Saturday, November 01, 2008

Radical To The University of Connecticut: Cookies, Milk and A Social Worker, Please

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.


Anonymous said...

The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was being in grad school where one of these kid-college students went (we saw him racing around campus in a tiny 3-piece suit and a brief case) and then much much later seeing him on the A&E show Intervention, trying to cope with a gambling addiction severe enough that it cost his parents their house. Sad yet somehow...not entirely surprising.

Anonymous said...

As a person who was offered a chance to start college after her sophomore year of high school, I wholeheartedly agree- and I believe myself to be a much saner person for staying in high school.

Sapience said...

I have to disagree. I did choose to start college after my sophomore year of high school, and it was the best thing I ever did. High school was a hell-hole for me. I was 14 and getting migraines and ulcers from how much I hated school. By the end of my first quarter in college, no one could tell the difference between me and the 18 year olds in terms of my maturity, my ability to think, etc. They simply assummed that I just looked really, really young. I learned quickly that I had to take responsibility for my words and actions in a way I never had to in high school.

I would agree that a 12 year old should still be living at home, and the dorms would be a horrific idea, but college itself can actually help younger students to mature at their own rate, rather than at the far too slow and infantilizing rate perpetuated in many schools.

And while Math/Science might get you into college early, you might be surprised at what those 12 year old math-science geniuses are reading under the covers at night. It might not be Lacan, but it really might be Milton and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. From the article, his first college class was a language class, not a math class. He did physics and history his second year. That seems pretty balanced to me.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I definitely agree with you, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the social experience argument. Going to Zenith (or my Zenith-rival undergrad) is a social experience, sure. Going to a community college, or going to the local gigamorphic Big 10 school while living at home, is not so much. Attending college in your mid-twenties with three kids at home is likewise not so much about the social experience. I mean, I learned an AWFUL lot from the social experience of attending my SLAC, but I suspect I'd have learned an AWFUL lot about life if I'd gone to work full-time after high school, too. So I don't think that the educational and social experiences have to be linked.

(I may have just misread this and you're talking specifically about the places where this kid applied, but I thought I'd throw this out there anyway.)

I think the 3rd point is really a subset of the 2nd point, too. College profs may not know how to teach Paradise Lost or the Cold War to 12-year-olds, but I don't know that I think means the 12-year-olds shouldn't learn about them. I mean, students often reread in college the "classics" that they read in high school. You're not going to learn about them the same way, but just because high school freshmen don't have the same life experience as college freshmen, doesn't mean they can't get anything out of learning about such things. I don't think there's a certain age/experience level someone has to meet before education can become more than handing over facts.

That said, no, it's probably not fair for students who do have the life experience to have to cope with someone in class who doesn't have that life experience - but the third point seems to imply that learning prior to college *is* a handing off of facts that doesn't require any life experience, which I think is a little unfair.

hypatia said...

Ditto what Patti said....

I left home my sophmore year of high school and went to college. I learned about actually studying, got some cockiness knocked out of me, and got a good well rounded education that included some fantastic lit courses. And I knew my own mind enough that when an adminstrator encouraged me to be a doctor (MD) I said no and went on to do something I loved but that was perhaps a bit less prestigious for them. I would likely be a crazier, cockier, more obnoxious person without the experience of my high school.

Re: the social experience.... If you are the smartest person in your high school class, high school isn't about the social experience either. (Or rather, not the kind you mean). If you are too smart you don't fit in middle/high school anymore than a 12 year old fits in a freshman dorm. I did maintain social experiences even after I left home by being involved in scouting and church where I mixed more with folks my own age.

To some extent I think you have to trust that the family is making the best choice in context for this child as an individual. And that means weighing the challenges and experiences - social and educational - he is getting to fit him. Yes, it would likely stretch your teaching style to teach to someone coming from a different place, but I don't think either you or he would be incapable of making it a good experience if you were put in that situation.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you are forgetting (?) how miserable the pre-college "social experience" is for many kids, though I agree a 12-year-old is too young for college. Maybe college-level courses while living at home, though I wouldn't want to teach a child of that age myself.

I think your arguments about "how can I teach deviance, etc." apply to college-age kids as well as 12-year-olds! They argue for college at, say, 30 or so :)
-untenured P.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear all,

I like having this kind of conversation about education, and as you point out, all kids are different.

