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 +

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Cambridge University: an awkward truth or two.

Cambridge University is a fabled institution. Its renown is such that no-one in the developed world is unaware of it. Everyone knows how fierce the competition is for admission – and so everyone knows that, to have gone there, demonstrates a high level of ability, of some kind. This wins respect for its graduates.

It is a beautiful city and it is right to speak of its “dreaming spires”…but is it really as idyllic, as portrayed? Is it really a world of leisurely drifting down a gentle river, through an enchanted city?

No. Unfortunately, Cambridge is populated by people and people have a way of being imperfect. In some cases, they are SO imperfect that I had to wonder how they got into the University in the first place – and I don’t mean as students: I mean as academic staff. Some of the staff really, really shouldn’t have been there.

Cambridge University has a supposedly supportive academic system. There are lectures to attend, as usual, but there are also what are known as “supervisions”. These are sessions with an academic with a small group of fellow students, often no more than three or four students. Usually, there is one supervision, per week, per subject. By subject, I don’t mean individual topic, I mean a whole area like “Mathematics”, “Psychology” etc. The course I followed at Cambridge, Natural Sciences, involved choosing from a range of subjects, each of which was pursued with the workload that a single subject degree might attract at another University. In the first year, there were four subjects, in the second year, three and in the final year, one.

One year, at Cambridge, I was studying the History and Philosophy of Science, as an option. I thought this a humanistic break from the other matters I had been studying. My supervisor for this topic was a young American academic called Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick. (The one now with Technology Vision Group (TVG)). He was what every British person expects an American to be: quite large, confident, charming and seemingly nice. I got the impression that he devoted a lot of energy to appearances. However, appearances, can often be deceptive.

Now, it was the custom for supervisors to set an essay each week, which we were to do before the next supervision, hand it in, and have it marked. Usually, one expected the essay to be related to the course in some way, so that we could consider its concepts at depth and come to a better understanding. Sometimes, however, it was clear that our supervisors were unsure exactly what was in the course. On these occasions, they would do what Dr Robert Lee Kilpatrick did one day: he said: “Write about whatever you like.”

As a young student, I used to actually like a request to “write about whatever you like” – because it allowed me to be creative and that was just what I liked to be. Thus, I didn’t really mind when a supervisor, clearly lacking in any ideas, imagination or understanding of the topic they were supervising, didn’t have any notion of what he/she should set us to write and so suggested that we write whatever we wanted. I was somewhat naïve, at that age, and didn’t realize that one of the primary reasons for an academic to ask their students to generate the topic is that the students would thus be generating ideas for an academic possessed of a barren mind. Upon reflection, however, it does seem to me that those academics who were in this habit, were those who were least creative, productive or, well, academic. They were also, universally, unprepared to teach their classes: none of them had done any background work, for the class they were supposedly to teach. Dr Robert Lee Kilpatrick was no exception in this regard. Yes, he was charming…but sometimes he really didn’t know what to do to give something worthwhile to his students.

So, that week, I went off and thought of a topic to write on. I found something of interest to me and began to write. My thoughts flowed freely and I found that the more I wrote, the more I understood, the deeper went my insights and theorizing. My pen rushed on, expressing the birth of what amounted to a thesis. I wrote with enthusiasm and passion, driven by the urge to create – something with which, I was later to find out, Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick had no familiarity or appreciation.

Finally, I was done. It was over 22 sheets of paper, written on both sides. He had asked me to “write whatever I liked” and that was just what I had done. I had written a considered, thoughtful, original, insightful piece on early scientific/medical thinking.

A week had passed. It was time for Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick’s supervision.

I went to his office at the appointed time. The door was ajar. So, we gathered inside his office, sitting, waiting for him to arrive.

Time passed. First minutes, then tens of minutes. We began to wonder what had happened to him.

After about half an hour of waiting for him, we finally decided that we might as well leave for it was clear that Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick hadn’t even bothered to turn up for his own lesson.

I left him a note, which none of the other students had the courage to join me in writing (lest their handwriting be recognized, I suppose).

I remember the words still:

“We are here.
Where are you?
Now you are here,
we are not.
So, there!”

The next week I handed in the essay. Cheekily, he was rather irritated that we hadn’t gone looking for him, the week before. Apparently, he had been hiding out in the staff room. He had waited there, throughout his own lesson, expecting us to come looking for him. At least, that was his excuse. I found it very curious the way he expressed himself. He made it seem like WE were at fault, for not finding him. It never seemed to occur to him that it was his own responsibility to turn up for his own lessons. I found it most bizarre. I didn’t protest to him directly. I just listened to the self-justifying nonsense coming out of his mouth. Here was a teacher too lazy to even turn up for his own lessons, making it seem like his students were too lazy to spend their lesson looking for him all over the building. Amazing.

