“And also he hath need to repent, for I, the Lord, am not well pleased with him, for he seeketh to excel and he is not sufficiently meek before me.” D&C 58:41
“Pride is ugly. It says, ‘If you succeed, I am a failure.’” Ezra Taft Benson
When I was a kid, I longed desperately to have a photographic memory, or perfect pitch, or some other amazing parlor-trick gimmick. Having accepted that, unable to kiss my elbow, I was evidently not a fairy, I ached to show signs of prodigy-level ability in any field, it hardly mattered what. Not because I thought it would be useful, or enjoyable in itself–which it would be–but because I believed it would function effectively as God’s personal signature on my birth certificate, bestowing on me an undeniable social cachet. I could be assured that my birth was no cosmic accident, that my life was meant to be, that God and the universe had invested in me. In short, I would be special–meaning: better than other people, enough better to wow the unwashed masses. It sometimes seemed to me that in my hapless, “giftless” state, I was wandering the corridors of Planet Earth without a hall pass and with no idea how to acquire one.
Of course, indications of genius would have sufficed as well, but in the absence of any clear intellectual aptitude, by junior high and high school I had begun to throw myself into the single subject for which I felt I showed signs of promise (hoping, perhaps, that it would be enough to compensate for other failings): music. I was (and continue to be) genuinely passionate about music, but sheer enjoyment was not the only thing that drove me to lock myself away regularly for hours of meticulous, assiduous practice. Something else was goading me on as well, something the size and shape of desperation (no easy taskmaster). Music seemed to me the single buffer against a threatening tidal wave of evidence of lack of worth. By the time I’d reach college and signed up for a full course load as a music performance major, I had become terrified of skipping even an hour of practice, let alone quitting. Somewhat like the Aztecs who clung to the belief that human sacrifice was necessary for the sun to rise, I had convinced myself that my commitment to my musical abilities was essential to making the world go round. Even as it began to dawn on me that I was not entirely happy in my chosen field, I spent months paralyzed into mechanical, consistent practicing by the fear that if I gave music up, I would have nothing else. I would lose my identity.
Eventually I pulled that rug out from under myself and let the ground come up and smack me. It seemed I had to reconstruct, from the bottom up, my sense of who I was and what I valued. And I made a commitment to myself that I would no longer try to win. That I would stop needing to be good at something and simply study what interested me, enjoying the subject regardless of the grades I earned or other external sources of commendation.
I’d be lying if I said I have ever exorcised those demons entirely, although I wish I could: even as I work hard to muzzle them, their power over me still waxes and wanes, seducing me into the belief that there’s inherent value in outperforming others, that mistakes are unacceptable, that intellectual pursuits are fundamentally a type of public performance, and that redemption is to be sought in ostentatious accomplishment.
But central to the Christian message, I believe, is the idea that accomplishment can never finally be redemptive, that in the only way that matters, we are all failures and in need of grace.
Of course, not everyone lusts after gifted status the way I did or becomes self-destructively engaged in achieving it in some form. And discipline–persevering in an activity even when it is not particularly pleasurable, because of a commitment to one’s goals–is an enormously valuable trait to cultivate, provided one has examined the value of those goals to begin with. But what I’m interested in exploring here is the possibility that the manner in which we identify and approach giftedness (by which I’m thinking especially of academic ability and achievement) may ultimately have deleterious consequences.
In recent years we’ve rightly become mistrustful of terms such as “handicapped,” which reduce complex individual people to summary statements on their abilities in any particular area. In my view, the term “gifted” suffers from all the same problems in reverse. Labels can be useful but are never sufficient.
By applying the term “gifted” to certain individuals, we essentially make value judgments regarding their worth over against that of their peers. This is especially ironic since it is not at all clear to me whether children shuttled through gifted programs of various stripes ultimately contribute in any meaningful way to the community as a result (as some claim). By its very nature, giftedness sets itself up in relation and opposition to the rest of the community; it exists only in constrast to the “giftless” masses. It seems therefore to be less about using one’s talents to magnify others as it is about using others to magnify one’s talents.
Thought experiment: Virtually everyone wants to be brilliant (myself included). But to what end? Would being brilliant by our current standards be just as desirable if, through some bizarre mutation, everyone else on the planet suddenly became even more brilliant?
If I value myself for what I perceive to be my giftedness, what I appreciate most about humanity is its dullwittedness. I take pleasure not in the aesthetic satisfaction or intellectual challenge of an activity, but in the degree to which my accomplishments outstrip the rank and file. My value lies in my relative scarcity; I have everything to lose by the accomplishments of others.
If, however, I value myself for my ordinariness, I value all humanity with me.
Furthermore, gifted programs are a breeding ground for the sort of academic anxiety that can have damaging and even crippling effects. To single out individuals on the basis of their manifest abilities (and effectively to reward them with social status) is to place a premium on performance, and when public academic performance becomes more important than genuine engagement with ideas, individuals often become risk averse and disinclined to attempt activities for which success cannot be guaranteed, straightjacketing themselves by their fear of failure. Mistakes, essential to challenging intellectual exploration, are seen as universally undesirable, since they threaten one’s gifted status. Occasionally I encounter students, for example, who are virtually incapacitated by the thought of writing a paper, crushed by the belief that nothing short of brilliance is acceptable. We learn more effectively when we allow ourselves to test possibilities, to accept mistakes, and to improve on them. But gifted students sometimes become too adept at and in thrall to success; they are denied and come to deny themselves the valuable opportunities of failure.
Another concern is the way extrinsic motivation in the form of various academic laurels can easily become paramount to one’s commitment to a subject. But psychological experiments have shown that one’s enjoyment of an activity for its own sake is compromised when one is rewarded for engaging in that activity. Everyone needs validation from others–I’m certainly not suggesting we withhold praise–but idolizing achievement may deprive students of the ability to enjoy academic pursuits.
Of course, everyone has a different constellation of abilities, interests, and preferred modes for learning. Thus, when resources are available, some type of sorting mechanism is certainly desirable; children already reading novels are likely to be bored out of their skulls when subjected to tedious phonics drills.
But I wonder whether it would be possible to reorient our sorting impulses away from ability and toward interest. After all, the two interrelate in complex ways: we’re often interested in that for which we have an innate ability, or for which we’re willing to expend energy. Among other possible advantages, the pursuit of knowledge would be presented as a reward in itself. If the social status entailed by terms such as “gifted” were uncoupled from academic opportunities, ideally those who found the material too daunting would be comfortable investing in programs more suited to their current levels of interest and knowledge.
Where opportunities already exist to teach elementary school students about Homer, for example, why use standardized tests as a means of segregating those who would most benefit? Why not simply ask which students are interested in Greek fairy stories?
- 3 November 2007