Friday, December 15, 2006


Prodigies, Policies, and Policing

My college was built on the assumption that the students would be at least 18 (or 17 with a late birthday). My college is not unique in this. We've bent the rule from time to time to allow some particularly strong high school students to take a class here and there, with generally positive results. We're even moving in the direction, with some of the school districts, of regularizing a flow of high school seniors to take afternoon classes with us, in hopes of fending off 'senioritis.' We've also started working with local homeschoolers of high school age, offering courses like Spanish or chemistry, again with generally positive results.

Now we're starting to get calls about 8-year-olds. Literally. For regular courses, not special summer programs for kids or swim lessons.

This worries me.

Subject matter, oddly enough, is the least of my concerns. The prepubescent applicants tend to cluster in math, science, and music, where the subject matter generally isn't R-rated. If a kid is capable of making differential equations do handstands, bully for him. It's all the other stuff that worries me.

Most of our internal policies and procedures are based on the assumption that we're dealing with students directly, rather than through their parents. With the 18-and-up crowd, this makes sense. With 8-year-olds, it really doesn't.

We don't have a “dropoff and pickup area.” We don't allow parents in classes with their kids, unless the parents have also registered (and paid for) the class. Our counselors are not trained in pediatric disorders. Our medical staff does not include a pediatrician. We don't act in loco parentis. Our professors, with some exceptions, have not been trained in child or adolescent psychology, or in the learning styles characteristic of children. We don't have the security measures in place that elementary schools do to protect children against predators. We have an open campus – if they don't have to park, anybody can come to campus and just wander around. We don't have separate restrooms for children. We don't have the staff to provide bodyguards. We are not physically capable of 'lockdown mode.' We simply have not organized ourselves for the physical protection of young children, because that was not who we were designed to serve.

Add to that the general coarseness of much informal student conversation, much of which I would not advise anybody to let a young child hear. And we absolutely cannot go around policing private conversations among students, other than the usual prohibitions against threats of violence.

I've suggested that we offer access to online courses, where the subject matter makes sense, so the child could still be under the physical supervision of his parents while getting the intellectual stimulation of college-level work. There are times when that can work, but certain subjects just don't lend themselves easily (certain upper-level math, where notation is the issue) or at all (music performance, some lab sciences).

We've received legal advice to the effect that we can't do anything that smacks of 'age discrimination,' whether on the high end (mandatory retirement) or the low end (a minimum age to take classes). This strikes me as absolute madness. Young children are not just shorter adults. They have different needs, and require different kinds of support, than we can offer.

Normally, I'm in favor of offering talented students all the academic challenge they can handle. I'm just not convinced that throwing the child prodigy into an institution built entirely for adults is the way to do that. God forbid, one kid gets abducted, and the whole thing comes crashing down. I say set a minimum age of, say, 16, and take our chances in the courts. I don't want to be the one on the stand explaining to the nice judge why we don't have hidden cameras in the study carrels or bathrooms, or why nobody stopped the sex offender from enrolling in the same class as the 9 year old.

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