It takes a strange bent of mind, so adept at blaming others, to find his students at fault for his own failing.

Anyway, I handed in the essay. He didn’t set another one.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

During the week that followed this “teacher”, made an official complaint about me, to the senior academics at my College. He said that I had “written an essay of inappropriate length”. He didn’t explain whether it was too long or too short. He just said it was “inappropriate”. He further complained that I had upset a fellow academic Dr. Barbara Politynska. Now, I thought that was a very interesting way of twisting the facts. You see, Dr. Barbara Politynska had upset me, not the other way around.

In earlier days, I had told Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick of my astonishment at the actions of Dr. Barbara Politynska, who was my Psychology “supervisor”. She had done just what he had done and set an essay by saying: “Write about whatever you like”. She too shared his apparent lack of creativity, lack of preparation for lessons and unfamiliarity with the courses being taught.

Just as I had with Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick, I took the opportunity of being set an open essay to write a creative one. I wrote about what interested me, which, that week, was on the matter of intelligence. I critiqued what I thought were biases in the work of some academics and explained what I thought was wrong with their analyses, among other things, in my essay. I wrote, as I was later to do for Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick, with passion and enthusiasm and involvement with my subject.

Imagine, then, my surprise, when I received my essay back after being marked. The essay had clearly been crumpled up and thrown away. I don’t just mean casually crumpled, I mean, really, really aggressively, crumpled. It was covered in fine wrinkles. Even the wrinkles had wrinkles. Even more bizarrely, realizing that she would have to hand it back to me, she had ironed it flat again, which made it legible, once more – but couldn’t obscure the history of crumpling which it had endured.

There was more. In the margins she had written nasty little remarks. One has stuck with me to this day: “Is this a moral thesis or an extract from the Sun?”

The Sun, in case you don’t know, is a downmarket tabloid newspaper that carries a half-naked girl on page three and is known for its strongly expressed opinions.

Perhaps you might like to make the effort of imagining what it was like for me, a rather sensitive young student, to be received with such hostility on two consecutive occasions on which I wrote with creativity, passion, enthusiasm and commitment.

The moment when Dr. Barbara Politynska handed the essay back to me was the moment that Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick later referred to as me upsetting her. You see, Dr. Barbara Politynska actually had tears, unshed, in her eyes, when she gave me back the essay. She said, then, that I was “precocious”. I wondered then, as I wonder now, why on Earth a student being “precocious” should have distressed her so. Yes, I suppose she was upset…but she had no right to be, for I had done nothing to upset her, except write an essay that was “whatever I liked”, as requested. The one who was rightfully upset on seeing the state of his finely crumpled, sarcastically commented upon essay, was me.

Yet, Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick had reported it as if I was the wrongdoer, even though, as I had told the story to him I had expressed my profound amazement that she should have behaved as she had.

So, I was in trouble with the College authorities for “crimes” which seemed rather absurd. Both “crimes” related to the fact that I had been creative. I had actually had the cheek to write two essays, based on my own thoughts, for two academics, on their request. I had not copied my thoughts from other sources. I had not expressed secondhand opinions. I had actually written my own thoughts, with passion, creativity and enthusiasm – and just look at the reaction of this ancient University.

In that moment, I was confronted with an unspoken law of Cambridge University: Thou Shalt Not Think For Oneself. At least, that is the essential meaning of the actions of these two academics when confronted with an original essay.

My College launched some kind of investigation. They took this matter very seriously – though I couldn’t quite work out, for myself, what exactly I had done wrong. I had written a thesis length essay, because I had been asked to “write whatever I liked” – but this was deemed “inappropriate”. Thus, it seemed, I COULDN’T actually write what I liked – for I had, and he didn’t like it.

I was subject to the across-the-table gaze of my Director of Studies and another senior academic, as they grilled me over my “offence”.

I don’t really think I ever got the chance to put my view of things across. I was a little too shocked by the proceedings to do so, effectively. I was actually dumbfounded to receive such official hostility, simply for being creative. For that, basically was the issue here. Neither of my supervisors had received my essays well. Both had responded aggressively to them. Apparently, the concept of free speech hadn’t reached the halls of Cambridge University. Only slavish copies of official sources were allowed to be written, seemed to be the message.

It was decided that I would be assigned a new Psychology supervisor. I was never assigned a new History and Philosophy of Science supervisor – and I never saw my old one again. The Psychology supervisor was rather slow in being replaced – in fact, many weeks passed, before one was assigned.

