How Educate the Gifted Child?
The Problem of Precocity
One of the biggest headaches in American education is the child who learns too well too quickly. He presents problems to society, to the schools, and to his parents.
Society’s eager misunderstanding of the question was illustrated for me not long ago at a lecture by a prominent educator who was lamenting the waste to our nation and the world caused by our failure to use fully the powers of our gifted children. In a rhetorical flight, he invoked Mozart: if only our schools could do their job, they would turn out Mozarts every year. Everybody nodded approval. But this was nonsense. We may lose a Mozart once a century, but not more; that’s all there are.
Much of what follows is summarized from two excellent works, a monograph by Havighurst, Stivers, and DeHaan, A Survey of the Education of Gifted Children, and a compilation edited by Paul Witty, The Gifted Child. The first is directed to the general reader, and the second, though written for teachers and administrators, is largely in non-technical language. More popular books, such as Theodore Hall’s, or Cutts’ and Moseley’s, are likely to give an incomplete and not altogether accurate picture. The reader interested in college acceleration for gifted children should also consult the so-called Andover Report1.
How shall we define a gifted child? The term is inconveniently comprehensive; it may cover anything from Einstein down to your children and mine, who, let us admit, are closer to average.
There are all kinds of gifts. There is extraordinary athletic ability, about which we need not worry, since it is sought out and rewarded extravagantly by school and college and society. There is unusual skill with tools and machines, which our educational system, following our social pattern, foolishly relegates to a position clearly inferior in general esteem. There is unusual ability in the arts, which is hard to assess accurately, since clever aping of adult mannerisms can so often simulate precocity. There are unusual powers of social leadership, of managing practical affairs and other people: when a child possesses these little understood talents, he may not be trained or rewarded by his school (except that some colleges try to select a freshman class composed entirely of “leaders”), but he has every incentive to develop them, since they bring him approbation from his fellows in school and money or power in later life. And there is general high academic ability that manifests itself in either general or specific academic accomplishment. This last is what everyone is talking about, and it is measured or estimated with the concept known as the “IQ.”
The IQ (“intelligence quotient,” a ratio between “mental age” and chronological age) is arrived at by one of the many standardized tests for mental age, the best known of which is the Stanford-Binet. According to the Stanford-Binet scale, 95-105 is “normal.” An IQ of 125 or 130 is considered “gifted,” and 155 or so is generally considered the dividing line between “gifted” and “highly gifted” or “genius.”2 It is estimated, or guessed, that something like 7 per cent of Americans have IQ’s above 125 on the Binet scale; 3 per cent are above 135; 1 per cent are above 140; about one-quarter of 1 per cent are above 160; and only one or two in a million reach 180.
With this information, one might think he could judge his child’s rank and capacity by finding out his IQ. But this would be only a rough guess at best. In the first place, if a test other than the Stanford-Binet is used, the figures will be different. The Wechsler-Bellevue Test, for example, will give the same child a considerably lower IQ than the Stanford-Binet. There is no mass test strictly comparable to the individual Stanford-Binet; and not many schools are equipped for individual testing. And, alas, there are a few self-styled psychologists who will give a gently elastic judgment to please an ambitious parent.
In the second place, for a variety of reasons, almost all schools and most reputable testing organizations refuse to tell parents their child’s IQ. Parents are notoriously competitive about their offspring; they are also likely to use the IQ, whatever it is, as a club to extort either hard work or high marks; and since intelligence is mostly hereditary, they take their child’s IQ as a personal endorsement or affront. Parents do not usually understand the differences between a Stanford-Binet and a Wechsler-Bellevue IQ, for example, nor will they know the median IQ of their child’s classmates. Furthermore, an IQ, though ordinarily stable, can fall if the child’s emotional balance is upset. And if a very bright child is not tested young enough, his IQ on the Binet scale will give an inadequate impression of his powers.
Most teachers have learned to take the IQ with a grain of salt, recognizing it as only one of many instruments to judge a child’s potential ability. They can often gain as good an indication from standardized tests of scholastic aptitude like the Psychological Test of the American Council on Education, or the Scholastic Aptitude Test of the College Board. Though a few teachers pay no attention to IQ’s, and a few regard them as the sole criterion for separating sheep from goats, most teachers use IQ’s responsibly-realizing that all standardized tests have the dubious quality of predicting a runner’s success in the marathon from his time in the hundred-yard dash.
