My 8 Year-Old is Top College Student. Now what? – Ask John #10

“My 8 year old son is in college and at the top of his math class”

Hi Mr. Gatto,

I hope you will excuse the brashness of my title but I was hoping to catch your attention. I am sure you get thousands of emails a day, and hence my flashy email to try and grab your attention about my son.


Before I begin, may I say that it is an honor to be able to communicate with one of the greatest minds on education. I attribute a lot of my current situation with my son to your teachings. I have read most of your books and hence our reason for homeschooling.

As I write this email we sit at a crossroads. My son entered junior college at age eight and has now successfully completed intermediate algebra and geology, both with 4.0 GPA. He also received the highest marks in the math class. His average for geology was 106% before he wrote his final exam.


That being said, my husband has decided that we should leave this route because my son is getting too caught up in his grades. The argument is that if we put him in 3rd grade, he would still stress about his grades. I could go into so much more detail.


I simply would love your take on where to go from here? His math professor, while disappointed that he won’t be pursuing college, has agreed to tutor him privately. My husband wants us to focus on a Socratic teaching style which is what I will be trying to delve into this year.


Your insight would be so greatly appreciated! All this being said, we have kept his identity under wraps as much as possible. Being in college, we have TV shows and newspapers approach us but we have reneged on all. I would appreciate your privacy on this issue.

Please don’t feel as if you have to return an email. I realize you have extremely important issues to address. To the world he is just a boy but to me this boy is my world.


Best Regards,

Concerned Mama



Dear Concerned Mama,


On the 10th reading of your letter, I detected the piece I suspected was missing on the first nine reads. Your husband and you disagree a bit about whether the road which took your precocious eight year old to college over a decade earlier than nature would have seen him there is the right path to continue upon.


Let me start by asking you a semi-rhetorical question: Does an education for the little bookworm matter as much, or more, to you than success in schooling? Think for a minute before answering, because the triumph of the little fellow against much older kids, and its attendant media attention must be very satisfying––as you say, “Making my world.” But, what of his world? Has he any other accomplishments besides grades? Skill at sports? Endless curiosity about the natural world or the built environment? Does he understand why Muslims behead us? Can he play a musical instrument? Is he outstandingly compassionate? Courageous or cowardly? What are his ambitions; not yours, his? Does he speak a second or third language?

If you think of success in school as being good at doing the WILL OF OTHERS, then hasn’t he already mastered that trick, and what would it prove or gain him if he duplicated the same trick over and over?


Very little. For the balance of his life almost none of the challenges he will face will yield to paper/pencil tests. I don’t mean to be cruel, but the missing piece in this presentation is, where you, your hubby, and an anonymous math teacher have a say, where does the nameless eight year old get to speak? What does he want to do?


Unless he is sexually precocious, socially bold, confident, and adventurous, it is highly dubious if college has anything of worth to offer him; he would be preyed upon, exploited, and marginalized by older students, perhaps dangerously; what self-respecting co-ed would respect the attention of an eight year old boy?

Without knowing you, I think your son has had enough of SCHOOL––of doing what others expect; he is ready for an EDUCATION, for setting his own goals and devising methodologies to achieve them, for evaluating his own work, for competing with himself, not others.

Doing well in school, Concerned Mama, is not the way first class universities decide to admit; accomplishments, not grades earned by being obedient, are the standard of excellence in the real world. Ask your kid what road HE wants to follow; you can help, so can dad, by analyzing candidly his weakest points and advising strategies to confront those weaknesses; conversely, inventory his strengths (ignore test-taking success) and imagine strategies to make them stronger.


It would help him, too, I think, if he saw his mom pursue ambitions of her own and not live totally through him. You are proud of him, fine; make him proud of you––he needs an inspiration from his mom, not a fan.




John Taylor Gatto

State Teacher of the Year, New York, 1991

City Teacher of the Year, New York City, 1989-91

“The World’s Most Courageous Teacher”

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