Prodigies Are Victims, Perpetrators Of Prejudice

I'm kind of embarrassed about it, but I've always been jealous of child prodigies. After all, the typical march from junior high to high school to college doesn't look that impressive when you compare it to law school at 19.

It's too late for me to be a child prodigy now, but my jealousy started when I still had a shot. How come I hadn't learned to read at 2? How come other kids got to be in the New York Times for playing the violin at Carnegie Hall, while I was in the Virginia Gazette for pointing at a duck (photo not online)? How come when I tried to invent a new form of math, all that came out was a box with random numbers in it (a crappy ripoff, I later realized, of Sudoku)? I wish I could say I wanted the personal satisfaction of intellectual inquiry, but really I just wanted to be in the news. I wanted to be special.

Which, for better or for worse, is what has happened to a recent crop of very young law students. The latest is Kate McLaughlin, who graduated from high school at 12 and will enter Northwestern Law School at 19 this fall. She says, "When I tell people how old I am, they always make the same comment: ‘Like Doogie Howser?' ‘Yes, like Doogie Howser.'" Even at her young age, she sounds like a pretty good person to have in our legal system. She describes her politics thus:

I'm an idealist; I want to change the world. I bleed blue; I'm a Democrat. I'm an ardent feminist. I'm big on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights - Prop. 8 was a big issue for me.

Her enrollment has gotten her a fair amount of press, but not all of it is good. Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal's law blog writes,

Tales of child prodigies often strike us as a bit, well, strange. We find ourselves looking past the accomplishments (mapped genome of pet bunny at age 7!) for hints of dysfunction, overbearing parents, hidden emotional disorders.

Clearly, in addition to admiration, child prodigies come in for both mockery and scrutiny. Also, stereotypes. Jones says McLaughlin "strikes us as much more than a boring grind, and certainly not the product of overly ambitious and pushy parents." This sounds a lot like the thinly veiled racism sometimes directed at high-achieving minority students, especially Asian-Americans, who are sometimes portrayed as hardworking automata, capable of rote learning but not of creativity. Possibly very young kids are threatening to preconceived notions about academics in the same way non-white students are. Then there's this, from Above the Law's charming coverage of 19-year-old law student Nicole Matisse:

She's amazingly attractive. Most of those child-prodigy spelling-bee-winner types have thick glasses and an overbite.

Here child-prodigy-ism allies itself not with racism, but with sexism. Smart girls wear glasses and have bad teeth? What revolutionary insight! I'm not even going to bother linking to a pic of Danica McKellar (for like the eightieth time this week) because it should be obvious at this point that intelligence does not preclude attractiveness. Unless of course you like your women dumb.

However, for child prodigies, prejudice cuts both ways. Above the Law also links to the story of Kiwi Camara, who entered Harvard Law School at 16. While there, he used a racial slur in course outlines he posted to a Harvard website. Oddly, he also posted a disclaimer on the outlines warning that they might contain racially offensive content. He later said,

I didn't know what particular offensive terms I might have used. And at the same time, my thought process was, 'Look I've composed my notes. I don't have a perfect knowledge of what's in them, but I know that I, as a 1L, would find them useful. I know that occasionally offensive things slip into my private work, so why don't I warn people that if you would be offended by such things, don't look.'

He also said that he had experienced discrimination because, "I'm Filipino in the United States. The first school I attended was a Jewish school and I'm not Jewish." Camara's course outlines were removed from the web, and he was the subject of protests when he later gave a talk at Yale.

Camara's notes revealed racism, but his words also showed a lack of sophistication. If he had gone to high school (which he skipped) or attended college with other students his age, he might have learned that the language he used was unacceptable. At the very least, he might have learned that if your notes need a disclaimer because racial slurs "occasionally slip into" them, you probably shouldn't be posting them online. There is something to be said for being socialized with a peer group, even if this group can't match your level of academic achievement.

Being a prodigy often means being mature in one way but not others. It means being judged before you have much practice with the judges of the world, and sometimes it means getting a public voice before you are wise enough to deserve it. I'm still a little jealous of all the time being a child prodigy gives you (imagine being done with grad school at 21!), but I'm no longer jealous of the fame.

Teen Prodigy: Smart Enough to Go To Law School at 19, Dumb Enough to Go To Law School [Above the Law]
Prodigy Watch: The Next Kiwi Camara? [Above the Law]
Kiwi Camara Fights the RIAA One More Time [Above the Law]
Outline Sparks Race Controversy [Harvard Law Record]
A Tale Of A Law School Bound Teenager [Wall Street Journal]

Earlier: Precocious Youngsters: Should Kids Just Be Kids?
The Only Thing Worse Than Adult Foodies: Their Kids