there is never really any choice. This much is obvious to any observer.

I cannot comment on why this is so, here.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Valentine

You usually talk a lot of sense but ...

Singapore used to have a democracy.
Our 1st chief minister was not LKY. He was a Eurasian Jew.

You should ask the British Government what happened. YOUR Leaders made LKY king under the guise of fighting the commies.


8:59 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi NoName,

I cannot be held responsible for the actions of others...and furthermore, I consider myself Irish (both of my parents are even though I spent my childhood in both England and Ireland, my genes state that I am Irish).

You haven't considered this. What the British did, when Singapore was not independent is irrelevant to what the Singaporeans have done since independence. It is the choice of Singapore to have things the way they are now: no one can be blamed for this, but Singaporeans themselves. If Singaporeans want this system, they need only acquiesce to it, year after year. One concludes, from the way things are, that this is what Singaporeans actually want.

Thank you for your comment.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous ks said...

Maybe the Uzbeki girl didn't know the English name of Greece. Even in Greek, the word for Greece is Hellas or Hellada. In Arabic and other sister languages, it is called Yunnan.

Honestly, are there any true democracies in the world? If you've ever watched episodes of Yes, Minister you'd know how government really works :).

Also, hegemonic "democracies" are sometimes dictated to by very tiny countries, by religious sway or by heavily influential lobby groups.

While Americans might think they have a democracy and freedom of thought, it looks very different from the outside.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


A once racist society that elects a black man as President is functioning rather well as a democracy - and as a mature society - in many ways. There are few modern societies that would do this.

Kind regards

7:14 PM  
Blogger Sgizh said...

In my opinion, this system is not limited to Asian societies. In the US where I am living now, you may be hard pressed in some areas to find someone who knows where Africa is, as demonstrated by Sarah Palin. And using the example of an Uzbek girl ( whose country did not even emerge from the Iron Curtain until 1991) is far from being fair. You may have other examples to back up your assertions, but based on what you wrote, I feel like you are drawing an over-generalization that is needlessly unfair to 'Asians'. The same ignorance is demonstrated around the world, about different things. A child in the 'modern society' as you so righteously put it, may know about democracy but probably knows nothing about microfinancing in the third world. Giftedness comes in all forms, and from a global point of view, diversity in knowledge may also be very valuable.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


You appear not to have read my post carefully. The classroom in question contained students from China, Indonesia, Uzbekistan (two of them) and Russia. None of them knew anything about democracy - not just the Uzbek girl. She was, in fact, the only student who had any opinion or "knowledge" at all. I am not being unfair to Asians at all. Ignorance of these matters is common in Asia - as is ignorance of many things. You speak of diversity of knowledge...well, having taught for many years, I have come to see not a diversity of knowledge, but a paucity of knowledge among the young. Really, you should spend some time (say a decade) in a diverse classroom, listening to the thoughts of students from around the world, before you judge another's understanding of the state of the modern student. I have long experience of teaching them...and have seen much to support my views. I use the Uzbek example because it was very telling - but I could have spoken of the lack of an answer of the others. Now, they did not speak because they were shy: they know me well. They did not speak because they did not know.

As for the Uzbek girl. She should have known somewhat better since she is half-Korean as far as I can make out. I am not sure how much time she spent with her father, though.

You are very quick to assume that I am being unfair. That is not so.(In doing so, you, yourself, are, in fact, being unfair.) I have seen much over the years to support the post above.

Kind regards

8:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


By the way, nowhere in my post did I say that this phenomenon is limited to Asian students...I referred to "the system of global education..." not preparing "the modern young person". This is not language that ties this down to Asians alone - so you are wrong to jump to their defense. I observed with Asians, yes...but I have indicated that it is probably a global phenomenon, in my post.

Thanks for reading.

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr cawley:

you wrote "I am not being unfair to Asians at all. Ignorance of these matters is common in Asia - as is ignorance of many things."

i take offence at this. doubly so, since you have taken the liberty to shower praise on america for electing mr. obama as its next president: a case of one hand giveth, the other taketh?

10:02 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have absolutely no idea why you have taken offence at that. It is a simple statement of what I observed in the classroom over many, many years: the students (almost all Asians) did not know about a lot of basic things. This is the fault of the education systems they grew up in - not of the students themselves. It may even be policy in their countries to circumscribe their knowledge. I am flabbergasted that you find offence in truth.

Your use of "doubly so" shows an excessive reaction to a passing remark.

My wife, incidentally, is Asian...and so if you are intimating some kind of racism on my part, you are completely and utterly WRONG.

There is no point in observing something without being honest about it. I observed much ignorance in the classroom - I am merely relaying that observation. If you cannot take the truth, then please don't listen to it. Carry on believing whatever it is that you believe. However, that won't change the truth in the least.