A high IQ, then, is a moderately good indicator of unusual intellectual ability. At least as useful to teachers (and parents) is a knowledge of general traits of gifted children, the conclusions from a vast amount of study in the past thirty or forty years, done notably by Professor Lewis M. Terman and his associates at Stanford University and Leta S. Hollingworth in New York. By now much of this information has filtered into the public consciousness and has dispelled older and erroneous notions about intellectual power and genius.
From case studies of hundreds, even thousands, of gifted children through their schooling and well into adult life, it has been possible to paint an accurate composite portrait of the gifted child. In what follows, the reader must be asked to discard his private picture of the spindly, knock-kneed, myopic, clumsy, pathologically shy near-genius, the twelve-year-old high school senior down the block. The reader without a wide, statistically significant acquaintance with gifted children must accept the composite portrait on faith; a teacher or school administrator will recognize its accuracy at once.
The gifted child may be described as just like other Children, but much more so. He is a better physical specimen than the average child. As a baby he walks and talks sooner than the others. He asks more and better questions; he cultivates his hobbies more intensely and profoundly; he reads sooner and more widely. Besides his high IQ, he has speed, a broader attention span, and more ability to generalize on his information. In school his greatest superiorities are in reading, the use of language, arithmetical reasoning, science, literature, and the arts. In arithmetical computation, spelling, and factual information his superiority is less marked. He is no more uneven in his accomplishments than the ordinary child. He is less inclined to boast, less likely to be tempted to cheat. He is more altruistic in his social attitudes. As Professor Terman observes, “There is no law of compensation whereby the intellectual superiority of the gifted tends to be offset by inferiorities along non-intellectual lines.” The gods are distinctly unfair. The gifted child is more likely than the average to be successful in adult life; he earns more; and as a final inequity he lives longer.
Thus far the unanimous judgment of the experts. There is a crumb of consolation for the average person, however, in that the highly gifted child (very roughly, one with an IQ over 155) generally fails to fulfill his extraordinary promise. That is, he is successful, but not more successful enough to set him apart from other able children. This comparative failure, tragic to society and perhaps to the individual, is thought to be due not to inherent instability (the popular notion of the madness of genius) but to the emotional costs of making peace with and a place in a slow-witted world. Here, however, the experts disagree: Professor Terman thinks that the highly gifted person is no more maladjusted than the merely gifted; Hollingworth feels that he faces “unusual hazards in personality development.”3 They agree that the optimum IQ seems to be between 125 and 155. But there is no doubt that the ordinary man’s picture of unstable, unhealthy, anti-social genius, though perhaps accurate for a few spectacular cases, is the reverse of truth for most gifted children.
With so much information available, it should be easy to identify the gifted child—even when he is very young, since intelligence tests are as reliable at six as at sixteen, or more so. There are nevertheless three social impediments to the ready discovery of such talents.
First, we must want to discover gifted children badly enough to set a whole school or a whole school system to the task. Fortunately, this is something that some school administrations are willing to do, and do efficiently. Besides school- and city-wide intelligence testing through which exceptional ability has a good chance of being detected, many schools and communities systematically survey children’s marks in their studies and their marks in achievement tests (standardized tests of subject matter, which are better indicators of aptitude than are school marks). Many schools also ask teachers to recommend unusual students for further testing. None of these devices is fool-proof, but taken together they will catch most of the gifted children and screen out most of the average. Obviously, school systems offering elaborate special treatment of gifted children must use these processes as a matter of routine. Most of the cities queried by Dr. Havighurst and his associates have such programs, and the more provision that is made for education of gifted children, in, for example, such school systems as those of Cleveland, New York, and University City, Missouri, the more careful the selection.
Yet no matter how thorough the process, it has the limitation of selecting academic ability and overlooking special gifts unless (as happens often but not always) they are accompanied by academic ability. And testing for special gifts is difficult and time-consuming. A few communities, notably Portland, Oregon, and Quincy, Illinois, have made serious and thorough attempts to test aptitudes in social leadership, the plastic arts, music, writing, and a foggy concept labeled “creativity.” These tests, however, are still experimental, elaborate, and expensive; they have to be judged by persons expert in the field being tested. But they are better than the nothing that is done almost everywhere else. Clearly, if the schools are to pay attention to the arts, they must find some way of detecting exceptional promise in order to develop it. But among all questions having to do with gifted children, this one is farthest from solution today.
The third and perhaps greatest impediment to the selection of ability is that it implies a lively desire to do something once the selection is made. And this desire does not always exist. From teachers and administrators it demands extra work and flexibility and willingness to change. From school boards and taxpayers it demands large sums of money, for, as we shall see, the education of the gifted is expensive. And from everybody it demands willingness to accept what appears to be undemocratic.
But the theory of unequal treatment for unequal talents dates back in American education at least to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated a ruthless weeding out of the unfit. Jefferson would have sent on to high school only “the best subjects,” and only “the most promising subjects” of those already winnowed would he send on to the university. A strictly equalitarian treatment for all children would require trigonometry for both morons and engineers, violin lessons for both the tone-deaf and the Menuhins, and abolition of the farm system of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Granted that special training for the unusually able should be contingent upon demonstration of that ability without reference to financial ability, and granted that such training is not without its psychological and social hazards, it should be acceptable as being efficient without being undemocratic. The question remains: what kind of training?
There are three chief answers: “enrichment,” special grouping, and acceleration. They are not mutually exclusive—in fact, we seldom find one without another—but they represent not only different teaching but different thinking.
Enrichment means adding to the curriculum other material or experiences not offered the average child—material and experiences desirable in themselves but denied the average child by his slower pace in meeting normal requirements. Enrichment, alongside the regular curriculum, is like a dog going for a walk in the country with his master. The master goes straight along the road and covers five miles; the dog covers the same road; they come home together. But in an hour and a half the dog has run, not walked, about fifteen miles, has chased two real and eleven imaginary rabbits through the brush, has investigated tantalizing openings of drains, has bristled in fear or barked in bravado at other dogs, and has scored his daily near-miss of a squirrel. He has lived a full, rich life while the master has merely walked five miles.
If educational enrichment were as easy as this, it would be universal for all who could stand the pace. It would be cheap, would not create problems of school administration, and would not gratify the gifted child’s parents and irritate his friends by ostentatiously singling him out, saving him time, or giving him extra credit. But enrichment for the child invariably involves additional work for the teacher, who, though willing, is already fully occupied. And enrichment involves teaching a class on two or more levels simultaneously, which is one of the most difficult aspects of the art.
Among various devices for enriching the regular curriculum we may mention special projects or reports on special interests, emphasis on creative or investigative work at the expense of drill (since gifted children need much less drill than their classmates to master the same material), experience in class leadership, and extensively collateral reading. A different kind of enrichment, usually requiring special or additional classes, occurs when a child is encouraged to widen his understanding of a study by experience in the fine arts, handicrafts, or industrial arts. This “lateral enrichment,” as it is called, has the great advantage of counteracting a tendency of gifted children to become too verbal or bookish. But it is often unsatisfactory for that reason: if a child is fascinated by a study, he wants more of it, not something else; and you may kill his interest by forcing on him a substitute that he ought to want but doesn’t. A third kind of enrichment is actually impoverishment: to give a gifted child extra busy-work or unnecessary drill designed to keep him out of mischief, or to use him for running errands and delivering messages, is the mark of a desperate teacher or an inferior school.
Enrichment does not imply a saving of time: the dog is no further at the end of the walk than if he had been on a leash, though he has enjoyed himself more and is a more experienced dog. But the reader will have noted a problem created, or aggravated, by the success of enrichment: at the end of the walk, by extended practice in running, the dog’s margin of superiority in speed over the man has been increased. This problem we must return to after considering one of the alternatives to enrichment.
The device of special grouping is self-explanatory. It may mean a special class once a week; or voluntary classes quite outside the school, as at the Worcester Art Museum or the Museum of Modern Art in New York; or community music projects, as in Dayton and Worcester; or separate groupings for all academic work, as in the Cleveland “Major Work Groups” described in Mr. Hall’s book; or separate schools, like Hunter College Elementary School and Bronx Science and Stuyvesant High Schools in New York.
