The Problem of the Gifted
To the Editor:
Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, in his “Sputnik and Segregation” (October), deftly ridicules Life magazine for vulgarizing and reducing to offensive stereotypes a serious plan for education. I should be the last person to deny Dr. Bettelheim his fun. . . . But he attacks the plan itself (Professor Paul Woodring’s proposals in A Fourth of a Nation) by attacking what he admits is a misunderstanding of it. In brief, he comes close to stating (by innuendo, by applying Orwell’s political satire to education, and by salting the ever raw guilt-feelings of liberals who oppose segregation) that special or accelerated education for the able or gifted is as undemocratic as racial segregation.
This is an attractive notion to some people, and, though I think it false, it can be defended. But it ought not to be defended with such meager documentation. . . . Dr. Bettelheim himself has shown elsewhere that gifted children can be retarded or intellectually crippled by unfavorable situations; yet he smugly refers to “scientific talent—something, after all, no known school system has so far succeeded in suppressing.” Relax, says the doctor: no mute uncalculused Newton ever existed. “But again, why all this fuss about the gifted child? Have these so-called gifted children been winding up in coal mines?” In his zeal to belabor the upper-class liberal, Dr. Bettelheim is willing to forget the economics he will use so convincingly two pages further on. . . .
He is no doubt right, though perhaps Utopian, in his plea for the use of the best teachers to teach the “educationally underprivileged.” But his often transparently expressed feeling that our schools cannot really harm gifted children by boredom or repetition (but only by leaving them “intellectually exhausted”—a prospect that I find as alluringly remote as the end of any other rainbow) makes me raise another question: if we cannot harm gifted children or suppress scientific talent, is it not equally true that there is no way to help them or encourage scientific talent? May we not solve the problem of gifted children by ignoring them?
Dr. Bettelheim writes:
I am afraid that Mr. Brown misunderstood my intentions. I did not claim to have seen the truth, or to know the answers to the extremely complex question of how to deal with the present educational impasse. All I tried to do was summed up in the sentence with which I deliberately ended: let’s have some second thoughts while there is still time. . . . The only specific recommendation I made was that what we need most of all are better schools and better teaching for the socially and economically underprivileged. With that, I believe, everybody must heartily agree.
But mainly, I tried to suggest a possible connection between the demands for desegregation and for better facilities for the gifted. This point Mr. Brown does not discuss. A second point I made was that the demand for “better schools” is as empty as the desire for the “good life,” or for “virtue”: empty because everybody must be for it. . . . Everybody wants better schools; the problem lies in what this implies in practice—who will have to pay the price for them? In my opinion, if Dr. Wood-ring’s proposals were put into practice, the already disadvantaged groups would have to pay this price; this is a point which, to my knowledge, has not received enough widespread consideration. . . . Mr. Brown’s letter suggests that I have succeeded, at least, in getting some readers to think about the questions involved.
As to Mr. Brown’s final point: no doubt any existing school system implies the potentiality to harm or to encourage any particular group of children, including gifted children. One and the same educational system will encourage the scientific talents of some, while frustrating those of others. This is owing to the wide variation in human personalities, which leads some pupils to wish to conform to their teachers’ demands, others to show their mettle by developing in opposition to their teachers’ open or implied desires. But here we have a complex issue which would require another special article, and a necessary one, on the education of the gifted child. . . . In my present article, I simply chose to present a relatively short argument on the possible relation of two social phenomena. . . .
Still, I should like to add that in my experience I have all too often seen that the curricula, or the parental influences, which tried deliberately to encourage the talent of the gifted child ended up in harming the child, while only occasionally succeeding in developing the talent. Thus, even forgetting the issue of whether special schools for gifted children are democratic, what worries me about the present-day discussion is that all too much emphasis is placed simply on wishing to develop the talent, and not enough consideration is given to the question whether such encouragement of talent might not lead to harming the child and society. . . .
To the Editor:
This is to express my thanks to COMMENTARY for having published “Sputnik and Segregation” by Bruno Bettelheim. . . . He says so well what so badly needed to be said by those who know whereof they speak.
During the thirty years I taught in a large high school in Detroit, I saw for myself some of the problems that arose when the xyz grouping was tried. I saw, too, how the “better” teachers somehow seemed to be sent to the so-called “better” schools where the students were over- rather than underprivileged. Now we have segregated groups in Math and Science. Many teachers whom I know have grave doubts about the wisdom of the experiment of the kind of accelerated programs that Dr. Bettelheim discusses in his article, and which are now in effect in several Detroit high schools.
The smart thing to do nowadays is to get engineers and Math and Science students out of school twice as fast as before, and never mind the Humanities and the enriched curriculum. We ignore the fact that more than 10 per cent of Russia’s national income is spent on education as compared with our 3 per cent, or that they have one teacher for 17 students as compared with our 27. (That figure of 27 fascinates me—I always had closer to 40!) The excitement about doing something to get Federal aid to education has died down.
How temperately Dr. Bettelheim takes issue with Professor Woodring’s philosophy of education as he discusses the latter’s proposals for the new era! How well he challenges the thinking, or lack of it, behind the frenzied grasping of solutions to our problem of “catching up with the Russians,” and how clearly he points out the dangers inherent in this superficial approach. What happens to us as a democracy seems to be ignored by educators who should know better.
I am grateful for articles like this that stimulate our thinking, and challenge the wisdom of the road we seem to be choosing in educating our children.
Frieda Paperno Korner
[More correspondence on Dr. Bettelheim's article will appear in the December number.—Ed.]
To the Editor:
Professor Bettelheim’s article is a magnificently sensible answer to those who desire the creation of an intellectual elite.
A further point worth noting in connection with his view is that educational facilities for adults are pitifully inadequate. With the possible exception of New York, no American city provides for the needs of those persons employed in relatively low-paying jobs who have left school at or before the twelfth-grade level and who may desire further non-technical education. Where limited adult education courses are available, they are generally expensive and their content is usually attractive only to middle-class people. No attempt is made to stimulate the interest of others, aside from an occasional newspaper announcement or a “labor education” program devoted to training union functionaries. The assumption upon which most university-sponsored extension courses are based is that working-class people cannot be interested in such matters.
New York City