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, March 04, 2009

A scholarship should be unconditional.

A scholarship should be unconditional. By this, I mean, that no requirements should be attached to it, after the award is made. There are very good reasons for this.

Today, we learnt that NTU withdrew the ASEAN Undergraduate Scholarship of David Hartanto Widjaja, the attempted murder-successful suicide of a student at NTU, Singapore. It seems clear that this would have been a primary contributory factor into his fatal decision. He was under so much pressure - and once the scholarship that enabled him to be here at all was withdrawn, he snapped. One life was lost, another harmed. It need not have been. The awarding of a scholarship should not be dependent on performance thereafter. The student was considered good enough at the moment of award, let them be free thereafter to breathe a little and do their work in peace. Then, such tragedies would not happen.

Has no-one given thought to want a scholarship with conditions of performance attached means? It means constant, unrelenting pressure for the students. Such a scholarship is a kind of prison from which there is no escape. The student must always perform, never slacken, never fail, never make a mistake. Such pressure is harmful to any student, too much for some.

I understand that such scholarships have an informal condition that no grade can ever be less than a B (Straits Times source). That seems unnecessary. Students will have good subjects and bad subjects, subjects they like and subjects they don't. In particular, foreign students, as David Widjaja was, may have trouble with English, which would lower their grades unnaturally. They would then be penalized not for lack of subject competence, but for their standard of English. It seems rather harsh.

A scholar is a scholar. Once good enough to secure a scholarship, they should be free to work in their own way. Genuine scholars will pursue their subjects with passion...there is no need to further harrass them over grades. Let them be. Let them live. Otherwise, they might just do what David Hartanto Widjaja did...and throw his life away because NTU thought that he didn't deserve the scholarship they had awarded him.

Think of the situation he was in. He was late in his degree. If withdrawal of his scholarship meant that he could not complete it, all his effort would have been in vain. (I speak of all and anyone in his situation, not knowing his particular circumstances.) He would have had to leave the University without a degree. All would have been lost. Clearly, he thought that all had been and that life was not worth living. In a very, very real way, those who withdrew his scholarship put him in that situation and in that frame of mind. It could be said that they killed him and nearly killed Professor Chan Kap Luk.

Let all future scholarships be unconditional. Let scholars be scholars and have the academic freedom to pursue their interests in their own way without the ever-present demand for grades.

(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 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... interesting.

If there were no incentive to work hard after getting the scholarship, then many may take the easy way out. Can you imagine a scholar who is failing in his work becoz there is no requirement to meet? Do not idealised the student as someone who will student for the passion only- And im saying this becoz i am an engine student...
The criteria set plays a major part in ensuring sufficient studying is done- and not only "passion" studying.

Even private companies that give scholarships often have a clause that requires them to do "average" in terms of school work. UNless you are saying that private companies are wrong in their way of thinking.

To be frank a grade of 3.5 is an average grade. An average student will be able to achieve that.

Re. his english pulling him down, i do not think so. As a triple e student, his modules will consists primarily, and by primarily i mean really a majority of modules will be engine related. As an example, many PRCs in engine actually do quite well despite this handicap.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Indiana said...

If he could not "handle" the pressure of being on a reviewed scholarship he should not have applied for such. He agreed to it knowing the conditions. Accepting such decisions and owning up to your responsibilities is called "growing up". Allowing students a carefree existence at Uni only serves to ill-prepare them for work life when there are such conditions on your job.

He agreed to a set of conditions in return for money. He did not honour his side of the deal and thus the money stopped.

I feel sorry for the lecturer and his family, but for

7:55 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wow Indiana, with heartless attitudes like yours, no wonder he decided to kill himself.

I don't buy this argument that education should be like working should be free so that people are free to think. Your outlook is precisely why Singapore produces so few (none??) thinkers of global merit. They were not given permission to think.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Indiana.

Look, it is sad that he had to take his own life, but i have to disagree that about the scholarship.

A scholarship is not a bursary. A bursary is a sum of money given without any strings attached for good effort...etc.

A scholarship, that is different. As a scholar, you are expected to be at least average, and usually above that- Or else, scholarships will lose their very meaning. Will you still pay(from where i don't know) money to someone who is not working well in your company? Based on the assumption that passion will lead him to greater heights? You also say that uni should not be like working life. Totally, BUT BUT... it should contain ELEMENTS of working life. Is it humane for a graduate to suddenly be thrust into the working life WITHOUT any idea of what is competition? Is that fair? Should we spoil the child? Or should we discipline him to accept reality?

I believe that a scholarship is meant for people who are capable. And that means NOT only when fighting FOR the scholarship, BUT MAINTAINING and MEETING the requirement.

A scholarship IS NOT FREE money. IT comes from tax payers! And I for ONE DO NOT WANT my money to be used on someone who is not as capable as others.

BY the way... Singapore has 3m(ex foreigners). Hmmmmmmm....Judging from that, I don't even expect us to have any thinkers... the probability is just too low. But then... your maths must be different... for you must think highly of singaporeans to assume we would be able to produce top thinkers when mathematically it is highly unlikely. Thanks for the high appraisal.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Ireland, which has a smaller total population than Singapore has no trouble producing great thinkers, globally renowned writers and creative people of all types. It is not about size that determines whether a country produces great thinkers, it is about the nature of that society. Ireland produces them, Singapore does not (at this time).