I really didn’t like the way that supervision was conducted. Instead of there being three or four other students, there was just me, with him. He was a very serious man who didn’t introduce himself. So, I was left to guess his name. He had a very strange attitude towards me: he seemed to treat me as some kind of criminal. He walked around the room for most of the supervision, as if wary of me. He spoke little. He seemed to be evaluating me, as if looking for signs of imaginary anti-social behaviours he had been alerted to. All of this, on his part, really put me off participating much. It wasn’t a success. Happily, I never saw him again.

Thus, I passed the academic year without a supervisor in both History and Philosophy of Science and Psychology.

What really gets to me, after all this time, is that Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick NEVER RETURNED MY THESIS LENGTH ESSAY TO ME. HE KEPT IT.

I had put considerable effort into that essay – but I never got the chance to read it ever again. He never returned it.

I have a fair idea why he was so annoyed on receiving my essay. He was just too damned lazy to mark it. He had already shown himself to be too lazy to turn up to his own lessons – so I think it is a fair guess that he was just too lazy to read the essay I had written, or, at least, mark it. Yet, that was precisely his job, for which he was paid. He was supposed to read that essay, comment on it, let me know what was good, what was not and give me some general feedback on the merit of its ideas. He didn’t do that. He just kept the essay so that I would never benefit from the work I had put in to it.

Twenty years later, I wrote an email to him reminding him of the essay, and asking him to return it if he still had it in his possession. I did so, because I think it is important for any writer or thinker to maintain a record of their past work, for everything builds on what has gone before and all is part of the whole. Besides, I really just wanted to read it again.

He didn’t reply.

Cambridge University was not what I had hoped it would be. At least for me, on every occasion on which I showed passion, creativity and enthusiasm and actually created anything from it, I attracted great hostility from the staff there. It was a form of conditioning. If I was creative, they were hostile. If I expressed my thoughts, they were hostile. I quickly learnt that Cambridge was not open to creative thinkers at all. At least, I was not treated well, on quite a few occasions. After a while, I shut down and stopped expressing myself there: after all, what was the point? If I wrote what I wanted to write, I would only attract hostility of a high order. I grew detached from the University. It was not a place for creative minds; it was a place for people who spent their lives rearranging the thoughts of others. At least, that is the impression I got from it. If one’s essays conformed to expectation, did nothing new, and contained only reworkings of sources, they were acceptable. However, if they did something new, or sought to express their own viewpoint, the welcome would be hostile.

Perhaps I was unlucky. Perhaps other people had better experiences than I did. But, you know what? Neither Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick, nor Dr. Barbara Politynska had any right to have been Cambridge academics in the first place. Neither had the right attitude towards their students and neither conducted themselves appropriately where I was concerned. You just don’t react in a hostile manner to a student who has made a creative effort. That is the worst thing an academic can do to a young mind.

Just imagine how I felt, all those years ago, to have been treated so, simply because I wrote what I thought. It completely put me off academia. I turned away from it utterly as a reaction to the way I was treated. It is only, now, two decades later, with an academic son to attend to, that my attention turns once more to academia.

However, I never want any of my children to go through what I went through. I never want them to attend an institution where students are greeted with hostility if they are creative. Wherever they go, it must be a place that appreciates the “precocious” – and doesn’t have disturbed academics with tears in their eyes because someone wrote an essay that expressed a thought or two. It must be place where the teachers are not so lazy that they won’t turn up for their own classes. It must be a place where the teachers actually make an effort to read and mark, what their students have made an effort to write.

Now, Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick is involved with something called the Technology Vision Group (TVG). As far as I can see, it raises money for biotech and life science ventures. His doctorate is not, as you might expect, in Medicine or Life science, but in the History of Science. His only academic work listed on Google Scholar is: “Nature’s Schools: The Hunterian Revolution in London Hospital Medicine 1780-1825”. It has received just two citations, giving him an H-index of 1. H-index is a means of ranking the impact and influence of academics. To understand this score, consider this: a successful academic will have a score that increases by one, every year. An outstanding academic will have a score that increases by two every year. A truly brilliant academic, will have a score that increases by three every year. I understand that this work is his PhD thesis.

Dr. Barbara Politynska has since left Cambridge. I believe she returned to Poland. I understand that, for many years after her tearful day with my essay in her hand, that she was heard to complain about me, in self-justifying ways.

I had looked forward to Cambridge, as a child, as a place where, finally, I would find academic peers and academic acceptance. Instead, I found narrow-minded, unaccepting, aggressive, mendacious, disturbed, Machiavellian, hostile, uncreative, plagiaristic, lazy, rude, detached, unprepared, ignorant, academics, who really, really, really didn’t care about the students. Of course, not all of them were like that. I have written of one who was not, in another post. However, that some were like that, is just unacceptable. Cambridge University needs to have a higher standard not for its students, but for its staff. Too many of them, should never have been there in the first place.