Special grouping vastly facilitates enrichment, which is indeed its chief purpose. Though posing considerable administrative problems of selection and scheduling, it is favored by many schools that cannot otherwise help the gifted child because of crowded classes. Hence it is a device widely used in school systems of large cities. Small schools, schools in wealthy suburban communities, and private schools are less likely to use special grouping, and more likely to try to enrich their instruction of the gifted within the framework of regular classes. Of course, many private schools and suburban schools are in some measure special groupings in themselves: a majority, or all, of the children are presumed to be headed for college; they are strongly self-motivated, or at least driven by the ambitions of their parents; and a truly gifted child stands out less in this setting than he would in a more heterogeneous classroom.
Though a few special groups have as their avowed purpose the saving of children’s time (e.g., the study of three years of mathematics in two), most of them are intended only to broaden and deepen the children’s information and interests. And yet, whatever the intention, the results will eventually be the same in one significant respect; and so will the results of enrichment without special grouping. To return to the canine metaphor for a moment: the dog that always walks on a leash can run twice as fast and as far as a man; but the dog that has run unleashed at his proper pace will soon be able to run three times as fast. Whenever the dog returns to the road and runs along it, he outdistances the man in a few seconds. Whenever a gifted child from a special group returns to the standard course—at the end of elementary school, at the end of junior high school, or at the beginning of college—he is more superior to the average than when he was first singled out.
Paradoxically, the readiest way to judge the success of educational enrichment is to note whether and how much it has widened the gap between the gifted child and the average. And to attempt, at any given time, artificially to close the gap thus widened may be disastrous to the gifted child’s morale and performance. In short, since almost by definition he has a “mental age” in advance of his years and can work as if he were older than he is, it is almost impossible to teach him properly, either by enrichment within his class or by special grouping, without his being accelerated beyond his contemporaries.
The term acceleration seems to be undergoing, in educational circles, the pejorative fate common to all unpleasant words. It is not yet a dirty word like its predecessor, skipping, but educators utter it with evident distaste while admitting privately that they cannot do without it. Sensible parents have reluctantly come to believe that acceleration is a Bad Thing. Yet even those psychologists and teachers most adamant against acceleration will, in their calmer moments, confess that the question cannot be whether to accelerate but must be when and how much.
For those who think that new “acceleration” is but old “skipping” writ large, we may make a tenuous but valid distinction. Skipping is simply kicking the gifted child upstairs—with all that the phrase implies. He is a nuisance where he is: promote him. This practice has an advantage—it puts him nearer where he belongs intellectually—but many dangers. Though skipping a child through an inferior school brings the day nearer when he has a chance of more stimulating teaching in a higher school, it is a confession of an impoverished curriculum.4 And the work of the higher grade may be no more interesting to him, and hence will fail to elicit any real effort on his part. But the chief difficulty is that it is nearly impossible to advance a truly gifted child through a routine curriculum enough to meet his mental powers and academic skill without putting him completely outside his class physically, socially, and emotionally. A nine-year-old with an IQ of 135 belongs with twelve-year-olds; a twelve-year-old with the same IQ belongs with sixteen-year-olds in the sophomore or junior year of high school. The devastating effects of adequate skipping can be seen at once.
Acceleration, on the other hand, if it is not merely skipping, always implies either enrichment or special grouping, or both. It does not attempt to make the bright child “hurry up and wait,” to whisk him over a year or two of work at a pace that extends even his powers, and then set him on a higher level to revert to crawling. Skipping is like passing the car in front of you at sixty and then slowing down to twenty behind a line of trucks. Acceleration should be like driving at a steady forty-five. The accelerated child should be kept in a group maintaining a high speed, or else should be given a great deal of extra mileage to cover, through more varied scenery.
Such is the purpose of many accelerated programs, good and bad, in many schools and systems in all parts of the country. Pittsburgh permits early entry into elementary school for the gifted child; the University of Chicago Laboratory School (whose children have a median IQ of 125 to 130) does eight years of elementary schooling in seven; New York City has special schools that compress three years of junior high school into two; high school students of sufficient maturity and ability have been accepted into college at the end of their junior or even sophomore years (a process much favored by the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which has abetted it with massive scholarships); advanced standing in college courses, enriching but usually not shortening the four years, is now granted to some entering freshmen on the basis of nation-wide tests; and a program of both these last types of acceleration is being encouraged by the recommendations of the Andover Report.