If you don't give thinkers freedom at University, they are not going to get it anywhere else, either. The result will be what you see in Singapore: a creative wasteland, with not a single idea to be found.

Your idea of a scholarship is a local idea of a scholarship, it is not the UK idea of a scholarship, when I was younger. Then, a scholar proved himself by winning the scholarship not by "maintaining" it. I prefer the UK system: it produces interesting thinkers. The Singaporean system tends not to. But looks great on paper!

12:32 PM  
Anonymous De Santos said...

I am a schoolarship student in Indonesia. My major is education. I felt the same or even worse than David Hartanto Widjaja.

I TOTALLY AGREE WITH your posting that a scholarship should be unconditional.

In my campus, the condition is not only about the grades but also to attend one particular religion denomination ceremonies regularly (without prior information). And the condition is getting worse from day to day. Perhaps, I will be the next David Hartanto Widjaja.

I had planned to quit the university but If I do so, they will charge me IDR 5,000,000 @month. I am now in Semester IV (month 20s).

I feel that I'm TRAPPED. I don't know what to do. Do you have any suggestion other than committing suicide?

6:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

De Santos, I am sorry to hear about your situation. The only thing you can do, given the alternatives you face is to persevere, do your best, and don't worry too much about the situation you are in. It will go away at the end of the course. You must definitely not hurt just isn't worth it in anyway.

From what you have shared, a scholarship, in Asia, seems like a nightmarish thing to get involved with. I would advise everyone to steer well clear of any organization that has such conditions on a scholarship. In the UK, there are usually no conditions at all. That is a real scholarship.

Please be strong. Good luck.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

De Santos, I would look closely at your contract with the University. If it has a "get out" clause for illness, you could have yourself declared depressed, for instance, and then be allowed to leave. (If the contract allows for such a thing). Look at it carefully to see what possibilities there are.

Take care.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Hmmm...interesting.

If a scholar doesn't study, WITHOUT compulsion, then they have chosen the wrong scholar. If they get the right people there will be absolutely no need for a draconian, compulsory set of outcomes. The scholar will naturally follow their interests. I suggest that better care is taken with SELECTION, in the first place.

Re. Not knowing English. You really haven't taught speakers of English as a second language have you? It is a real handicap and cannot help them at all. IF they do OK despite this, they would have done better without it.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Indiana said...

Perhaps Ireland produces more "thinkers" because the Western culture teachers "free thought" where the Eastern one's do not. Both Eastern culture and education do not promote free thought, your own struggles with the MOE and your own children are examples of that. Children are taught to be "seen and not heard", artistic endeavors are not encouraged, family is put before self, and one is taught to behave and follow, not to lead. One only has to look at LKY wondering where the next PAP leaders will come from to see that this system of following has been so successful that free thought is all but removed.

It's not that those educated here cannot think outside the box, it's that they have been taught that there is no box to think outside of.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Indiana said...

And can we please accept that you are not a scholar just because you study for a degree. As scholar seeks to advance knowledge, an undergrad student just regurgitates it to the satisfaction of silly lecturers and academic set hoops.

You don't get to be a scholar until you have proved yourself...and that takes the "bit of paper" first.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You paint a disturbing picture, Indiana, of a society that seeks to control the minds of its people. I would say that they have succeeded to some extent.

Thank you for your comment.

One last thought: do you think that this nation could change and become more like Ireland?

11:06 AM  
Blogger Indiana said...

I do.

But the question(s) to ask, how much of "this change" is cultural vs. educational?

Often Eastern politicians get up and talk about decadence in the west, they talk about a younger generation who lacks respect, they mention parents languishing unvisited and uncared for by their children, you have protests, arguments, and often even crimes and riots...these seem to be the current product of Western "free thought"

Is Singapore ready for this possibility, and outcomes?

I think free thought goes hand in hand with the right to assemble, to protest and to have choice in everything in life. Could this happen in Singapore?

Maybe...but you are a better person to ponder the whats and the ifs of this country.

But personally, I see it happening, slowly but it is happening, and perhaps this economic crisis will help advance it, since, as history teaches us, it is in times of the greatest adversity that societies have made the greatest advances esp. in matters of thoughts and rights.

11:22 AM  
Blogger De Santos said...

Thank you, Valentine Cawley for your suggestions on me.

Btw, do you understand Bahasa Indonesia? If you do, please visit my blog.

-de santos-

1:14 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear De Santos,

I am glad my words have been of some help to you. Unfortunately, however, I don't read Bahasa...but perhaps my wife can help.

Best wishes to you.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Indiana,

I think that Asian leaders (Singapore's included) really exaggerate the downside of Western countries. The Western way produces people able to do new things; the Eastern way produces people only able to do what they are told. If told nothing, they can do nothing.

Yes, it is harder to deceive a Western electorate and manipulate them into always voting for one party. They won't do that. They will actually think and judge you on your performance and vote you in and out, accordingly. I think that is what Asian governments are afraid of: they don't want to be democratically unelected.

The upside in Western societies is pretty great. Asian leaders minimize/dismiss the upside while exaggerating the downside. The result is that Asians don't realize what a bad deal they are getting because they are not being told the truth of the alternatives.

Singapore could be much better than it is...but it would take giving the people much more choice and I am afraid that the PAP doesn't really want people to begin to have too much choice.

However, if that kind of change is not allowed, I do think that Singapore's future is limited.

Thanks for your comment.

1:22 PM  

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