This morning's Connecticut section of the New York Times featured this story about Colin Carlson, who has been taking college level courses since he was eight and now, at the ripe old age of 12, is enrolled at the University of Connecticut's main campus at Storrs. You can see a picture of him, talking to one of his profs, at left.
My first response? Oh yuck, not another one.
Apparently Colin applied to a number of liberal arts colleges, among them my beloved Zenith. Our admissions officers, according to the reporter, "suggested a few years at a prep school" rather than admitting Colin as a freshman in the class of 2012 and assigning him to the Naked Dorm. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to end up in the Naked Dorm. And not everyone can afford to add another six years of what are essentially college tuition fees onto four years of college fees. I know this because every once in a while I scan the private school web pages in the area on behalf of my beloved and brilliant nephews, and realize reluctantly that -- aside from what I think are all the civic reasons why choosing public school is good -- it would take a lot of crazy bookkeeping in a large family to send even one of them to an area prep school. So don't think I am not sympathetic with Mrs. Carlson's frustration about the public schools: all you need to hear from a twelve year-old is that he does his homework in the hall between classes and suddenly you start wondering how you could rearrange your busy professional life around home schooling.
And yet, I would not want Colin in my classroom, no matter how special he is: thank you, Zenith admissions. I want to make this point because the colleges who show ambitious Moms like Mrs. Carlson the gate are always portrayed as the Grinch in this kind of story. It is one thing to have a young person taking a few college classes, but it is another to entirely lift this person out of a setting defined by age peers and put him in an educational setting where he will be socially isolated, except for his math and science professors (right? Because we know Mom doesn't think he's a genius because she caught him too many times reading Lacan or Joan Scott under the covers after lights out.)
Twelve year-old kids no more belong in a college setting (I don't care how smart you say he is) than they belong in the military or working in a factory. I'm not even going to comment on the rest of the piece, in which reporter Lary Bloom seems to have bought the story told by the University of Connecticut's public relations representative, and by Colin's mother, hook, line and sinker. Colin, we learn, is driven to achieve not just by his brilliance but by his social mission, which is to stop global warming.
Well, thank heaven someone is finally paying attention to global warming, that's all I can say.
We also learn that although Colin looks like Woody Allen (terrible thing to say about a kid) he has "better social skills." I would certainly hope so, although comparing this young man's social acumen with that of a guy who, in late middle age, had a love affair with and then married his eighteen year-old adopted daughter, is not much of a compliment.
But let's get back to some objective reasons why kids do not belong in college, shall we?
School is a social experience as well as an educational experience. Perhaps one of the most social aspects of school are the ways in which young people deal with emotional issues -- how to say "I'm sorry," how to cope with jealousy, how to compete and lose -- in an atmosphere in which other people are learning the same things and making the same mistakes. Those lessons usually have to be learned over and over, more or less throughout life. Furthermore, by college, whether a young person lives at home or in a dormitory, students are gradually introduced to aspects of growing up that are not only inappropriate for prepubescent children, but either unsafe or legally and practically inaccessible to them. For example, how to live semi-independently before you have to learn to live independently. How to budget your living expenses and pay bills, how to have a well-organized school life and get your laundry done, how to make a schedule without Mom there to help, how to organize their own transportation -- all without Mommy and Daddy's help. In fact, I would argue that learning these things from age peers is a particularly effective learning experience that cannot be replicated in your parents' house.
College teachers mostly do not know how to teach children, and there is nothing in their training that will ever lead them to learning how. I should think this would be self-evident, but it isn't to those who subscribe to the commodity transfer theory of teaching. It shows the most profound contempt for both college teachers and seventh grade teachers to imagine that they could just do each others' jobs. Is a college teacher going to notice that Colin is down in the dumps and call Mom to find out if he's ok? No. It's illegal, actually, under the Buckley amendment. When little Colin starts mouthing off in class, and the college students around him start acting like he is a freak, is the professor trained to handle a situation in which the object of discomfort and amusement is a young boy? No.
Learning is not a contract in which a set of facts, or critical thinking tools, are simply handed off the the student from the teacher. In the humanities and social sciences, college students bring a life experience to their courses that is expanding, perhaps more rapidly than it ever will. How can you teach Milton's Paradise Lost to someone who has never known or observed the anguish and rage of being cast away from a beloved person or place? How can you teach the history of the domestic Cold War to someone who may or may not actually know what a homosexual really is? How can you convey theories of deviance to someone whose only experience of being in the world is a keen sense of his own uniqueness?
I don't want to romanticize childhood or college by saying that they are incompatible, although what always sticks out about these stories is that the child is inevitably objectified. If you want to see the graphic evidence of this in Colin's case, look at the second to last paragraph of the story, which reveal as something so private that even the Radical's blogger ethic -- that allows for printing things that are already printed elsewhere -- does not permit this page to reprint it, so evocative it is of some uneasy revelation about the nature of Colin's genius. But it is also something that no twelve year-old boy I have known would want their friends to talk about.
Assuming, that is, that such a boy had any awareness of what a twelve year-old social circle was like.