No student, anywhere in the world, should be subject to disciplinary action simply because they wrote an essay. Yet, that was what happened to me at Cambridge. I wrote an essay of “inappropriate length” – and was subject to a disciplinary hearing, of some kind, in consequence. What kind of mad, backwards thinking, kind of “University” is that? I created something and was punished for it. In fact, it happened twice in a row from two different teachers – one crumpled my essay, the other complained about it.

In a University that had its priorities right – that is, the support of its students and the support of creativity and academic growth – both of those academics would have been fired, AT ONCE. For, neither was fulfilling their basic role of teaching or nurturing. Both were behaving as if the creativity of their charge offended them. They resented it.

Anyway, this leads me to make a recommendation. If you or your child are creative, I really would recommend that you do not allow them to go to Cambridge University. It is possible that it has changed since my day – but I doubt it. Places like that tend to have institutional momentum. It is probably, today, much as it was in my day. It is not a place to be if you are the kind of person able to write a thesis length essay, simply because it is “whatever you like”.

A creative person should not be subject to the hostility I received, from Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick and Dr. Barbara Politynska, simply for expressing thoughts on paper. So, make sure your child doesn’t go through the same thing.

(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.

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. Use Only with Permission. Thank you.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:00 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

In my university, at the end of every semester, students were encouraged to provide feedback on their lecturers' performances. So if our lecturers fail to do a decent job, they would have a lot to fear. Lecturers who show no improvement over a few semesters will eventually get fired.

It is sad to hear that you had such an unpleasant experience at Cambridge. Which country do you think would suit Ainan best, when it comes to tertiary education?

2:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Miao, for taking the time to read the post.

At Cambridge, when I was there, there was no system of feedback for students regarding staff. Students were very much an afterthought, it seemed.

I don't know enough about the world's universities to know where Ainan might best fit in: I am still learning. I am open to suggestions.

Yes, it was unfortunate to be treated like that at Cambridge. I feel that students are not valued there, as they should - especially students who have their own thinking/approach. I think, mainly, the academics are not there for the students but for themselves (and their research).

Best wishes

10:36 AM  
Blogger Eaststopper said...

Dear Valentine,
Learning to deal with the "unfortunate" incidences in life is an important part of growing up. I am sure the events in Cambridge have shaped your perspective but the experience for Ainan may be wholly different . I feel, as a parent, it is critical to equip the child with a positive outlook in life - to learn to view events from a positive perspective and to learn from each lesson.

1:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hahaha.. that's why nobody loves too smart kid/teen/adult.

2:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Eaststopper,

I would agree that a positive outlook can be helpful, in some circumstances. However, in other ways, a realistic appreciation of the likely circumstances may be even more helpful.

I would be very hesitant to allow Ainan to go to Cambridge after my experience of the place. I would like to see a more supportive institution than that, for him. Cambridge is too competitive which leads to ugly behaviours, even from the lecturers.

Thanks for your comment.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

To "hahahah".

Sexism, racism and ageism are not funny...and neither is "giftism" (a word I coined a couple of years ago on my blog).

The kind of behaviour described in this post is very damaging to the health of a nation. It really puts smart people off making the contribution they could make.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, im sorry. dun mean to make funny. i had the same experience too, being too smart.


11:00 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

That's OK: apology accepted.

The smart are the last group left who are routinely marginalized in many societies. It is really troubling.

Best wishes on finding acceptance.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I admire students who can get through school without sacrificing their own thoughts and ideas. It's necessary to study how others think, but if that is the only focus, the time necessary to develop our own voice is lost. It's important for each of us to discover and recognize the power of our own voice, even when nobody else does. ESPECIALLY when no one else does!! (which is not our fault, our problem, or our responsibility.) There are too many people like Dr. Kilpatrick - people who want to see us fail and push us out of a place that we belong. After being expelled from school twice, the Irish must be rebellious by nature I guess; I learned never to allow a dream to be crushed by someone who has allowed their own dreams to be crushed. The hardest part was applying this principle to those in a position of trust or authority - my teachers, parents, employers, and friends. I've found that, after all is said and done, acting on a dream isn't as hard of a battle as keeping it alive.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Shannon, for your considered words.

The actions of Dr. Kilpatrick and Dr. Politynska (but particularly Dr. Kilpatrick) had a deletrious effect on my life. They altered my life choices in a way that would not have happened without what they did. Many years later, I understand, now, what I omitted to pursue because of their actions. So, I am now pursuing it (details when I have achieved success in the project in hand).

You are right that those of crushed dream often seek to crush the dreams of others: they see comfort in such companionship of failure.

I think Universities, in general, need to be more careful about their appointees: many lives are impacted by such people, so they need to be chosen with great care.

Best wishes.

8:46 AM  

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