There is no topic that brings out the fire-breathing dragon in parents as gifted education. One of my most brilliant colleagues, Michael Skube, once wrote a column about gifted children that sparked an overwhelming outcry.
At the time, I was not writing about education but sat near Michael in the features newsroom and listened in amazement as he talked unhappy caller after caller down off the ledge. The fact that I can still recall a 1996 column speaks to his talents as a both a writer and a provocateur.
Michael was an intellectual in the world of journalism. As a young writer, he won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He was a noted book reviewer and now is also an academic. He is a professor at Elon.
I have had several conversations in the last few weeks about gifted education. Those talks led me to dig up Michael’s column, which I am sharing here. (He also wrote a followup piece about the parents of gifted children in his north Fulton neighborhood that almost provoked his public stoning: Among his observations: Parents pine for the TAG label. They are infatuated by giftedness for its own sake, much in the way of people who have always been on the outside looking in.)
But here is the column that I promised:
By 7:45 a.m. the line of vans and Volvos stretches almost to the street, and the little Galileos are reporting for duty. If they are not out-and-out geniuses, they are the next best thing. They are “gifted.” It is not enough that they be like the kids in Lake Wobegon, above average and for the most part happy. They must wear a tag. In fact, TAG is what it’s called. It is the acronym for the “talented and gifted programs in the public schools.
I would have thought the entire school was in TAG. Every child I was meeting seemed to be among the gifted, another prodigy brought forth from the fertile fields of north Fulton County. Elsewhere, season upon season might bring crop failure, but in the suburbs giftedness flowers. It does make you wonder.
Out of curiosity, I drew up two lists. In one column I wrote the names of my children’s friends who were in TAG. Within a minute I had written a dozen names. In the other column I wrote the names of those who were not. I came up with exactly two – children who, for what it’s worth, are winning in every way and bright to boot.
I hadn’t been aware that brilliance was in such abundance. Certainly its producers, the parents for whom TAG is a Holy Grail, keep it under wraps. Not that they are dolts, but they would not strike you as anything more than garden-variety intelligent either. They are ordinary people of ordinary achievement, with a sometimes desperate need to claim something extraordinary in their lives. And so the child in TAG carries the burden of the parents’ expectations.
If I seem skeptical about this business of gifted and talented children, it’s closer to the truth to say I’m ambivalent. All parents want the best courses and best teaching for their children. The public schools, by gearing the curriculum to the lowest common denominator, have made parents only more anxious to get their children into programs like TAG.
At the same time, a loony egalitarianism has tarred academic tracking as “elitist.” Charles Willie, a professor of education at Harvard, has declared that public education should not seek excellence but adequacy, and should value singing and dancing as much as “communication and calculation.”
That’s precisely the problem. Influenced by the Willie worms of the education bureaucracy, many schools are headed in the direction of know-nothingism. It’s hard to question parents who want their children to leave school knowing something more than the Macarena.
But if exceptional intelligence is an attribute like any another, then you should expect a corresponding number of morons. Alas, these don’t seem to be in evidence. Just the gifted. Talk to some people in public education and they will tell you all children are gifted. This is just silly. If everyone’s gifted, no one is. But set that aside. The larger point is the pernicious notion that the child as he is somehow is not enough.
Children, like adults, are talented in various ways. But the genuinely gifted will always be few, and not always luckier for having those gifts. Most are just children, a large number of whom have more than ample intelligence but not always intellectual curiosity. The one does not always imply the other, and, given a choice, a person is better to be blessed with curiosity than with extreme intelligence
But you don’t hear those parents talking about intellectual curiosity, perhaps because they don’t possess much of it themselves. They are enamored more of an impossibly vague concept they construe to mean extraordinary gifts. It is seldom admitted that those gifts are supposed to reflect well on parents.
What they in fact reflect is nothing more than the insecurity of the parent. I was a beneficiary of a rigidly stratified tracking system, though not in grade school, and I’m not sure a single person in our class was truly gifted. And no one called us that, although several of our wittier classmates had the reputation.
I remember a demanding geometry teacher who was less impressed with us than we were with ourselves. He had left a folder on his desk and someone pried into it enough to know it contained tantalizing information. Pressed by a group of sophomores to disclose who was top dog in the top class, he opened the folder and, as if to sober us up, said matter-of-factly, “There are a lot of good people in here, but nobody’s really up there. It’s what you do with what you got.”
A pall fell over the room – it’s in the nature of sophomores, perhaps, to think too well of themselves. Here was a heartless man telling us that genius was not in our midst, but that any of us could do what we set our minds to doing. We were, in other words, good enough, which turned to be more than enough.
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog