The Gifted Student
To the Editor:
. . . Having diagnosed a fundamental malady, Professor Friedenberg [“The Gifted Student & His Enemies,” May] is guilty of the psycho-sociological animus which emaciates so much of our thinking and renders it facile. Of course the high school student is ill at ease, but not because of some abstruse sociological etiology with psychological overtones. The distemper is . . . in the gifted . . . student’s intuitive rejection of a poorly trained teacher. Yet, the teacher’s inadequacy is not due to his fundamentally poor potential. . . . The high school teacher is the victim of his training; the inadequacy of the training produces what one usually encounters in the high school staff: an empty, cipher-like mediocrity. . . . Schools of education which evolved, for the most part, from normal school traditions have blithely built a graduate curriculum based on teaching methods and ersatz disciplines. If the high school teacher has had graduate training, it is seldom in English, history, etc., per se, but rather in administration and supervision, or in the synthetic disciplines and artifacts of teaching. . . . The lions among them have had their claws clipped by certification requirements, salary schedules postulated on degrees or equivalency tables, and the continued presence of their tamers as school administrators. But they are still lions.
Visiting Associate Professor of Education
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
Mr. Edgar Z. Friedenberg’s article has aroused a specific animus in this reader. The overriding theme that teachers are gripped in the throes of ressentiment to such an extent that creative Johnny Jones, who has discovered penicillin in his marijuana patch, is not really appreciated, or worse yet, is destroyed with benevolence, may or may not be true. Certainly Mr. Friedenberg has failed to establish a case for such.
Mr. Friedenberg offers little evidence to support any of his contentions. It is true that teachers are socially mobile; it is not true that socially mobile individuals are, ipso facto, frustrated and impotent, and thus particularly prone to ressentiment. He states that teachers are “academically and intellectually inferior.” To whom? To other college graduates? To college instructors? Even Mr. Friedenberg must shudder at the sole use of the Miller Analogies Test to determine who is academically and intellectually capable; and he must realize that some instructors at the Bronx High School of Science are more intellectually alive and concerned than some of his own colleagues. . . .
Mr. Friedenberg misses the point that academic norms include provisions for the gifted student and there is nothing that aids the teacher’s self-concept or social mobility more than to have graduates of his secondary school achieve success in later life as a result of having been encouraged in school. . . .
This article represents another in the trend of so many articles which bandy the word “creativity” about in the abstruse fashion of “disciplined but impassioned sensitivity,” and thus succor the notion that poor grades, cynicism, and contempt are sure indications that creativity is being stifled. The scientific research done on gifted students from Terman to the Fund Scholars indicates otherwise.
To the Editor:
. . . Who are Mr. Friedenberg’s “ressentients”? If not the dregs of the graduate school barrel, says the unkind professor, then the sapless sprouts of petty bourgeois social climbers, clinging desperately to the whitewashed rocks of gentility in the social gardens of their betters. It is true that rich men’s sons (unless they are rich enough for public service, like presidents and governors), with their fathers’ living standards to maintain, probably cannot afford to teach in high school or in college, where the pay is inadequate. But what of the serious, aspiring sons of bookkeepers, candy store proprietors, carpenters, clergymen . . . ordinary bright boys who never expected to be Tellers or Bernsteins or Schlesingers or well-to-do, but who, faced with the almost universal necessity of making a living as agreeably as possible, sensibly decided to train a bookish bent, a musical ear, a mathematical flair, in the service of a career that would provide them with a continuation of their familiar living standard in addition to congenial colleagues and one of the few opportunities extant to do daily work which involves—nay, demands—genuine communication and relationship? “Rootless,” are they? Aren’t they rooted deep in the grime of prairies, pushcarts, police beats? Sons or grandsons, all of them, of people with the guts to get up and move on to a better situation. . . .
A scholar is a scholar and a teacher is a teacher. It is a commonplace that the requisites for the one do not comprise the assets of the other. . . . What is more, no superintendent or principal—or college president either—can hope to assemble a staff by hiring only these rarest of aves. Fortunately the secondary school administrator can run a good school anyway, for does not a high school teacher have to be only smart enough, knowledgeable enough? Like the gifted, off-beat student who is Professor Friedenberg’s chief concern in this article, the gifted teacher, too, need not be a person of monumental I.Q., spongy for information. His capacity as guide, catalyst, stimulator, calls for quite different endowments, such as tolerance and humor (which probably got him through those Required Ed. courses that polished off his more neurotic classmates), warmth, patience, and a comfortable recognition of the difference between prestige and rewards of real value. . . .
And the thwarted youngster about whom Mr. Friedenberg worries—what’s he, besides original and perceptive? Is he, as well, the kind of boy that a teacher, or anyone, could honestly like? “It is assumed,” reports the professor, in a tone which actually smacks of complaint, “that it is better for the school dance to be one that everyone can afford than one with an especially good band and refreshments.” Is Professor Friedenberg quarreling with this assumption? . . . Haven’t we intellectual aristocrats mocked and knocked the egalitarian ideal long enough now. . . ? Which would he prefer: baba au rhum and a union-scale band in the select society of only the heavier taxpayers’ scions (albeit in the public high gym); or oreos and a high school combo with kids from all over the district?
