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 +

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The myth of the brand name school.

In Singapore, there is the widely held belief that a big name school confers a successful life on its graduates. However, is this true?

If we were to do an experiment, we would select a group of people for whom all differences are controlled except for the one of school choice and then see what happens to the outcome of their lives. Fortunately, for my argument, this experiment has already been done. It is called a family I have heard about.

Now, this family is a model Singaporean family, in certain ways. There are several siblings in the family - the exact number wasn't revealed to me in the telling, but from the way the family was spoken of, the number cannot be any less than three and seemed to be more. All the siblings, but one, went to "big name schools". One of them, however - the black sheep of the family, if you will - didn't thrive in primary school and ended up in ITE (or "tech school"). Now, international readers should understand that ITE provides a practically oriented technical education and is, in Singaporean terms, conventionally thought suitable for those of lesser ability. It is not held in high respect in Singapore and seems, to an outsider, at least, to be looked down upon, by many (who have a University background, usually).

The siblings of this ITE trained young man, all went on to University, all "succeeded" in their educations, in the conventionally expected sense. However, many years later, something very, very strange has happened. One person in the family has truly succeeded in real life - all the others have failed.

Yes. That is right - the ITE trained sibling has become a great success and all his University educated siblings are leading mediocre careers of no distinction. The ITE trained sibling earns far more than his brothers - and, in fact, not infrequently, they approach him for money. How he deals with that, I don't know. Yet, it seems to me that there is something very informative about this family tale. It says to me that it is not the school you go to, nor the education you receive that truly determines your success in life - it is who you are, as a person.

The ITE trained sibling had the right set of attitudes, spirit and other qualities of mind, to prove himself of great value in the workplace. His employers found him very capable and so promoted him rapidly. Indeed, without revealing too much about him, he was made the YOUNGEST manager in his field, at a large company, that they have ever appointed. Yet, he only had a secondary education and never secured a degree. His degree holding brothers did not have the right attitudes, spirit and qualities, were not held in high esteem by their employers and have not done well in their careers - despite holding degrees from "big name schools".

This example upends the whole means by which Singaporeans like to measure their fellow citizens: by their education. It is not the education that counts - it is who you are, as this family have learnt. Here, the one with ostensibly the poorest education, is leading the most successful life. What does that say about the Singaporean obsession with education? Is it misplaced? Have they overlooked more important characteristics that determine whether or not someone will succeed?

It would be easy, on paper, to underestimate the ITE trained sibling. It would be easy to dismiss him as "not having a degree" - but there is an employer in Singapore, who is very glad to have given this particular person a chance to show what they can do. Many employers would not have done that. Yet, this ITE trained sibling is not only the star of his family, but is a star of his company...all because someone looked beyond what he had to offer on paper, and saw what he had to offer in person.

I cannot help but feel that Singapore, in general, would be better off, if employers were all as his is: if they took the time to see each individual as they are, rather than just examined whether they came from a "big name school". Perhaps, then, they would make better hiring decisions. You see sometimes it is not the name of the school that is big - it is the nature of the person themselves. I, personally, would much rather hire a big person, than a big school.

(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 @ 10:32 PM 


Blogger Colin said...

Coming from a brand name school myself, I naturally feel offended when I read blog posts like this.

However, I have learned, over the years (especially my years in the army, so that's not all a waste of time) to retain my loyalty to the school which I love and yet be objective about it.

I think we need to clearly see what brand name schools give you, and what they are wrongly perceived to give (ie. the stereotypes).

According to the way I see it, attending a brand name school gives you opportinuties. You will most likely be the schoolmate of son and daughters of the rich, powerful and famous. This confers more advantages than is apparent.

It allows you connections which you never have if you were in a school which has no such students. For example, a rich and magnanimous father might decide to donate a rock wall, or a classroom full of advanced computers.

It allows you an insight into the strata of society which most 'peasants' or 'plebeians' could never gain an insight to, beyond whatever insight rumours and urban legends give. As such, this can be an important part of education, in terms of eye-opening.

Lastly, having children of the powerful as schoolmates will give you a certain confidence (maybe I'm mistaken here, this point is VERY debateable) which allows you to interact freely with members of all strata of society.

We interact with the 'normal' people in society everyday, but how many people could boast of eating recess with the Education Minister's son? Things like this give you skills that not everyone can learn easily.

Some other benefits of going to a brand name school include being taught things other than what scores points in exams, for example: respect for tradition, a sense of heritage and history, etc. as is common in well-established schools.

However, I must admit that going to a brand name school does not mean as much in today's society as it once did. For example, my father was taught English in the 60s and 70s by a teacher who went to Cambridge, and that sort of teacher, the sort who lived what he taught, was not as rare in my school back then as they are now, where they are one-in-a-million.

How many teachers of the English language speak grammatically, as my father's teacher did, nowadays? How many teachers are true professionals and not mere bureaucrats? Alas, the system has its way and even the most capable teachers are reduced to something other than educators. Educators who are not mere imparters of knowledge, but examples which young mind can follow safely to adulthood.