If I were writing this twenty years ago, I should feel it my duty as a teacher to emphasize the dangers of acceleration. Though the gifted child is usually more robust and more mature than his average contemporary, he is not much more so. To send him through school and college a year ahead has never seemed excessive to responsible observers. But to accelerate him two, three, or four years—he can and should do the work-may harm him more than help him. Like everyone else, he longs to make the baseball team, to persuade a pretty girl to pretend to worship him, to hack around with a cheerful crowd, to achieve status not dependent on his brain (which he may even come to despise because it has deprived him of status). The gifted child suffers from all normal problems of growing up. He, especially, suffers from the “social inutility” of children. Childhood and adolescence bring him troubles enough without the added hardship of being exceptionally small and young.
All this is still true. But the case against acceleration may have been oversold to teachers and to sophisticated parents. The evidence is conflicting. There are studies5 purporting to show that boys who accelerated into and through college during the war did not suffer academically or socially. And there are studies6 vindicating the experimental early admission to college of the “Ford Babies”—winners of scholarships from the Fund for the Advancement of Education. My own observation of and conversation with such boys indicate the contrary. They say they have missed something in not being with their class, and having status in their class, through school. Though the Ford Baby girls are glad to be younger than their dates, the Ford Baby boys find it hard to get dates at all. The colleges think the experiment has been successful; but colleges, we should remember, are less sensitive than elementary and high schools to the student’s problems of adjustment. If he gets good marks, joins an extra-curricular activity or two, and does not achieve a “nervous breakdown,” the college is prone to assume he is well off.
The psychologist is happier about acceleration than is its beneficiary. Terman and Oden conclude that children of 135 IQ or higher should enter college at seventeen at the latest, and would be better off to enter at sixteen. “The influence of school acceleration in causing social maladjustment has been greatly exaggerated. . . . The data on physical and mental health, both in childhood and the adult years, favor the accelerates.”7 On the other hand, a poll8 of gifted children who had been sent to high school at eleven showed that they later thought the right age for entering high school was thirteen. It should be added that school administrators nowadays tend to agree with the children rather than with Terman.
While we debate, there is a relentless, largely justified, and steadily increasing pressure of society on the schools to hurry the ablest young people through school and college, into advanced training, and out into production, reproduction, and gainful activity—which is exactly what the young people want.
All this is most unsatisfactory and may simply tempt us to give up, to say with a small measure of truth that we can neither help nor harm our gifted children. (One great teacher modestly says about his most famous student, “He was so brilliant that no teacher could possibly have prevented him from learning.”) We comfort ourselves by saving, “Talent will out,” for there is no way of disproving the statement even if it is false: if it didn’t out, how can we know it was genuine talent? But there is no reason to commend our education if we can teach all but the best.
A few general conclusions we may tentatively accept. A one-year acceleration of a gifted child is almost always desirable. If more is unavoidable, it should be done as reluctantly and as late as possible, for disparity in age becomes less and less troublesome as children grow older. Though gifted children waste proportionately more of their time in elementary school than in high school, and more in high school than in college, acceleration is easier for them emotionally in college.9 Acceleration in groups, for obvious reasons, is much better than individual acceleration, though in a small school it is often difficult to make up a group. Selection of students for acceleration should be done carefully and responsibly, not rigidly on the basis of a certain score or IQ; indeed, the best schools and teachers almost play it by ear. And finally, a program of enrichment continued all through school, on into the essentially similar program of advanced standing in college, is better than acceleration.
This last policy unfortunately costs the most money. But if we really want a solution, this is the nearest thing to it.
As evidence, we find that in the best suburban public schools and the best private schools, where the student body is already partly selected through the social and cultural level of the parents, where classes are small, where teachers are generally skilled and well informed, where administrators and guidance people are sensitive to individual needs and differences—under these favorable and costly circumstances enrichment is the usual method, and acceleration infrequently resorted to.
This should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of private schools. Many private schools are much worse for everybody, and especially for the gifted, than many public schools. There is no virtue in small classes poorly taught. The private school that makes of its teachers jacks-of-all-trades (basketball coach cum French teach/?/r cum admissions director), that takes its teachers raw from college and lets them sink or swim without training before or on the job, that pays its teachers half the public school scale and thus has a high turnover of its faculty—such a school will be worse, not better, than its public school competitor.
