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 +

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Mass Psychosis of Modern Life.

Singapore is a mad place...according to a leading academic. However, it is not just Singapore, for he would consider many places in the world, utterly bonkers.

In 1985, Dr. Burkhardt wrote a paper (the original of which I have yet to find), in which he observed that modern life is possessed of a "mass psychosis" that requires "uniformity and sameness from everyone". He said that this went against the basic human right (as he termed it) of allowing all people to be "unique individuals".

Basically, Dr. Burkhardt is convinced that modern societies are completely mad - particularly those that go in for uniformity.

Now, I happen to be living in a society that goes in for uniformity and sameness in a big way. I can't say that I find myself disagreeing with Dr. Burkhardt's assessment. In fact, his words rang true the moment I read them. It IS mad to insist on uniformity and sameness from everyone. It is completely insane to build a society on conformity. People are unique, by they should be allowed to be unique in society. Any society that does not allow individuals to blossom and be individuals is, according to Dr. Burkhardt, utterly insane.

It is certain that Dr. Burkhardt would identify Singapore as one of his "mass psychotic" societies, were he to consider it. What, however, can we do about it, as individuals? Unfortunately, I fear that nothing can be done by any particular individual - given the strength of the insistence on sameness around here - apart from what a lot of people do, in fact, do: they emigrate to places more given to allowing individuals to be individual.

It would be interesting to learn what Singapore's leaders would think of learning that, by the standards of a respected academic, their society is mad. Would they take efforts to change the emphasis on uniformity if they knew? Or would they reject the thesis (as one, of course, being uniform in their response and nature), thinking that uniformity and sameness are the ideal by which their society should live by?

I would welcome comments, from around the world, about the extent to which your own society allows you to be an individual, allows you to be whatever and however you want to be. Or, conversely, perhaps you might like to comment about the extent to which your society wants you to be the same as everyone else.


(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 @ 10:01 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for beinging the work of Dr. Burkhardt to your readers attention. It is reassuring to read that the tendency to want to express your own individuality is healthy drive. Indeed, it lets me know that what I see around me in Singapore (as I've suspected) is madness. There are places within society that more or less justifiably require their members to be like an ant, namely schools, large corporations and prisons. Isn't it interesting that in that short list we find prisons?

On a related note, I noticed something remarkable here in Singapore. It was remarkable because of the way it stood in clear juxtaposition to what in my view was "normal". Some cultures (like Australia) tend to view those outstading individuals with some degree of suspicion if not disdain. Hence, they will attempt to rein in those outliers. Now, by no means is it an expression of denial of individualism. On the contrary, people are free to express themselves as they see fit. It is just that some of those "remarkable" people seem to want to point out to everyone else how much above the rest they are, even if only in their own minds. Understandably, it is somewhat irritating to the rest. What I observed here was a man who cut himself(!) down to be average and to fit in, while he clearly had abilities and talents that set him apart. Why on earth would someone be so falsely modest? Are people here afraid to stand out, when they genuinely have outstanding qualities? Is the only way to live as a sheep or a robot that trotts off to work day in and out performing the same mechanichal action with the monotony of a metronome?

One more thought, regarding a single individual not being able to turn the tide. Whenever I hear/read this sentiment I tend to point people to the movie "The Power of One". In it at the critical point a wise old man says that a massive waterfall starts with a single drop of water - or words to that effect.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, "dumbing down" to fit in is a sad thing to see. That is a very costly denial of individualism since those who do this will tend to underperform to obscure their inherent greatness. That is a loss to themselves and to all.

Regarding, The Power of One...I haven't heard of it, but shall try to find out more. As an individual, I write and bring matters to people's attention: can that, I wonder be the drop that starts a waterfall? In Voltaire's case, it was...but I am not so sure that we live in reflective times. In Voltaire's time, people read his words and thought about them...and finally did something about them. I am not sure that Singaporeans, in general, would take the first step of actually reflecting on what is written. I wish, however, that they would.

Thanks for your own reflective comment.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Valentine


Humans are by nature tribal\social animals. Uniformity and sameness helps individuals to blend in, form an "identity"/"core values" and band together. Whatever. In 10,000 BC that was useful for survival. Perfectly sane.

In some modern societies, uniformity is the result of advertising\marketing.

In Singapore ... ???

You may be interested to read up more on Confucius. The old dude lived in a era of constant wars and ideals flourished. Including Legalism and (yes) communism. Old Confused died a pauper and his teachings rightly ignored. unfortunately the First Emperor did a poor job of burning of the Confucian books and scholars. Sadly some survived. And like most ideals, what little good in his teachings were totally corrupted to serve emperors from the Mings to modern Singapore. A flock of indentical sheep is easier to control, yes?