Like I said earlier, attending a brand name school gives you opportunities, and if society's stereotypes blind you to what attending a brand name school really means, then you will just be another run-of-the-mill labour unit produced by our country's finest graduate-making factories. As such, many a time, the accusation that students of brad name schools are arrogant and over-hyped are sadly true.

However, I love my school, and I'd still be upset if people insult it needlessly. Not everyone can be objective critics.

1:58 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Colin,

I do not see why you should be insulted by my post...for I have not named a particular school. All that I am pointing out is that success for those who graduate from brand name schools is not as inevitable as people think - and nor is failure for those who don't graduate from such schools. Yes, you may gain valuable connections from such places - but you know, success is still possible without such connections.

In the family I have noted, the least connected, least favoured, least advantaged member of the family turned out to be the greatest success: why? Because, deep down, he was the greater person, in some way that others noted, when he got a chance to show what he could do.

There is more to people than the schools they attended.

However, that is not to say that someone going to a brand name school won't be a success - but we shouldn't think of it as inevitable, nor should we write off those who don't attend such places.

Thanks for your comment.

Best wishes.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would generally agree with you that it more about the person than the school he or she comes from that really matters. The only issue I have is the way you draw you conclusion by picking one family. From a statistical standpoint, one outlier (ie the ITE graduate) from a family of graduates of brand name school is more of an anecdotal illustration than a meaningful conclusion. What if I pick a family where graduates of brand name school who do better than some non-graduate? Would that invalidate your argument? Maybe yes, maybe not. Having said that, it is true that coming from brand name school is not a guarantee ticket to success, it never was and it never will be. But if we go by numbers and probability, we would say that it has a higher probability and by that we mean there will always be an outlier or examples such those that you quote that shows the opposite. When parents make sacrifices to send their kids to good schools (brand name or otherwise) it is always with the hope that they will turn up better. It may not be 100% for sure, but it sure provides a higher chance. In short, I think it is unfair to conclude (at least until we have sufficient numbers to back it up) that coming from good brand school does not entail a higher chance of success in life but it is true that it is not a guarantee. Why nothing in life is every 100% for sure, is it?


10:23 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Superman,

I did not conclude, nor state anywhere, that brand name schools do not help many people...I just pointed out that they are not the guarantee people think they are, and that other factors may, in fact, be more important (like the nature of the personality in question).

I agree that statistically one would have to look at a larger sample - however, the existence of a counter-example does show that there is something not right with the common view of the situation (which would have said that the family in question could not possibly have turned out this way).

It would be interesting to have more examples...but that requires access to sociological data that I don't have.

One counter-example can actually teach us a lot about our causes to examine them more closely and question them, which is a good thing.

Thanks for your comment.

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Superman: Agreed.

Besides, there's a touch of irony that Valentine should correctly point out that success in education is different from success in life, and then conflate success in career with success in life.

I guess I agree with the point being made, but the argument itself is found wanting.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anonymous at 10.38...I wasn't conflating success in one's career with success in life, at all. I was simply stating that success in education does not lead automatically to success in one's career. I did not talk about success in life, in this post. If you took the time to read my many other posts that talk of life, in some way, you will see that I think and write of success in much, much broader terms than either education or career.

I don't actually think much of those who focus entirely on career for their be all and end all: life is richer and more complex than that. Why do you think I write so much of family, for instance?

Kind regards

10:47 PM  
Blogger Colin said...

Hi Mr. Cawley, I must admit that my feeling upset is somewhat an emotional issue, and I have tempered that with objective reasoning (see my second paragraph).

My last paragraph was not directed at you, but at people who ignorantly dismiss brand name schools as useless, perhaps in order to puff themselves up.

My whole comment was meant to discuss the reasons why graduates of brand name schools may or may not have success in their careers, and admittedly also to defend my status as a graduate of one of these schools.

I hope I have been honest enough, and have provided some meaningful insight.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Colin for your further explanation of your perspective.

I understand.

Best wishes.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Valentine,

I would agree that success in life is determined by what kind of person you are. Looking at education alone (especially the brand of the education) does nothing at all. It seems rather sad that education is currently assigned brands, just like any other commodity or luxury item.

Unfortunately, employers usually don't want to or can't afford the time to assess your character, or your integrity, or your being as a person, etc etc. So they rely on the easiest, albeit superficial way out: your education and your resume.

They're just hoping that what others have said about you is good enough word to go by. It's called satisfice. It occurs everywhere, but much more so in hectic, fast-paced and cramped Singapore.

Anyway, the whole education thing is not going to change. Why? Because our society, or rather the "higher echelon" like to have a "report card". Statistics. So when you have a system that churns out more degrees that contribute to a particular number, you're not really going to care about things like attitude and talent. After all, politicians have performance gradings too.

I see your point and your concern, but it is very unlikely that anything will change, particularly in a society that worships money and status.

3:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The fundamental outlook of the society that you portray, is a bleak one. It is one that misses the true value of people. No wonder Singapore is the way it is.


9:05 AM  

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