Boy quits school at 7, becomes MIT professor at 20.
February 17, 2002 5:30 PM   Subscribe

Boy quits school at 7, becomes MIT professor at 20. Is alternative education a good idea? This article seems much more positive than another recent boy-genius post. It appears that most reporters assume that child prodigies are antisocial and that their parents are over-ambitious (they use negatively-connotated synonyms of those terms).
posted by alex3005 (20 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Our American society is set up so that alternative education will never become viable. There needs to be some sort of standard by which to judge the qualifications of different people. Besides, who would want his type of alternative education? You live on a dollar per meal, and your only chance to break that cycle (or to forget about it) is to pursue knowledge. Parental involvement is the key in all of these “genius” cases, and if these parents didn’t take these kids out of school and push them, they wouldn’t go anywhere. If your kids are gifted and extremely bored in school, take them to the library, don’t take them out of school and deny them crucial social interaction with other kids.
posted by banished at 6:18 PM on February 17, 2002

Great article. You're right, many people are really envious of child prodigies and assume (hope?) that they're pushed by their parents and will never be as happy as normal, red-blooded American kids who played a lot of soccer. In fact, I really think that's why The Royal Tenenbaums didn't do so well among some critics - the former child prodigies were struggling and sometimes miserable, but they were also portrayed as multifaceted, social people. Not, apparently, miserable enough, and so the movie got written off as "too clever."
posted by transona5 at 6:25 PM on February 17, 2002

That's an awesome story. The question it raises for me is, is there something special about this kid, or was it just that he was given such great opportunity, encouragement and motivation to learn and think and grow? I.e., Would such good parenting have a similar effect on any child?

It's crazy. But very inspiring, and hopeful, too.
posted by mattpfeff at 6:34 PM on February 17, 2002

great story......

his father, a silversmith and glassblower whose only degree was from Medford High School.
.....Martin Demaine, who had made forays into physics and law graduate programs

Well which is it? Can't be both, can it?
posted by Eric Lloyd NYC at 6:59 PM on February 17, 2002

Well which is it? Can't be both, can it?

I guess it's possible he did coursework in the graduate programs without earning a college degree. But it's just a guess....
posted by mattpfeff at 8:06 PM on February 17, 2002

Prodigies often tend to be socially marginal people who are hot
by over solicitous parents.

I just attended an art class where a woman was accompanied by her bright ten year old daughter for a "fun experience", it was clear to every one in the room that the two lived in a careful cocoon that also made the child tense and more than a tad neurotic. The child was loved, nurtured and spent all of her free time in the company of adults not playing with children her own age.

It's great for a child to be encouraged to explore their unique brilliance but if it means they are not allowed an autonomous
, is it really worth the price?

posted by Sqwerty at 10:10 PM on February 17, 2002

I was precocious, not a prodigy. My school system did not allow children to skip grades, when I was younger; my parents considered a private education but chose instead to 'normalize' me, one consideration being that my younger brother had learning disabilities including delayed speech. By unior high I was tremendously unhappy; by 11th grade (the year I participated in a preliminary study for my district to finally implement a gifted & talented program) a counselor was recommending early entry to college, which had the assent of the then-principal. Unfortunately both that counselor and principal left the school that summer and when I returned with paperwork after a semester at the local university community college, they refused to accept my credits (I didn't have P.E.! state law you know, so sorry), and I was forced -- in order to receive financial aid -- to get my G.E.D. instead (but I couldn't get THAT early -- state law again -- so I had to wait until my class had garduated). I did manage to earn both the Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees there, the last student permitted to do so, because the dual degree was abolished while I was attending. For once a rule was bent in my favor and I received the dual degree. But college was a disaster and I never received that diploma. I didn't start feeling like a real human being, in many ways, until I was 25 or so.

I have an odd perspective on stories like this: I wish I had been better able to deal with my peers, but I also feel I was unnecessarily denied more challenging academic material.
posted by dhartung at 10:32 PM on February 17, 2002

" ... I have an odd perspective on stories like this: I wish I had been better able to deal with my peers, but I also feel I was unnecessarily denied more challenging academic material...."

Aahhh dhartung. I hate hearing stories like this. I have a friend who did her doctoral dissertation (for an Education Administration degree) on the way public school systems handle gifted students. Her conclusions were quite depressing. Schools do serve to socialize, and somewhat educate the average - but if you are gifted, you are likely to be anywhere from slightly to deeply ill served. Your story is unfortunately more of a norm than an exception.

It is amazing how many of the most gifted people from any generation are - by the time they are 15 or 16 - so bored with school that they leave academia as soon as they can get out, and never finish polishing their minds and talents. Those that sneak home at night to read Plotinus, while getting D's on book reports in high school because they are forced to write about Catcher in the Rye, who fail intoductory geometry because they're already messing with Hilbert spaces and can't be bothered to finish homework ... damn ... the mind capable of curing AIDS may well be a bouncer in a bar - having left high school with no degree ... because the seed never found the soil in which it could germinate.