In short, among the various devices we have discussed for aiding gifted children, there is no cheap substitute for skilled teaching by highly educated and resourceful and devoted teachers. Such teachers enrich every class, and they view gifted children as an additional opportunity to exercise their skill. With such teachers, almost any program or device of enrichment, with or without acceleration, is likely to succeed. Without them, it will be an empty ritual.
So far we have tried to survey a problem without offering a panacea. We have left untouched the often vexing question of the maladjusted gifted child who even under favorable circumstances does mediocre work or none. We have not asked whether American communities are willing to accept financial and intellectual responsibility for educating the gifted, as they accept at least the nominal responsibility for educating everybody else. We have left untouched—as have the schools generally—the question of selecting and training special talents in the arts and crafts. But we should not leave untouched the attitude of parents toward their gifted children.
Most such parents are pleased and grateful to whatever gods they believe in. They are often humble, sometimes so humble that the child rides roughshod over them; they sometimes make the mistake of prizing the child’s gifts over the child himself; and they occasionally heap such praise on the child as to make him think the world owes him a living. But such mistakes (and it is nearly impossible not to make some mistakes) are the result of emotions natural in the situation and not always harmful in the long run.
In decided contrast is the ferocity of some parents toward their offspring, the schools, or both. The father who was made miserable by graduating from high school at fifteen will find a dozen good reasons for subjecting his brilliant son to the same misery. The mother who has read up on psychological tests and knows her Gesell will try to outwit the tests by luring her child into activities and feats beyond the norm for its age. (It can’t be done: there is no known way to add a cubit to the stature of an IQ. All that education can do is to bring out what’s there.) Though all writers agree that the worst mistake is to force a gifted child too soon into adult patterns, this is the one mistake all such parents make as soon as they recognize their child’s abilities.
Studies of highly gifted children10 show that their fathers, generally of the upper middle class, exhibit all the competitive drives characteristic of that class, but with more frustration in themselves and more apprehension for their children. The mothers often show a rejection of their feminine role and of the child, with consequent guilt and anxiety and compulsive over-protection. Lacking as much success as they crave from their own lives, they will so identify themselves with a gifted child as to overpower him.
Yet sadder and commoner than the plight of the gifted child of driving parents is that of the average child whose parents think he is gifted. A child usually appraises his ability more realistically than his parents can, for he sees and measures himself in daily competition with his classmates. His teachers, not being emotionally involved in the judgment, are likely to be even more accurate. But sufficiently ambitious parents whose wish is father to the “genius” will follow their own estimate sooner than the child’s or the teachers’. Since if he is talented he ought to do spectacular work, and since his work is merely capable, they drive him to work harder. When the time comes for him to gain admission to college, dormant family ambitions can produce volcanic eruptions. The child’s and his teachers’ protests are overridden; his life is miserable, and his name is Legion.
In writing this piece I have tried not to think of myself and my children, or of you and your children. Yet I have caught myself writing, and you have been reading, with just these persons in mind—matching traits here and experiences there, hoping rather than thinking. Let us therefore drop the pretence of impersonality; I shall speak, to parents, as a teacher who has taught more than his share of gifted children.
If your child is not gifted, it will be easy for him to find company. In the most selective schools in the country he will be among the majority. And if you cannot face the fact that he is in the “lowest” 94 per cent of humanity, you are more interested in your own vicarious success than in him as a person.
If your child is gifted, and if you are a properly relaxed parent, you may not suspect it for a long time. When you do, make it your business to give him as average a childhood as you can. He will grow up sooner than the rest anyway. It is instructive to recall John Stuart Mill (IQ 190 ± 4), the genius who never had a childhood and who suffered for it all his life. Your child is not a John Stuart Mill, and to sacrifice his childhood for nothing—or even for the fame of Mill—is a crime.
If your child is gifted, a good school, public or private, will give you better advice than you can give yourself. A good school will have seen others like him. You haven’t. And don’t think that the good school nowadays will neglect its best students merely because they don’t get into trouble. The school is interested in its own reputation, which it gets largely from its best students.
