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, February 06, 2011

Cambridge University and the Twenty Year Delay.

Cambridge University is famous the world over. It has inspired an untold number of books and films set in its idyllic surroundings – yet, is it an inspiration to actually go there, study there and be there for three years? Does Cambridge University have a positive effect on a life?

I am moved to write of this now, because of a thought that is never too far from my mind: life is brief and sudden and the one thing none of us know about it, is its length. If I did not write of this, it might forever go unwritten and never be known. That is something I cannot let happen. So, today, I have decided to write of Cambridge University’s effect on my life path – well, one of those effects. I write knowing that very few people will read of it, here, and it will still largely go unknown, even so – however, it shall serve the purpose of making a record of these thoughts, so that they are to be found, in the world, should anyone choose to look for them.

I went up to Cambridge with such high expectation – and perhaps, in fact, that was part of the problem. I expected to be surrounded by enlightened, intelligent, lively minds with humane outlooks and understanding personalities, informed by premature wisdom. I thought they would be the best of the best. Sadly, they weren’t like that at all. There was relatively little of any of these characteristics present – or at least not to the degree I sought. They were not as bright as I had hoped and many tended to be rather conformist and intolerant of difference. In fact, they exhibited an exaggeration of the negative characteristics I had observed in colleagues at school: a narrowness of mind, that liked to exclude anything or anyone that didn’t match their rather limited range of expectations. Yet, I am not here to write of the students, even though many of them were disappointing, in some ways. I am here to write of the institution itself, and its staff.

Firstly, there is the legend that Cambridge has good teachers. I don’t know how this impression ever took hold, because very few of the lecturers I had, were decent teachers. Some of them were truly appalling. One, in particular, has never been forgotten. He “taught” Physical Chemistry, using blueprint style preprinted overheads, which he would flash up before a lecture hall filled with hundreds of people and point at a dense mass of mathematical equations and say: “As you can see, this implies that”, as he pointed to the top and bottom line, without explanation or introduction of what, actually any of it was about. He never gave any indication of what any of the symbols represented or what, in fact, was being communicated by the equations. At times like this, I would look around the lecture hall and see what I expected to see: a sea of incomprehending faces. If any of these people were to work out what was being discussed they would have to do all the work themselves. The lecturer was not going to be of any help at all.

I remember another occasion, years later, in a Philosophy of Science lecture when a very earnest and intelligent young man came to me after the lecture and asked: “Did you understand any of that?”

“Yes.”, I said, because I had.

He looked most discomfited, because it was clear that he hadn’t – even though I knew from conversations with him, that he was very intelligent.

What perhaps, I should have said, is that I approached his lectures with a very open mind and let all his words fall upon my mind. There they would link up and form meaning, or be pieced together as one great puzzle, until all became clear. The only reason I understood that lecturer's work was because of my own peculiar approach to listening, not because of any communicative skill on the part of the lecturer. Then again, of course, I may have been seeing my own meanings in his work and not the ones he had intended.

The truth was, of course, that the lecturer was extremely opaque and he did not talk in a way designed to convey understanding. He spoke as if in a private language, of immense complexity. Looking back, it is possible he had some innate disorder that affected his ability to communicate – because he was inherently very bad at it.

At Cambridge, bad lecturers were much more common than good ones – at least in the sciences. They were bad in two primary ways: they did not know how to communicate well – and they were very dull to listen to.

Those failings, however, are minor compared to the ones that bothered me more deeply about Cambridge.

There were two other aspects that troubled me. Firstly, whenever I showed creativity or enthusiasm, in my written work, I invariably was greeted with great hostility, by the academic staff. It appeared that creativity deeply offended them, perhaps by sparking some envy of some kind. I found it most unnerving to be welcomed so, each and every time I showed a creative response to an assignment. So unpleasant were the reactions I received, which varied from being reported, by “Dr Robert Lee Kilpatrick” for writing an essay of “inappropriate length” (for which I had to see a disciplinary committee!), to my essay being screwed up into a ball, by Dr. Barbara Politynska, who didn’t like its thesis. These were deeply scarring experiences. They made me understand that to express my inner thoughts, on any subject, would only be to court a hostile reaction. The effect on me was stark: I didn’t really want to be there anymore. This was a place that loathed creativity. It was a suffocating feeling, actually – for I could not, thereafter fully express what I thought, without knowing that it would be unwelcome. Cambridge, I learned, was a place for intellectual conformists – at least, at the undergraduate level, in the subjects I studied. Anyone with the merest spark of creativity, was definitely unwelcome.

Then there was another side: the plagiarists. Cambridge had those, too – both among the staff and among the students. One staff member, some of whose work was derived from something I said to him, was Nick J Mackintosh, a Psychology Professor, at Cambridge. He wrote an entire book based on something I said to him – of course, he didn’t acknowledge his original source, at all. I will tell that tale, in another post, to give it, its due. Another person who plagiarized some of my thoughts, appears to be Marc Quinn, the British “artist” – for some of his most striking works are simply embodiments of things I said to the editor of a magazine at Robinson College Cambridge (the Bin Brook), about my own work, in the presence of several other students who had not been introduced. Marc Quinn was a student at Robinson College (my college). Again, I will give the full tale another day, to give it fair space.

