Accelerating education

By | December 27, 2018

On Quora, the question-and-answer site that I’ve participated in to varying degrees over the last few years, A rather interesting query was recently posted:

My daughter is gifted and the school wants her to skip 2 grades in high school. I am worried about her being with students so much older than her. What would be best for her?

At present, there are well over 100 answers posted. However, since this is an issue of personal significance, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to add my own perspective. At the risk of redundancy, I’m going to share it here as well:

“My own answer is probably of little utility at this point given the number of other answers and the elapsed time (this was back in the late 1940s, when education was very different from now), but in the interests of catharsis, I’ll offer it anyway. I was pushed ahead from the first half of the first grade to the second half of the second grade, largely on the basis of my reading ability (I read at something like 5–6th grade level, but wasn’t all that much better at anything else except insofar as I’d absorbed a bunch of other knowledge at the time. This set me up for a subsequent school career in which I was permanently a year younger, 4 inches shorter, and 20 pounds lighter than any of my classmates. In addition, I was painfully well-behaved. Out of self-protection, I developed sorts of informal quasi-adult relationships with most of my teachers; fortunately, these were largely transparent to the other students. I largely managed to avoid being bullied, through a combination of self-effacement, negotiation, and generally being a nice guy. It could have been massively worse.

My situation was complicated by the fact that we were in the Army, and thus subject to moving. I was in five separate schools in the six years between 5th and 10th grade, which made it very difficult to have anything like regular friendships with other kids. In 9th and 10th grades in particular, I had essentially NO friends at all. During 11th grade (1958) my school system instituted what they called “rapid learner” sections of many academic courses, and I got tapped for many of them. It was in these classes that I first got acquainted with other smart kids, and formed a few connections. But it really wasn’t until I got to college that I really made “friends” in any real sense.

My mother told me in later years that if she had really understood the full consequences of moving me, she wouldn’t have allowed it. She admitted to being somewhat flattered by having a smart son. She herself had been accelerated, going to college at 16 and widely acknowledged at the time as “the smartest girl who ever came out of Aroostook County (ME)”. This led to some unresolved issues with her own mother who had previously been “TSGWECOOAC” – issues that they never really resolved over the subsequent 70 years.

Eventually, I more or less successfully weathered the whole educational process along with childhood and adolescence. (I won’t bother at this point to note the various gender-nonconforming aspects to my personality that had their own weird resolution that I’ve commented on in other answers on Quora – suffice it to say that they also played a part.) A key part of it was managing to get rejected by Harvard, which allowed me to spend four years at Reed College – the best thing that ever happened to my education. I’ve had a pretty good life all told. But there is no question that things were significantly complicated by the acceleration, and that in retrospect I would probably have been better off if it hadn’t happened. I would have taken care of my own restless educational needs through private reading and learning, as I did anyway. Another year of maturity might well have made it easier to handle the various moves, which really took an emotional toll. I never did acquire what I would call a high degree of “emotional intelligence”, although I did learn to fake it with some competence.

Only you and your daughter can decide what works for you. I hope that you can do it together; I was never consulted at all, just notified after the fact. Please listen to her carefully and respect her thoughts, obviously, she’s smart enough to warrant being involved in the decision. But do read all these cautionary Moral Tales together before you make up your mind.”

It is truly amazing the variety of human experiences shared on sites like Quora. I recommend it to all students of the Human Comedy. I would strongly recommend it to aliens seeking to understand human beings, although I would definitely forgive them if the consequence of that exploration was a desire to sterilize the earth completely.


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