If your child is highly gifted and can win top college honors and national scholarships (“merit badges,” as Sloan Wilson scornfully calls them), well and good. But to emphasize these, to drive him for marks and awards, will cost him the healthy recreation and hobbies and collection of useless information that mark the well-rounded and happy person. You need not worry: he is as ambitious as all young people, but he has the good taste not to parade his ambition.
If your child is extremely gifted, a genius—but stop right there. We have come full circle in our concept of genius, from Samuel Johnson’s definition of “a man endowed with superior faculties,” through the romantic notion of the mad, dark, Byronic freak of nature, back to something close to Johnson. In the modern view, genius is extraordinary youthful promise somehow luckily fulfilled in adult life. The tremendous odds against the occurrence of such promise are magnified because it is rarely fulfilled. The English musician William Crotch was as much a prodigy as Mozart. But though we celebrate Mozart’s bicentennial this year, there will be no great hubbub in 1975 for the bicentennial of Crotch.
We spoke earlier of the severe problems of adjustment of the extremely gifted child. Mozart had such problems. But your child and mine, and you and I, do not. In the million-to-one chance that the problem might confront someone of our acquaintance, we should not know enough to do anything sensible about it. Genius, statistically, is like being hit by lightning. Genius such as Mozart’s is like being hit by lightning inside a well-rodded building on a clear day in January. And the survivors of this experience, who alone could give us advice, are too much interested in other things to tell us how it feels.
1 Robert J. Havighurst, Eugene Stivers and Robert DeHaan, A Survey of the Education of Gifted Children (University of Chicago, Supplementary Educational Monographs No. 183, Nov. 1955); Paul Witty (ed.), The Gifted Child (Heath, 1951); Theodore Hall, Gifted Children:- The Cleveland Story (World, 1956); Norma E. Cutts and Nicholas Moseley, Bright Children: A Guide for Parents (Putnam, 1953); General Education in School and College. A Committee Report by Members of the Faculties of Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale (Harvard, 1952).
2 Leta S. Hollingworth, one of the pioneer investigators into gifted children, thought that the word genius was a misnomer for a child or youth and should be reserved for an adult who had already made significant contributions in his field. Very few parents or children share her caution.
3 Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (summarized in Witty, p. 148) gives an acute analysis of the difficulties of adjustment of highly gifted children and their comparative failure to use their full intellectual powers. A boy who is physically strong cannot use his strength at all times against his contemporaries because of social disapproval of bullying. But a very bright boy can continue to gain adult approval by intellectually terrorizing his age-mates; they are no match for him and cannot retaliate in kind. He thus, we may presume, increases his own isolation. Furthermore, if he should have a personality disturbance arising, for example, from ignorance of emotional relations within his family, he may come to distrust his intelligence if it is inadequate to solve his vital problem. This leads to a relatively permanent blocking of his intellectual activity. If, on the contrary, his intelligence can perceive the causes of his difficulties, he may be overcome with anxiety. He may then decide to use his intelligence for secondary matters alone; though he will thereby gain the adult approval he craves, he is nevertheless divorcing his intellectual investigations from anything in which he is genuinely interested.
4 It is also a confession, fortunately less frequent now than it once was, of a desire to save money by hurting children. In a crowded school system, if you can get 10 per cent of your children through in six years instead of eight, you can postpone the long overdue school building and avoid having to float another bond issue. The attractions of this policy, to a certain type of mind, are obvious.
5 Sidney L. Pressey, Educational Acceleration: Appraisal and Basic Problems, p. 153. Bureau of Educational Research Monographs, No. 31. Ohio State University, 1949.
6 Richard Pearson, “The Students’ View of Early Admission.” The College Board Review, No. 28, pp. 10-18. Winter, 1956.
7 Lewis M. Terman and Melita Oden, in Witty, op. cit., p. 43. See also Terman and Oden, The Gifted Child Grows Up, Stanford University Press, 1947.
8 Ruth Strang, “Mental Health of Gifted Children,” in Witty, p. 137.
9 My testimony on this point is suspect, since I am a high school teacher. When the question is raised of compressing the eight years of high school and college into seven, college teachers unanimously prefer the year to be taken from high school, high school teachers from college. This follows from the well-known principle that to every teacher his own class is the most important experience in education. But the teaching in the last year of a good high school is generally superior to the teaching in freshman courses of the best colleges.
10 See Zorbaugh, Boardman, and Sheldon, in Witty, pp. 86 ff.