Anyway, the weight of all these experiences was truly disheartening. It did something I could never have expected it to do: it put me off pursuing a career in science, altogether. So, even though I had been a physicist at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middx, before going up to Cambridge, after Cambridge, I wanted nothing more to do with science. So, for twenty years, I did just that: I avoided science and did other things.

Slowly, my feelings on the matter of science, healed. What really accelerated the healing was Ainan. Working with my son on his passion for science, reawakened my own and reminded me what I had so enjoyed before Cambridge put me off. So, after a twenty year delay, I returned to science and started doing research into Psychology. I am now a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at HELP University, Kuala Lumpur, focusing on research.

I know this: had I never gone to Cambridge, it is likely that I would never have been put off working in science. It is likely that there would never have been a twenty year delay before returning to science. Thus, going to Cambridge, far from “advancing my career”, as I had expected, cost me twenty years work as a scientist.

My experience at Cambridge, really colours my view, now, as to what is a suitable place for Ainan to study at. There is no way I would subject him to Cambridge, for instance. I look, now, not for brand names, in Universities – but for a friendly welcoming culture and good teaching. I see no attraction in any institution whose culture resembles the Cambridge I knew. In a way, this is a blessing, for guided by what I went through, I am now seeking to ensure that Ainan never has to suffer similarly. So, some good can come of it, at least, that is my hope.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:26 PM 


Blogger virginiagunawan said...

Hi Valentine. My name is Virginia and I've been reading your blog since last November and I found it fabulously fascinating!

Thank you so much for writing this wonderful blog! I really appreciate it! I always, literally, check your blog whenever I'm online.

The first time I found your blog was when I was planning to read some interesting stuffs on the internet before going to sleep. But then your blog keeps me up for the next 8 hours. Actually, I stopped reading only because I really need to sleep!

You showed me many interesting points with your neat, clean, and clear writing style in each post. The readers' thoughts are really well-guided by your writings to the point that we would finish the entire post unconsciously (for me, anyway). And I always feel sad when I finish reading the post..

If you are going to publish a book (of any genre), please let your readers know :)
I would love to buy and read it. I'm pretty sure others would love it as well. :)

About the post, I never imagined that famous brand such as Cambridge would have something like this going on inside their wonderful buildings of education. I imagined that it would be hard for you to stay in such place. There might be a lot of people who went there because they want to gain the 'Cambridge Student' status, and not for the education.
It leaves me wondering if other famous colleges by brand such as Oxford would be similar.

By the way, Valentine, what do you think of Melbourne University?

5:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Virginia, for your wonderfully supportive words. It is good to learn that you like my writing, so much.

I do, indeed, intend to begin publishing books. You might be surprised at the different types of books, that I wish to publish. I will let you know if any of them are to be released, by announcing it on my blog.

Re. clarity of writing. Yes. I believe that thoughts should be so clear on the page, that anyone who takes the trouble, should be able to understand them. I think there is little merit in convoluted expression that prevents understanding. Sadly, many smart people write in ways that are not readily understood. (See Cambridge for instance!)

I, personally, would be very wary of big brand name Universities. I am certainly not intending to send Ainan to any of them...not after what I experienced at Cambridge. One problem is that these Universities are not really focussed on teaching and that their reputations come from famous researchers working there. This has little to do with what students actually need to have a good learning opportunity, at University - and, in fact, may be a negative factor, in that experience.

I am afraid I don't know anything about Melbourne University, so I can't comment on it. The question you need to ask is: is it known for its teaching, or its research? What is the emphasis between the two? What do you need at University: good teaching, or research opportunities? Pick a University accordingly.

Good luck Virginia...and thanks for your welcome words...and for being a regular reader.

Please feel free to comment again in the future.

6:39 PM  
Blogger virginiagunawan said...

Thank you for the advice. It would certainly be a big help! I would find out more about the research opportunities given.

So have you had any thoughts on where should Ainan continue his study? He's still in HELP, isn't he?

I'm really happy now as I can leave comment on your posts. I've tried it a few times before and it didn't work. Just telling you, because similar problem might happen with other readers. Or maybe I just happened to make some mistakes here and there!

On another note, I tried to do a review on your kindle, but I had to make some purchase from the amazon first and I had no paypal or anything similar. So sadly, it didn't allow me to. But last time I checked, someone had done it already! Have you read the review given? It is very positive :)

7:05 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Virginia,

Thanks for letting me know the situation re. Kindle...I will have to check out this review. It would be great if you could write a review sometime, if you can find a way to do so.

Regarding Universities, for Ainan: we are not sure yet. It is a problem. My own life experiences lead me to be very cautious about the type of institution. In general, we don't think a highly competitive, aggressive type of institution (probably most of the "brand names") is a good place for a child to go. It would be psychologically unpleasant. So, we are seeking a friendly, warm, supportive environment. HELP has been good so far in that respect. Ainan enjoys his time there and finds it interesting. This is a great improvement on his prior educational experiences.

Don't forget to write a review when you can...because people are really much more likely to buy something that has several reviews, than one which just has one.

It is great you sorted out the comment posting problem...perhaps others have not been so lucky.

Best wishes.

8:49 PM  

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