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A Perpetual Student Pursues Education to the Nth Degree

Posted: 2008-06-08

from Chronicle of Higher Education
http://chronicle.com/daily/2008/06/3134n.htm?utm_source=at&utm_medium=en


Benjamin B. Bolger's story seems like a hoax. At age 32, he says, he has just earned his 11th advanced degree: a doctorate that Harvard University awarded him on Thursday.



He distributed a news release for the occasion, proclaiming himself the most credentialed person "in modern history." The release lists 10 master's degrees, in various disciplines, from Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Columbia (two), Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Brandeis, and Skidmore—as well as 14 other colleges where he has taught in the past decade.



Mr. Bolger's unlikely story has another twist: He is dyslexic. He titles his tale "The Boy Who Couldn't Read Gets a Doctorate from Harvard."



Proud but winsome, Mr. Bolger is an education addict—and his résumé is real.



"I don't think he's looking for trophies to put on his mantelpiece," says Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College. "I just think he had a childish—in the very best sense of the word—interest in everything."



After finishing an associate degree at Muskegon Community College and a bachelor's at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mr. Bolger went on to earn a master's or two a year, while his mother read aloud his assignments and transcribed his essays. He has studied sociology, education, and real estate, among other subjects, and juggled a few teaching jobs at a time.



"I'm kind of an intense person," Mr. Bolger says. "I guess not kind of. I am an intense person."



In part, he is defying the low expectations he says teachers had of him as a child. And he is driven by a keen sense of mortality.



When he was two years old, his family car was struck by a drunken driver. The accident nearly killed his parents and left them physically disabled. "I saw life as being very short," Mr. Bolger says, "and I wanted to make the most of it."



Caring for his father, who suffers from a malignant brain tumor, slowed his progress on his doctorate, from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. But Mr. Bolger kept at it, writing his dissertation on public participation in large-scale construction projects like Boston's Big Dig. As of now, he has six more master's or doctoral degrees pending—in fields like higher-education administration, international development, and organizational dynamics. This fall he will take a yearlong job as a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the College of William and Mary.



And after that? "I'm very tempted to find a tenure-track position," says Mr. Bolger, who aspires to be a college president. At the same time, he is attracted to politics and public service. "I'm trying to decide which direction to go," he says.



'A Dyslexic Doogie Howser'



Mr. Bolger was an unusually curious baby, says his mother. When he started school, he would begin the year in gifted programs but struggle to read and end up in special education. He was diagnosed as dyslexic in first grade, and his family moved around Michigan trying various public and private schools. In fourth grade, Mr. Bolger says, his progress hit a wall, and his mother, Loretta J. Bolger, decided to homeschool him.



The retired teacher took her son to museums and historical sites. She never allowed him to think that he wasn't smart, says Kay Howell, a co-founder of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute, a service organization. When he was 12, Mr. Bolger began taking classes at Muskegon Community College. He considered himself "a dyslexic Doogie Howser," he says.



At 17, Mr. Bolger transferred to the University of Michigan, where he majored in sociology and finished his bachelor's degree in two years. He listened to textbooks on tape whenever he could and requested special accommodations in his courses: computer-based exams, for example, and extra time for assignments. When he graduated, he moved to Washington for an internship in the press office of the Clinton White House. Then he started law school at Yale University.



The volume of reading there overwhelmed him, and the techniques he had developed to manage his dyslexia didn't hold up. After a semester and a half and a few failing grades, Mr. Bolger left Yale. He began an intensive instructional program for students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. Then, intrigued by the University of Oxford's tutorial system, he moved to England.



His mother went with him, serving as his reader and scribe in a master's program in sociology. "As a mother," she says, "it's one's responsibility to nurture a child."



Mr. Bolger thrived at Oxford and was accepted to a doctoral program there, as well as a master's program at the University of Cambridge. "When I was contemplating which do I turn down," he says, "it occurred to me that that may not be necessary." But after completing the Cambridge master's, he became restless and enrolled in Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.



Then Mr. Bolger's crusade began in earnest. After the master's at Stanford, he started another one in education at Columbia University, where he was attracted to the program's focus on politics. He became interested in how property taxes finance public education, and he picked up another master's in real estate.



"I don't know if there's any secret Ben Bolger strategy beyond a lot of hard work," he says. Over the past decade, he has spent about 10 hours a day studying and five teaching. He has worked as an adjunct instructor or a teaching assistant at one college in California, three in New York, and 10 in Massachusetts. He also taught a few online courses for the University of Phoenix. "By a few," Mr. Bolger says, "I mean about 50."



The jobs helped to finance his tuition—and made him feel as if he was giving back, he says. Where he saw gaps in his knowledge, he pursued more master's degrees.



"He came to Skidmore very unassuming," says Mr. Solomon, the psychology professor. "He wanted the opportunity to explore certain questions."



As part of Skidmore's program in liberal studies, Mr. Bolger chose an independent study in psychological trauma, for which Mr. Solomon suggested five to 10 books. "Ben sent me back a list, four pages single spaced. It had to have 10 times what I had proposed," Mr. Solomon says. "I was like, 'Hey, it's your nickel, man. You'll probably be in this program for a few years just doing this course.' And he did it in one summer."