Many of your points are well taken -- including, as I pointed out in my opening paragraphs-- that many schools are dead zones. But those of you who were saved by going to college early (and I believe you were), this young person would properly be in the seventh grade, not a sophomore in high school at all. I have a fifteen year old nephew who I could easily see in college now. But the one who hasn't graduated from middle school, no.

And part of what raises red flags for me is, in a way that is admittedly none of my business is, why does Mom want him in the newspaper? And did you actually read the story? The personal information at the end is really kind of awful.


Anonymous said...

What do you think this boy should be doing for the next 5 years? taking courses at the local CC? Independent study at home?

hypatia said...

So I agree its weird that he's in the paper. and I did read the article...and then had to go back and reread them to find what you thought was so awful. (I guess suicide isn't stigmatized for me as all that much worse than saying that his dad died of cancer when he was 2). I took his comment as not really wanting to talk about it with a random reporter. It's a shame his mom over-shared.

To some extent I wonder if the mom letting him/pushing him to go to college is a protective mechanism against what happened to his dad. One of the things I got out of going away to school was more of a sense of who I was separate from being the smart one. I was able to be known for other things, because when you are working that far out of your own league you aren't the smart one anymore. You get to separate your personality from your brains. It's healthy.

The maturity point is hard to determine from the article. Maybe at 12 he was able to deal. Maybe he deals better in science/language classes than literature classes. I wonder if anyone actually follows these kids beyond anecdotal accounts and tracks progress/benefit. I know my high school/college tracked our success and I still get requests to send updates when the legislature is renewing the funding for the program I was a part of.

P.S. Check out the Duke TIP program - 7th graders in college as a cohort. It works for them... and makes me less skeptical of it working in a more integrated fashion on a campus.

Margot said...

By your arguement Motzart should have been forced to stick with his xylophone rather than going out and composing at age 3.
As far as I am concerned, it is completely acceptable to allow a child to go after a skill set when they are intellectually prepared for it. It is not like he is the first person to ever do this and it is common in other cultures. There is really more than one way to skin a cat.
Besides, most of the college students are not intellectually prepared or even emotionally mature enough to be in college and no one is holding them back until they get their heads out of their bums.

Anonymous said...

I was actually kind of glad to see the stuff in the second-to-last paragraph - depression is a disease, and it should be treated as such. Would it have seemed as awful to say that his dad died of cancer when he was 2? And I also took "I didn't really know him" as just a statement of fact - who remembers anything from when they're 2?

GayProf said...

Given that most college students (and their parents) are now treating universities like "High School: The Sequel," I am not sure that there is as severe a shift as there once was.

I take the other commentators' points about not wanting a student to be stifled in schools that no longer challenge him/her. Certainly I would also agree that most of my mid school years were hell in terms of socialization (and I wasn't no genius). I tend to agree with TR, though, that the distance between age 12 and 16 is quite large. What type of concern or actions are there to ensure that these "early-blooming" students actually do have any type of meaningful social interactions? It seems likely that they are treated like a brain with little interest in their other needs/development.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I'm sorry, TR, but any vision of college which assumes the liberal arts cocoon is some kind of normal developmental stage is narrow and problematic.

I do think you're right about some of the literary and historical deficits which are likely to result from studying this material at the wrong time, but we don't seem to think too much about that with 18-22 year olds who are, often, not all that much more mature and deep on average than teenagers. A really age-appropriate curriculum would require decades....

Here's my question: is it really necessary for him to engage in a full undergraduate curriculum if his interests and skills are in science? Yes, the traditional model requires distribution/gen ed courses: why enroll him as a traditional student, though?

I've had students somewhat like this. As an historian, I haven't found their comprehension and analysis skills, or writing, significantly different from my other students, and there's strong evidence (Thank you, Sam Wineburg) that more sophisticated historical understandings are possible at much younger ages than we traditionally have taught them. I think we should embrace the opportunity, and make the case that history is one of the best "humanizing" disciplines which also teaches skills that are absolutely necessary in all fields of endeavor, and draw these students to us, rather than rejecting them.

Tenured Radical said...

