I support the educational principle so many mothers defend on the thread, namely, that every child deserves an appropriately engaging and challenging education. That ought to be our ideal, difficult or impossible as it is in underfunded public-school classrooms with overworked and underpaid teachers and staff.
But one of my reservations about giftedness, and about the kind of advocacy the Segullah thread describes, is the social Darwinism that inevitably emerges, in which every parent fights the system for her child’s particular needs, allied with other parents only insofar as their children’s needs coincide. (Advocacy for special-needs children has precisely the same effect.) Parents of course owe their own children something they owe no others. And those urging advocacy are correct that if parents don’t advocate for their own children, likely no one will. However, the advocacy model, and the adversarial approach to the schools it arises from and perpetuates, eviscerates educational community. If we Mormons treated our church communities in this way—with concern only for our own—they would fall apart.
As middle-class parents with the time, energy, and know-how to advocate for their children get those children’s needs met by insisting on testing and enrichment and special programs, or by pulling their children out of the schools altogether, they leave fewer and fewer resources to the children whose parents do not or cannot advocate for them. Advocacy—especially intense, prolonged advocacy to remake a classroom or a school in favor of one’s child—inevitably comes at the expense of the children who do not share that child’s needs. Commenters at Segullah repeatedly insist that they are not advocating that their child receive more than other children, or that advocating for their children actually benefits all children. But I think such comments implicitly assume an educational utopia of limitless resources, when in reality, limited resources and overwhelmed teachers too often make educational advocacy a zero-sum game. And when resources are so limited, I tend to think that gifted children with such immense parental resources at their disposal need those resources the least.
But I see other problems with giftedness. I think there are some generally unacknowledged realities that underlie the entire phenomenon, and if we’re going to think about giftedness clearly, we need to acknowledge those realities. Here, in my view, are some of them.
(1) In our culture, “gifted” is unquestionably better than “average” or “mainstream,” which in turn is better than “learning disabled.” (If you doubt me, imagine the effects of announcing that your child is gifted and announcing that your child is learning disabled. Which announcement will garner congratulations or competitive hostility, and which will garner sympathy?) When we label a child “gifted,” we are in essence telling her that she is better than other children, better because of her intellectual capacity. We shouldn’t be in the least surprised when gifted children are arrogant or superior or overidentified with the gifted label or unwilling to take educational risks that might jeopardize it. In conferring the label and all the cultural values that underlie it, these are the ways we are teaching a child to behave. It’s really unfair to the arrogant gifted child to turn around and disapprove of precisely the socially unappealing behavior that we are subtly instilling.(As is so often the case, we’re teaching children a complicated social dance. We’re teaching them to think they are better than others but not to acknowledge that they think that.)
(2) We cannot evade the uncomfortable reality of (1) in such euphemisms as “different learning styles.” We all know that some differences are better than others, and anyone who invites children to identify the “smart” [class/track/program] at their school and the “dumb,” will find that any child with a modicum of social intelligence can perform this task with unerring and pitiless brilliance.
(3) As a label for human beings, “gifted” suffers from all the same problems that “retarded” does. Parents of and advocates for children with autism or Down syndrome have tirelessly advocated for people-first language, and argued against such reductive labels. What we sometimes struggle to see is that labels we consider positive, such as gifted, are just as reductive. We can’t have it both ways. If we don’t like the label “retarded” (I myself don’t), why should we like the label “gifted”?
(4) Just as children know who’s smart and who’s dumb and which it’s better to be, children are little geniuses at decoding their parents’ values and expectations, particularly unstated expectations. So I think we have to have a certain healthy skepticism about claims that a four-year-old just really, naturally prefers memorizing the history of sociology to playing with her My Little Ponies. No one, least of all a child dependent for his very life on his parents, is such a radical individual that the desires and expectations of others have no effect on him.
(5) Giftedness, as presently constituted (1), is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Giftedness says some children are better than others, that value is proportional to scarcity, that only a few can be the brilliant, shining stars. The gospel says that we are all beloved children of a God who is no respecter of persons, and that we all have gifts. But more to the point, giftedness says that gifts belong to—in fact, constitute the value of—the gifted person, while the gospel says that gifts come from God, for the benefit of the community—not for the enhancement of the gifted person’s ego.
In short, I see no way around the conclusion that giftedness is a form of pride.
So what’s a parent who of course wants the best for her child to do? I have no idea. I think every parent has to make very hard judgment calls about the points at which a child needs to learn to conform to institutional expectations, and points at which those expectations become too much to bear. Every parent has to choose from an array of imperfect educational alternatives. I certainly wouldn’t condemn a parent simply because she put her child in a gifted program, for example. But I think we owe it to our children to question the assumptions on which gifted programs so unquestioningly rest.
We could use a lot more of the careful critical thinking—thinking of which the gifted are allegedly so capable!—about the concept of giftedness itself.
- 6 September 2009