Education in a Democracy
To the Editor:
Professor Bettelheim, in his article on “Sputnik and Segregation” (October), states that “all too often the same people who insist that all men are equal (and hence fight against segregation according to race) claim just as heatedly that some are more equal—and hence demand a different type of schooling for the gifted.”
If the fight against segregation is based on the belief that “all men are equal,” it surely is lost. Men are not equal. Reasonable people oppose segregation because it involves an irrelevant discrimination—an inequality that is unwarranted. I discriminate among my students. I give good grades to those who do good work, etc. . . . And my discrimination is justified insofar as it is relevant; it would be objectionable if irrelevant—if, e.g., I handed out grades according to race or religion. Now the distinction between gifted and ungifted is educationally relevant. Therefore one may oppose irrelevant discrimination (e.g. racial discrimination in schools) just because one favors relevant discrimination (e.g. higher tasks set for the more gifted—which implies separation). Professor Bettelheim sees an inconsistency only because he seems to feel that all discrimination is bad—which is absurd.
Professor Bettelheim goes on to say that the gifted, in his observation, are better off—they develop more originality—when not separated from the less gifted. I have not noted that the separation which is made early in Europe has led to less individualism and original thought than in America where no such separation takes place. . . . Most observers agree that giving the gifted child no higher tasks than the ungifted child has not led to originality and independence. On the contrary . . . the non-separation compels the gifted to compete with the ungifted in terms shaped by the latter!
Finally, Professor Bettelheim raises the specter of the European class system, perpetuated in his opinion through the multiple-track educational system. . . . He forgets to mention that it was not the separation of gifted from ungifted that might have led to greater differences in opportunity than exist in the United States, but the very simple fact that the children of the lower classes in Europe could not afford extended schooling. The son of the worker, gifted or ungifted, had to go to work: not so in the United States, where most children can afford to graduate from high school. Separate curricula would result not in a division of social classes, but in adapting the teaching to the differently gifted children.
Perhaps [an acceptable] case could be made against the separation of the gifted from the less gifted children. . . . But Professor Bettelheim has not made it.
Ernest van den Haag
New York City
To the Editor:
The two problems so lightly lumped together in Bruno Bettelheim’s article are really quite unrelated. . . . The [only] problem that is at issue is whether we should provide special education for all the gifted children, regardless of race, creed, national origin. . . .
Now it is well known that children differ in mental ability, in rate of growth, emotional makeup, religious beliefs, home cultural background, and in scores of other ways. It is in the essence of democracy that these differences are not permitted to give unfair political advantage to any group of citizens over any other group. However, the existence of these wide individual differences among children inevitably requires that we individualize instruction to meet those different developmental needs. Our democratic ideal, therefore, recognizes the different potentials of different children by offering each child the opportunity for maximum development of his capabilities.
Professor Bettelheim opposes special and separate education for the gifted as a divisive measure that isolates them from their peers. But he proposes that we provide special schools for the underprivileged from ages five to seven, to try to overcome the preliminary disadvantages from which they suffer. However, does anyone believe that even if all underprivileged five-year-olds could be brought up to the average level of their peers by age seven (and this is questionable) they would thenceforth progress at the same rate? Or that this two-year preparation period would wipe out all the individual differences of mental ability, health, growth, physical development; of emotional and social adjustment; of home environment and economic deprivation? Of course not. The fact is that as soon as these children are thrown together, some will inevitably forge ahead, while others, quite as inevitably, lag behind. Is it proposed that we lock-step all children regardless of their individual capacities and needs and compel them to travel together at the rate of the slowest among them? . . . The facts show that gifted children exposed to “easy” education develop poorly. Unmotivated, some become bored and turn into disciplinary problems. Many, including large numbers of our most talented high school graduates, acquire poor attitudes toward learning in general and lose ambition for higher education, as numerous studies have revealed. What we need is the utmost in individualized instruction and guidance. . . .
Here in New York City we are trying to solve the problem in many ways. One of these is the special experimental program at Junior High School 43, Manhattan, organized for the purpose of identifying and developing the talented among the “underprivileged” portion of the population. These youngsters are getting special training and special guidance in a program that extends right through the senior high school. A concentrated effort is being made to achieve the highest educational function of our democracy—to develop each child to the highest level of his potential.
We recognize the need for special educational programs for the slow learner, the physically handicapped, the newly arrived immigrant, the child who wishes to learn a vocation. Nor does anyone seem to object to the special facilities provided for them. Why become alarmed when it is proposed to provide special educational facilities for the gifted, who have been the most neglected members of our schools? We must put an end to the waste of human talent represented by them. . . .
Alexander Taffel Principal
The Bronx High School of Science
New York City