I loathe the thought of wasted genius dying on the vine.
posted by MidasMulligan at 11:09 PM on February 17, 2002 [1 favorite]

99% of college administrators are shitheads. I know from contemp. experience, & present meddling of the said would make half my excuse for me present erratics
posted by EngineBeak at 11:12 PM on February 17, 2002

I took my son out of public school in thrid grade. When you are so bored you write your spelling words upside down and backwards(all correctly) you do not need to be in that place. I home schooled him until 8th grade when we moved to a school district that has a good G&T program.

He is now sixteen and in the TALH program at Lamar University. I believe I made the right choice for my son.
posted by bjgeiger at 12:51 AM on February 18, 2002

My school was too small to have a G&T program and the administration didn't really know what to do with me and neither did my parents. I literally slept through most of my classes. My trigonometry teacher frequently upbraided me for it and told me that "even if i *did* get into Duke (my first choice for college)," I'd obviously fail because I "was so lazy." (I had an A in her class. I had As in *all* of my classes, but that was considered irrelevant.) The principal, who found it rather amusing, pleaded with me to at least pretend to be awake, so he wouldn't have to hear my English teacher complain. My econ teacher turned it into a running joke: "Someone wake Elizabeth up so she can give you the correct answer..."

I didn't sleep through class because I was lazy. I slept through class because I wasn't learning anything new. We were covering books in 9th grade English lit that I had read several years prior. (It didn't help that i played three varsity sports, stayed up late reading things that I *did* find stimulating, and was genuinely tired during the day.) The seven hours I spent at school were the least productive, so why *not* sleep? When I finally did get to Duke - to the chagrin of my evil trig teacher - it was an entirely new experience to actually learn something in class. High school was a four year coma in comparison.

Although technically gifted, I wouldn't consider myself a "prodigy" by any stretch of the imagination, so maybe my case isn't applicable, but I don't think parental encouragement is a prerequisite for success. My own parents actively stood in the way of my pursuit of further education. They didn't go to college and didn't really see the point. As a child, I was constantly told to "get my nose out of that book and go outside with the other kids!" I read constantly because I couldn't stand having questions without answers, and that sort of insatiable curiosity can't be learned or imposed by some external force. In light of that, I think it's entirely plausible that many of these prodigies are self-motivated.
posted by lizs at 2:16 AM on February 18, 2002 [1 favorite]

Then there was the strange business of his father accompanying him. It's an unusual arrangement, agreed one colleague, but it's worked so far. ''Anyone who takes the time to know what Erik is about would know that separating him from his father would be a bad idea,'' said Thomas Hull, an assistant professor at Merrimack College who has conducted research with the Demaines on origami.

I hope Erik does manage to grow up and separate from his father some day.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:47 AM on February 18, 2002

Erik's waterloo web page.
(and pic)
posted by dreamling at 6:32 AM on February 18, 2002

Just as one should not let one's schooling interfere with their education, one's education should also not obliterate the prospect of schooling. Each serves important purposes, and not solely in the obvious ways. Perhaps Erik's current position is a means of addressing his lack of schooling, no?
posted by NortonDC at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2002

"'s education should also not obliterate the prospect of schooling"

Alas, I have a Masters' degree already, so even though what I think I need is a chance to start over as an undergraduate in more practical, technical subjects which result in a better-paid career, I'm not eligible for undergraduate financial aid. The only way I can see to get out of situations where I am not quite making a living and working way under my abilities is to run back to the shelter of a university for a PhD. The PhD probably won't make me any more employable, but at least I'll get a few years' respite from utter boredom.

Perhaps Eric's dad will finally have a chance to develop his own talents, now that he doesn't have to scramble to make money. It speaks well of MIT that they were flexible enough to hire the two as a team.

You meet kids like Eric on cruising boats sometimes, sailing around with their parents. He sounds like a tale from the Teenage Liberation Handbook. My mom tried the same artistic approach to childraising, and it was really fun! Unfortunately, then came the teen years getting bored to tears at a small-town public high school which emphasized "mainstreaming and social skills" above all else. Convinced that I had failed to learn the spiritual lesson of "suffering fools gladly" that came so easily to everyone else, I kept on trying after college, throwing myself into menial work, punctuated by periods of self-study and improbable adventures. It comes as a great relief to read the article on "The Outsiders" on the other thread, and discover that seeking a marginal existence is quite common for talented people.

If any parents are reading this thread, I urge you to think twice about the idea of mainstreaming kids for developing social skills. Look to the example of my friend with the PhD from CalTech who spent two years going door-to-door raising money for an environmental group, because he felt he needed to improve his social skills. What a waste of his talents! Frankly, this constant pressure to "be normal, be social" prevents a lot of us from ever finding a niche where our abilities would actually contribute to society. Hooray for MIT for ignoring all the social criticism about hiring an assistant professor who still needs his dad nearby.