Enough of ranting.

Genetically speaking whites\blacks\yellows differs by about 0.1%. Even if individuals are .. eh ... distinctly individuals ... individualism is by definition and history unnatural. Therefore, individual rights if not fiercely defended will be quickly lost to oppressive dictators\governments. From Stalin's Russia to Nazi Germany to Bush's America (relatively speaking). *For your own good*. And sadly uniformity is inevitable.

Perhaps in only God's world (afterlife) will we be individuals.

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A massive waterfall starts with a single drop of water. But eventually many uniform droplets of water flowing in the same direction!

Or you are a tiny pebble trying to stem the flow of the mighty Yangtze river?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Valentine

Timeless Irish wisdom?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Things fall from The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats and speaks of the chaos in the world before the coming of Jesus, yet again.

We do, indeed, seem to be in troubled times. I doubt, though, that a saviour is on the way.

Wisdom is ever timeless - that is what makes it wise.

Best wishes

1:57 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. individuality.

On the contrary, I think individuality is the natural state of Man. What I see, in Singapore, however is the crushing of individuality beneath a coercive conformism that strangles the life from every youngster from the moment the enter school, to the moment they retire from work, to the moment they die, largely unmourned. It isn't a great prospect for the typical Singaporean and too many places in the world are becoming like this.

We differ more genetically than you might suppose. You see each gene has many versions...each with slightly (or not so slightly) different functionality. No two people are alike and never will be (not even twins, who will have differences in some ways too).

Your view can only come from being brought up in a system which DENIES human uniqueness. That is why you feel the way you do. Humans are unique and forever will be. It is only certain governments that wish (and make) it not so.

Thanks for your comment.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would rather be a pebble seeking to hold back the Yangtze, than to be just another drop in its great flow. Conformism is not worth any price: individuality should be prized above all - for no-one will ever live again, exactly like any of us. Don't waste that specialness on being as others are. It is the ultimate crime against yourself.

Best wishes

2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cawley,

This is an interesting topic, and a very broad one at that. Let me say two things.

1) Dr. B's thesis brings to mind Plato's reflection (the Allegory of the Cave) on the fate of all political societies, which must if it is to exist, ensure that all of its members adhere to an authoritative creed (whatever this may be).

Perhaps what we can say for our own times is that modern liberal democratic societies, when compared to other political systems, allow more room for ways of life (or thought simply) that we might call countercultural. But couched in this manner, even this last is derived from the mainstream, which sees to it that it must allow dissenting figures to exist (all under the banner of liberty).

These dissenting views, when they surface, are in turn feted by the larger society by virtue of being "avant-garde" (such as Dr. B's thesis), and to which they will be absorbed and adopted as common opinion or common sense over time.

The cycle is repeated, ad infinitum, with respect to other, seemingly path-breaking, original ideas or thought. In this light, the countercultural is merely a symptom of the mainstream.

2) I think the term "individuality" is far too vague, and I shall take it to refer to the life of the mind, if you will. I think this definition would be to your taste, considering the theme of your blog.

When I hear Singaporeans say how Big Brother enchains their minds, or is responsible for enchaining their minds, I often take these complaints with a pinch of salt.

For it seems to me that lazy thinking contributes more to their mental failings than the environment as such: it is always easier to blame the "system" than to take personal responsibility for such matters.

NB: I don't think Voltaire was much read in his time. The common people didn't have enough to buy books, let alone read.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Whether or not one could consider the countercultural as part of the mainstream (because the mainstream requires it to show itself to be free etc), it would be beneficial, for Singaporeans, and other people in societies given to conformity, to be ALLOWED to be countercultural, without penalty. As an observer, I don't think Singapore is open to contrary opinions. Those who hold contrary views and EXPRESS them, often find themselves in trouble pretty quickly. What is interesting is that countercultural elements have no access to the media, yet, their arrest and punishment is always heavily publicized. The message is clear: be independent in thought and THIS will happen to you.

As for freedom of the life of the mind...I am sorry to say that I haven't seen much evidence of this in South-East Asia. Generally, most people are either incapable of independent thought - or they are too lazy (as you say) to do so, for themselves. It is easier to let the powers-that-be provide all the answers and do their thinking for them. The result, of course, is a loss of individuality and an excess of conformity.

Regarding Voltaire: it would not have been necessary for many to read his works, for most to know their contents. The power of word of mouth is very great in societies that have restricted access to books. He was an influential and well-regarded figure in some sectors of society. (Though I understand he lived near the border with a neighbouring country, doubtless for quick escape in the event of having stirred up too much trouble.)

Thanks for your comment.

2:34 PM  

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