The professor also seems to regret that “boys and girls—with especially splendid bodies fare not] allowed to dress in such a way as to derive any special advantage from them.” But what would he advocate as suitable classroom attire—bikinis and ballet tights? Finally he bemoans the “‘philanthropic’ refusal to allow excellence to get above itself.” Does he feel that youngsters should be encouraged to get above themselves, then? Isn’t it salutary for a cocky kid to learn as early as possible that such traits as arrogance, neglect of common tact and courtesy, and ostentatious learning are acceptable nowhere in the civilized world, except, perhaps, in the tolerant pages of COMMENTARY? . . .
(Mrs.) Margery Silver
Wheatley High School
East Williston, New York
To the Editor:
. . . It ill becomes a professor of education to criticize the high school teacher for academic impotence, particularly when one realizes that it is the departments of education in our colleges that have grabbed off the lion’s share of the courses required in the teacher-training program, leaving the teachers-to-be less and less time for “higher study in their specialty.” Nor is it common knowledge that teachers have gone out of their way to opt for education courses. . . .
May it not be that the professor of education is projecting upon the high school teacher the ressentiment from which members of his fraternity may be suffering? It is well known that all too often professors of education are not held in the highest esteem among their colleagues in the other disciplines. To the frustrated, ressentiment-ridden education professor, who has done so little to help the teacher overcome his academic impotence, the high school teacher provides a convenient scapegoat. . . .
Boys High School
Brooklyn, New York
Mr. Friedenberg writes:
Three of the four letters complain that since I am a professor of education, and departments of education have contributed to the conditions of which I complain, I have no right to complain of them. This, apparently, is an extension of the principle of guilt by association, which I cannot accept. I think most education courses are appalling; and the prevailing philanthropic-egalitarian-adjustment ideology of which we have been the source is indeed the basis on which ressentient practices have been legitimated. My only argument with Mr. Cordasco comes from the fact that he thinks we have been a lot more important than I do. The normal-school orientation has underwritten ressentient attitudes and attracted into teaching more individuals who have them; but I don’t think it is their source.
Mr. Sgan’s position is, I believe, based on the early work of Terman—not just because he mentions only him, but because, reasoning from Terman alone, he would be right. He assumes that the gifted student is included among the high-IQ or academically apt students; and this just isn’t the student I was writing about. Before writing his letter, I think Mr. Sgan really did have an obligation to familiarize himself with Getzels’ and Jackson’s work in their new book Intelligence and Creativity, or its replication at Minnesota—even the recent Look article would have made the issue clearer. There is a great deal of evidence, unfortunately, that academic norms not only do not provide for “disciplined but impassioned sensitivity” but that such students are punished in school. It is true, of course, that high IQ and creativity are associated, at least in middle-class kids; and that if the IQ is high enough the youngster can protect himself against the hostility his creativity arouses and still meet the norms, though at a considerable price in cynicism. Getzels and Jackson show that the high-creative, low-IQ kid gets ranked as an “overachiever,” because he does as well on standardized tests (not grades) as his conventionally minded high-IQ peers whom teachers prefer. The teachers then see him as needing counseling because he is evidently working too hard for his limited abilities. The values implicit in my article are one thing; and anybody can argue about these. But, as of this time, there is a scholarly obligation to be aware of the body of evidence as to just how badly imaginative, divergent-thinking kids fare in school, whether they are bright or not. And when one considers the added impact of cultural differences—i.e.—the way schools treat creative kids who are creative in either a slummy way or a country-club way, neither of which is measured by IQ tests or rewarded by high grades, the picture grows very black.
Mrs. Silver and I have very different values. I judge from the tone of her letter that my article made her very angry; which I take to be better evidence that she understood it than the actual content of her letter provides. If a teacher feels that he has bettered himself by becoming a teacher, then I would say that he has rejected his roots. The question isn’t whether his father was a pushcart-peddler or a policeman, but whether he became a teacher because of his interest and commitment to education and the growth of youngsters, or to get away from the pushcart or the beat. “The guts to get up and move on to a better situation” seems to me both snobbish and silly. Being a good teacher certainly does require guts; but I do not think that this is a requirement that the “aspiring sons of . . .”—I shall not quote Mrs. Silver’s long list—relish, if their aspirations are what lead them into teaching. Teaching looks safe from outside.
I certainly am quarreling with the assumption that the cheap dance is best. This is something the kids should decide for themselves. If they go Galbraithian from time to time and decide that it is neither necessary nor desirable that public affairs be squalid, fine. Her paragraph about “heavier taxpayer’s scions; baba au rhum,” in its hostility to the rich and the vulgarity of her conception of their tastes exactly illustrates what I mean by a ressentient attitude. What I would advocate as suitable classroom attire is what the kids, individually, think they look best in. At present, in many schools ranging from those of Los Angeles County to my own College, they are forbidden to wear blue jeans or well-cut walking shorts. In my judgment, not only is this none of the school’s business; but the very desire to interfere expresses a prissiness I would not put up with. To an adolescent, the body is an important and expressive resource. Within the limits of decency—and by that I mean what would be tolerable in any public place—I will defend their right to dress to suit themselves against Mrs. Silver or anyone else. Finally, it isn’t true that arrogance is associated with discourtesy. I try to go by Michael Arlen’s old definition of a gentleman as a person “who is never unintentionally rude.” Both Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill have left a record of many arrogant comments, which were not only acceptable but endearing. I like cocky kids, myself; what I can’t stand is nebbishes. Good manners are those appropriate to an occasion, like Dr. Johnson’s well-known table repartee.
As to Mr. Heller’s letter, about all I can say is that I am liberal enough in my interpretation of Descartes to accept it as evidence that he exists, for which I am grateful. Otherwise, on the basis of my article, I could have been accused of inventing him.