Fitting In Academically

My heart goes out to a 19-year-old Northwestern Law student, whose story appeared in the Orange County Register. Kate McLaughlin graduated from UC San Diego at the age of 17, and apparently is wicked smart but has difficulty relating to other people her age. This is the most telling bit, I think, which maybe won’t seem as heartbreaking to other readers of the Orange County Register:

But to say McLaughlin’s life has been easy – or that her parents haven’t struggled to raise a child who was constantly bored with school and couldn’t relate to her peers – would be to dismiss the painstaking, lonely path that McLaughlin has chartered.

She has been burdened all her life with finding a place that would fulfill her insatiable quest for knowledge, a learning environment where she wouldn’t feel like an intellectual oddity.

The Register lists McLaughlin’s academic indices—her LSAT score, her UCSD GPA, her IQ—just as you’d expect. I’m a middle-class SoCal-er from a neighborhood not unlike a lot of Orange County. This fetishization of scores is familiar to me. So is the idea that someone would compare an English major who’s an avid reader and writes a webcomic, and is headed to law school because of a passion for social justice, to Doogie Howser. But what is even more familiar to me are those two sentences I quoted above: the sense that a “painstaking, lonely path” where you “feel like an intellectual oddity” are less significant than the grades and scores and how quickly you move through a prescribed curriculum and move on to law school. It sounds like McLaughlin didn’t find a way to fit in at UCSD, and she didn’t find the work challenging/stimulating enough. I know a little about UCSD, and that doesn’t necessarily surprise me. I hope she’ll find a better environment at Northwestern, but at the risk of stereotyping about law school, I worry that it would be just as lonely-making.

Now, I’m no genius. And McLaughlin is clearly very intellectually gifted. I know it’s not necessarily appropriate to compare my educational trajectory to hers, or feel as if I can relate to her situation. But as someone who was lonely and depressed and bored with school before I got to college, and as someone with an “insatiable quest for knowledge,” I hope it occurs to someone who reads the Register article, or the NYT blog post that links it, to consider what our culture does to smart kids by emphasizing their numerically-based achievements over their intellectual and emotional fulfillment.

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