And if you have a kid you'd like to raise like Eric, e-mail me! I'm single, and I'd like a *real job* for a change.
posted by sheauga at 8:38 AM on February 18, 2002

" ... As a child, I was constantly told to "get my nose out of that book and go outside with the other kids!" I read constantly because I couldn't stand having questions without answers, and that sort of insatiable curiosity can't be learned or imposed by some external force. In light of that, I think it's entirely plausible that many of these prodigies are self-motivated..."

You've mentioned two traits that are the very essence of what might be termed "gifted". The first is the tendency to live a sleep-deprived life (these people quite often will average 4 to 5 hours a night for much of their lives) - that old saying about genius being "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration" turns out to be quite true. The more important one, however, is the internal trait (indeed, it is nearly an elemental force in some) that you nearly perfectly defined: "insatiable curiosity".

Those that exist in the IQ ranges of 140 or so and upwards nearly all have it. It is almost an obsession ... they are nearly compelled to eat large amounts of information every day. Their brains will fixate on some topic like a mongoose on a cobra's neck - and won't let go until they've figured it out. This has nothing to do with anything outside of themselves. Grades, or the approval of teachers mean virtually nothing. (My own father bribed me to get me through high school - or I never would have finished ... if I wrote required papers on the simplistic babblings of Hermann Hesse, he'd talk Plato with me till late at night, if I finished beginning algebra homework, he'd sneak me into his office and let me have time on Ford's mainframes).

I do think the drive is mostly internal ... and this is why schools so often destroy these kids. Teachers, on the whole, teach - but gifted children don't need to be "taught" ... they are predisposed to pursue knowledge on their own, and their minds simply don't have a "passive" state that lets them just sit and quietly listen to boring lectures ... it is almost excruciating pain to be forced to do so.

The thing I liked most about that article was the father's innate understanding that he didn't need to do anything for his son other than provide the most fertile soil. If he saw even a slight interest in a subject, he'd surround the kid with books on it ... not requiring him to read them, just making them available. He'd take him to have conversations with professors ... not to sit passively in lectures. That is, he watched his boy's mind as it expanded of it's own accord, and according to its own internal predilections, and like a nearly perfect gardener, provided fertilizer and water in any direction the roots wanted to extend.

I think you are right lizs, the drive itself is entirely internal - but I also think that the tremendous potential behind that drive can either be nourished by parents and teachers, or resisted by them. ("Someone wake Elizabeth up so she can give you the correct answer..." ... what a hoot!).
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:54 AM on February 18, 2002

The one sad theme that runs through so many gifted children's lives is the excessively intertwined relationship with the parental figures. Gifted children too often with at the same point where average students begin to blossom and develop autonomy.

In the movie Little Man Tate the harm occurred when the mother and the mentor alike attempted to create their vision of an ideal childhood instead of working with the boy to help him discover his unique future. His life improved when the adults stopped living through and for the child and instead allowed him to be himself.

Maybe the secret is to not coach or hover over gifted children, but to encourage them to develop as independent thinkers who are not dependent upon a hot house life.
posted by Sqwerty at 9:01 AM on February 18, 2002

"... gifted children don't need to be "taught" ... they are predisposed to pursue knowledge on their own, and their minds simply don't have a "passive" state that lets them just sit and quietly listen to boring lectures ... it is almost excruciating pain to be forced to do so."

This characteristic doesn't change just because you hit age 21! A vocational counselor pointed out to me recently that most people really don't suffer this way, and said that some individuals simply aren't cut out for a life based on career.

Note that most child prodigies are famed for their skill in an endeavor that doesn't necessarily have much to do with successful integration into the economic system.

There are many independent thinkers struggling to break free of a "hothouse life," and every once in a while a few of them make it, like this young man Eric and his dad. The popularity of an activity like MetaFilter shows that people need something above and beyond work/family/recreation in their lives, that there's something about developing ideas, interests, and talents in a collective situation that doesn't stop just because you're no longer a kid.
posted by sheauga at 10:37 AM on February 18, 2002

Just be lucky you guys are in a country where it's possible to do these things. In the UK, the system is much more rigid, hardly anyone is homeschooled, and you can't just go to university at age 12 unless you're still going to regular school and even then you've gotta be lucky. Frankly, the lower education system in the UK is totally crap, and the entire reason I never went to university. Advice to parents.. get rich and put your kids through private education.
posted by wackybrit at 12:41 PM on February 18, 2002

I don't think you should think of things in simple black and white: the public school system is not the only opportunity children have to interact with their peers. They can be homeschooled and still interact through clubs, organizations (there's even a homeschool organization with sports etc here), religious groups, etc. Or even the good old "playing with kids in the neighborhood" (of course in my neighborhood, no one went to the same school. They didn't know what to do with us.)

I have serious doubts about the public school system. I would keep my kids out of it if at all possible, honestly. Not even for the purpose of making them some child prodigy that goes off to college at some young age -- though it certainly would be no challenge to teach everything I learned in high school in one year.

What high school did to me was take me away from reading James Joyce to instead watch lots of movies.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:46 PM on February 19, 2002

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