Well everyone:

I take all these points and realize there are a great many people who disagree with me, and there is a great deal going in with early college programs and has been for a while. But it still isn't clear to me why the kid needs to be enrolled full time in college, and what it is we are supposed to admire about this. Call me silly, but there you have it. At what point are people of great intelligence supposed to learn how to be ordinary as well as extraordinary, and how are they supposed to learn it if they spend their childhood with adults?

And as for the father's suicide, the article doesn't say he killed himself because of depression. It says he was a genius too and killed himself. Which I think is a dicey thing to put in an article about a boy genius without explaining why it's there. It makes it look -as one reader alluded incisively -- like the kid is on suicide watch. And if he is -- why write about him?

In other words, why is this story news, except that UConn and the Mom want publicity and are using the kid to get it?

your heartless,


Anonymous said...

I taught elementary school before college and I agree-- most college teachers aren't prepared at all to work with children. Heck, most college teachers aren't prepared at all to teach writing for that matter! (The point being-- college teachers really aren't that prepared for teaching-- teaching prep is generally not the point).

And a quality prep school would be just as intellectually challenging as a standard public school college first or even second year curriculum, and in many cases moreso, so I think that was good advice if this kids' family could afford private school tuition.

Anonymous said...

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 understood your concern until I came to the above presumptions.

By the age of 12, I had long been identified as gifted, and sponsored by way of corporate scholarships to Johns Hopkins CTY summer programs.

I had also survived molestation at the hands of a female family friend five years earlier and was attempting to reconcile that secret with my growing suspicion that I might not only be attracted to boys. In elementary school, girls I thought were my friends used racial epithets to describe me to my face and behind my back. During middle school, I not only took responsibility for my younger brother in the afternoons and cooked while my mother worked, but also visited and provided emotional support to my unemployed father on weekends while he recovered from an injury without health insurance, finished law school, and passed the bar. While I now bring my particularly racegender&class-based life experience to the classroom, I don't know that many of my peers at college are self-aware at all.

At CTY, I engaged with equally incredibly gifted and informed peers, most of whom have gone on to assimilate into mainstream college culture and feel that they now fit in with their peers. Not me; I'm still curious to a fault, bored by partying, and disappointed by the bullshit tactics that my fellow English majors use to get by with As.

I wish that I had been offered the opportunity to progress at my own pace...and went to early college programs like Simon's Rock or Mary Baldwin. I might not have been patronized by high school teachers who thought that I, as a young woman of color, wasn't "as smart as I thought I was" and instead encouraged me to aim lower than the selective schools to which I ultimately gained admission. I might not be bored or moved to transfer by the rampant anti-intellectualism that somehow pervades my Ivy League campus.

I'm hoping grad school will do it for me, but who knows?

I apologize for writing my life story into your comment thread, but I do it to show you that you can't assume that you know the level of maturity or of life experience of every gifted child, or that our public (or even magnet/charter/private) school curriculum will serve one well as long as (s)he is with her/his age group. I had lots of friends growing up, and I am lucky to have found a boyfriend at college with whom I am very intellectually compatible, but...after waiting patiently and coming to college with the assumption that I would be returning to my true peers, I was incredibly underwhelmed...and not willing to drink myself silly to find friends among the students here anyway.

So much for the system.

Tenured Radical said...


I could suggest some ways that Colin's story is not yours, and vice versa, but I think it's more appropriate to say good luck.



Alex Halavais said...

I'll second douglafem's statement above. I am also someone who found a new social place at CTY. Having dropped out of 8th grade, with a family that was at odds with the law and sometimes homeless, I tried going to the freshman year of high-school, only to be bored to tears in class, and (literally) spit on between classes. A peer adviser suggested that a new wardrobe would help me fit in. Instead, I decided to enroll full-time at a state university (UC Irvine).

I agree completely, TR, that it is a mistake to celebrate such early admissions, but I find your assumption that people have similar life experiences at similar ages to be way off base. I didn't fit in as a 12-year-old college student, but I've been a misfit most of my life. I still don't fit in very well on a faculty, oh so many years later. But I fit in here better than I did in the corporate world, and fit in the college classroom at 12 better than I did the high school.

Just as many 18-year-olds are not ready for college, some 12-year-olds are. Doesn't make them better, just makes them different. And it seems a shame, from my experience talking to some of the undergrads at your institution, that someone would be excluded merely on the basis of his age, and the assumptions that go along with it.

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