Mr. Bolger listens to some books aloud—from live readers or as digital audio files—and others he skims. "He has a really fine eye for extracting critical details from very difficult texts," says Mr. Solomon. Mr. Bolger dictates most compositions, and his mother, girlfriend, a volunteer, or a hired stenographer types them.



A few of his professors contacted for this article did not know Mr. Bolger was dyslexic. "I'm still a slow reader, and I'm still a tremendously horrible speller," he says. "But I've found out ways to become gradually more independent."



With his finely honed strategies, Mr. Bolger mines master's programs for all he can. When he pays by the semester, rather than the course, he banks credits and transfers—but never double counts—them, he says.



"If you can take an unlimited number of credits ... then why not?" he asks. "I like to take advantage of the resources that are there. What's the alternative? Go home and eat pizza and watch a rerun of Knight Rider?"



Cheating Time



Mr. Bolger hardly sleeps. "You really can, psychologically, just will yourself into staying awake," he says. He usually gets four hours of sleep a night—between midnight and 4 a.m.—and he encourages others to give up at least two. "It's good, trust me," he says. "You'll find that you end up doing a lot more."



Mr. Bolger also figured out a few years ago that he could save an hour by eating just one (big) meal a day. But that didn't turn out to be such a good strategy, he says. He gained 140 pounds.



He has lost some of the weight, and his quest to cheat time continues. "Even when I am so-called relaxing," he says, "I tend to overschedule myself."



Some of his students have noticed. Several comments about Mr. Bolger on RateMyProfessors.com, from apparent students at Boston University, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, say he habitually canceled classes or cut them short. "He actually had his mother come show a movie every Thursday!" wrote someone from the University of Massachusetts.



Mr. Bolger offers a careful explanation. His mother was also an adjunct instructor, he says, at Suffolk University. "There were one or two occasions when I did want to show a video," he says. "I may have asked her to show that, but it was in the context of her being a professor."



Other former students have raved about Mr. Bolger. He drew them out and challenged them to think critically, says Darrell Penta, who took three courses with Mr. Bolger at the University of Massachusetts. "It's like this magic powder sprinkled on the class," Mr. Penta says in an interview. "You know that you've learned something." A couple of professors at Harvard, where Mr. Bolger was a peripatetic teaching fellow, remember that their students loved him. He won several teaching awards that were based on student evaluations there.



Official Fan Club



Mr. Bolger presents himself with characteristic flair. He loves telling stories, especially about his brushes with fame, but he puts people at ease, says Mr. Penta. "He isn't the kind of guy who would say, 'When I was at Harvard,' 'When I was at Oxford,' 'When I was at Stanford.'"



As he wrote his dissertation, Mr. Bolger was a model student, says Jerold S. Kayden, professor of urban planning and design at Harvard. "He was fully and completely open to criticism, taking it in the best possible spirit, taking it seriously, and reworking what he had done," Mr. Kayden says.



Sidney Verba, a professor of government at Harvard who served on Mr. Bolger's dissertation committee, was stunned to learn that he had so many degrees. "You've got to be kidding me," he said. "Good grief."



But the same Mr. Bolger tirelessly accumulates markers of status. In addition to the degrees from brand-name institutions, he has collected hundreds of photos of himself with politicians and celebrities. His personal Web site includes pictures with Al Gore, John Kerry, Lance Armstrong, MC Hammer, and Dr. Ruth.



Mr. Bolger also started his own fan club on Facebook. Two groups of students had done so already, he explains: "I decided that I had to create an official one, so I could have some oversight."



The official fan club has 79 members, but Paul Marzagalli is not among them. "God bless him, I think he's a great guy," says Mr. Marzagalli, a former classmate at Boston College. "But I would never ever join a fan club started by its subject."



Thomas J. Linneman thinks he knows why some people are taken aback by Mr. Bolger. Reviewing the multiple-degree-earner's résumé prompted the chairman of the sociology department at William and Mary to reflect. "We're supposedly idealistically in this business because we're lifelong learners," he says. "Why am I not pursuing another degree?"



Mr. Bolger's path may be enviable—or excessive.



He compares himself to an automobile enthusiast who drives a Bentley but lusts after an Aston Martin. That, he says, is how he feels about learning. "I'm constantly aware of other options," he says. "I've taken it to an extreme, but there's nothing unhealthy in being well educated."



Following is a list of Mr. Bolger's graduate degrees.



* University of Oxford (1997, M.Sc., sociology)

* University of Cambridge (1998, M.Phil., sociology and politics of modern society)

* Stanford University (2000, A.M., education)

* Columbia University (2001, M.A., politics and education)

* Columbia University (2002, M.S., real-estate development)

* Harvard University (2002, M.Des.S., real estate)

* Brown University (2004, M.A., development studies)

* Dartmouth College (2004, M.A., liberal studies)

* Brandeis University (2007, M.A., coexistence and conflict)

* Skidmore College (2007, M.A., liberal studies)

* Harvard University (2008, D.Des., design)

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