Regarding Obama: I haven't actually written of his electoral success yet. I wrote of the preparatory period to his electoral you are imagining things to have been written by me that yet aren't.

A final comment. I think that online communication is very difficult because the words are unadorned with any facial expressions or tone of voice. In this context, many people see fit to misunderstand each other. I think you have done so.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I do not consider my remark re. Obama above as either "showering praise" or addressing the issue of his election, properly.

I shall get around to that, in due course.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to express an opinion, reveal a truth, or discuss an insight, without offending someone. You see, someone will always manage to misperceive the intent with which the words were written - or simply to re-interpret them in the light of their own sensitivities to find offence, where there is none.

So, either one continues to write, knowing that some will be offended - or one stops writing altogether.

If everyone made the latter choice, there would be no literature of any kind in this world. On balance, I think it is better to continue writing and hope that those who are offended come to realize that they are seeing mirages.

Best wishes.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, I make observations regarding Asian students because those are the ones I taught. It is likely that similar deficits could be found in other parts of the world, too...I just haven't taught them. I believe the world is in intellectual decline and this decline is fast enough to be visible through generational comparison: at least that is the feeling I get comparing the children of my childhood with the ones I have taught as an adult. There is a marked disparity - very marked.

Best wishes.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

From the way you write, I assume that you have no teaching experience. Had you spent many years in the classroom coming to an understanding of the minds of modern young people, you would instantly have recognized the truth of what I have written. You object, therefore, from a lack of knowledge of what you object about...

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mr cawley:

thank you for your reply, and i apologise for misreading you.

perhaps the pertinent point, to which you allude, is the difficulty of communicating one's thought without the benefit of non-verbal (or should i say non-virtual) cues.

is it too much to say more about the institution in which you teach? going by the variety of nationalities you identify among your students, it doesn't come across as a local (singaporean) institution.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear sir,

I'm rather curious about your assertion "there is a generation on generation decline in genetic intelligence, throughout Mankind. For the last 150 years or so, each generation of Man has been dimmer than the last."

I cannot really think of any coherent reason why this would be so. In fact, one would have thought that in the present age of superabundance, genuine thinkers would be much freer to develop cognitive abilities. Could you point me to the publications supporting this claim?

And on the same note, perhaps general knowledge should not be really indicative of intelligence, but, as you mentioned, a deficiency in the education system. I have little doubt that if you put your students through a course on world history or general knowledge they wouldn't take long to get up to speed.


10:15 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


The institution in question is a private one aimed at the international market. There are no Singaporeans studying in the school (though I have taught elsewhere in which there were plenty of Singaporeans.)


1:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi J,

It seems that are unaware of the research - dating back to the 19th century, some of it - that has noted an unfortunate dysgenic trend. Quite simply, smart people have been having fewer children than dumb people. This was first pointed out in the 19th century. This trend has held steady since then, the result being that more and more children are born of the unintelligent, and fewer and fewer children born of the intelligent. The result is a steady, generation on generation, decline in the genetic quality of the human race (if you regard intelligence as a quality).

The book: Dysgenics: Genetic Deterioration in Modern Populations (Human Evolution, Behavior, and Intelligence)
by Richard Lynn - details this situation, quite clearly and speaks of 150 years of decline in human genetic intelligence. Dr. Lynn is not the only person to have observed this decline, however.

You are right to note that knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing. However, there is a connection between the two, in that an intelligent person will tend to become more knowledgeable than an unintelligent one - so that the presence of considerable knowledge, in a person, set against the contrast of another person of very poor knowledge, would probably, indeed, say something about their respective innate intelligences.

The lack of knowledge I have seen may, indeed, indicate problems in their education systems. However, in some cases, I am fairly sure that the issue goes deeper than that (ie. they are much less bright than the children I grew up with).

It would be good to give them a chance to learn, yes.

Kind regards

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Valentine

Apologises. I did not know that you are Irish. In that case I would assume that you should know the power of ISA. Power to detain/arrest without trial. Add to that the power of a controlled press.

Singaporean are not blameless but to be fair the ignorant will always outnumber the informed/thinking.

Judging from Mr Obama's chpoice of Chief of Staff, it now looks like we may have celebrated too early.


5:49 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Apologies accepted, No Name. Just an observation: societies that repress their people, in any way, tend to be short-lived - eventually tensions build up and they collapse often violently. Just think of the Soviet Union...

In the end, the repressors lose everything they worked for. History tends to be unkind to them, too.

I wonder what the future of this country is?

As for Obama: we will have to wait and see the total mix of people he appoints. There are great expectations on him, especially as he is the first African-American President. If he does a bad job, he may be the ONLY African-American President.

6:15 PM  

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