Gifted, the Grumblers, and Why Society Doesn’t Like Us – an Objective(ist) Viewpoint

I recently read a couple of very good articles on giftedness. The first was written by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who works in the area of giftedness and creativity. The article, titled Who is Currently Gifted in the United States, was an advanced look at a soon-to-be-released studying surveying the current definitions of giftedness and policies in various states.

The second, titled Ten Myths About Gifted Students and Programs for the Gifted, was written by Carolyn Coli. She addressed some of the widely-held misconceptions about giftedness.

While I was fascinated by the content of the articles, I was also interested in in the general tone of the comments sections that followed. The general consensus seemed to be that the state should not be wasting time and resources on identifying and nurturing the gifted. There was also some common themes that emerged. Let’s look at them.

Gifted are Given Preferable Treatment That All Students Should Receive

The first theme to emerge is that the gifted students are given preferable treatment and resources that are being denied to normal students.

Reader Scottilla commented:

“One problem with gifted programs in small schools is that there is a fixed cutoff, and only a certain number of students meet the cutoff requirement. That leaves a small class that costs the school district more to educate. This leaves the majority of students with fewer resources and therefore not only feel cheated but are cheated.”

Reader Sister Bluebird commented:

Tracking is evil. The gifted programs are an arm of that. The assumption that other children wouldn’t benefit from smaller classrooms, more specialized teaching, and more creative educational processes, as well as supplies is ludicrous.”

Reader LitDR2B agreed with Sister Bluebird, adding:

“In my community, the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program is pretty corrupt in how students are tracked into it. In third grade, all students get to take ‘the test’ that can identify them as GATE-eligible. Then, for parents of means whose children did not score high enough to get in, they can take an unlimited number of private tests (administered by psychiatrists and costing lots of money) until they get the proper score and can then be tracked into these courses and away from the unwashed masses of ‘normal’ students. You’re darn right that other students would benefit from these other creative approaches, and they might even improve educational outcomes and get students really interested in learning.”

When reader Endersdragon mentioned his own disappointing school experience of being a gifted mathematician who was under-challenged, Sister Bluebird replied:

“Then send you to school with professors. There is no reason that the rest of the kids should suffer for you, nor you for them. But suggesting that you and only you will have significant accomplishments to offer society, and then funnel resources and network connections to you at the expense of others, is ridiculous.”

Sister Bluebird continued her impassioned response to the subject, stating:

“No one said to hold gifted kids back. But I do question how anyone short of a prodigy is assigned the label of gifted and how that program is pushed, when basic services at schools are suffering. Read the document–tell me which kid is going to make a contribution? Will it really be the gifted kid always? Or can some poor car mechanic or hair dresser also accomplish something great? Statistically, how many gifted kids go on to do these great things?”

Gifted Students Don’t Need Help/Waste of Money

The second theme to emerge is that gifted students are already exceptional so they don’t even need extra attention and any attempt to do so is a waste of money. In this view, gifted students “have it made.”

Reader Wynne commented:

“Once again returning to our belief that we are all unique individuals, that doesn’t mean that we all deserve to have life tailored especially for us. The teachers do not exist to cater to each students unique ‘needs’. There needs to be a certain amount of cooperation, meeting in the middle.”

Reader noteachersneeded wrote:

“A gifted student doesn’t need gifted student programs and doesn’t need teachers. That is a gifted student. It’s a natural ability to learn and [he or she] doesn’t need school and doesn’t need teachers.”

Reader Dumbheads commented:

“Who cares about being gifted? These parents waste money and time to test if their kids are gifted or not. Also, gifted students are only gifted in certain faculties. A student gifted in mathematics may suck in music or language. My point is that schools and parents waste time on gifted student programs. Why would anyone want to be gifted and treated like a lab animal?”

All Students are Gifted In Some Way

The next theme to emerge smacked of political correctness – that all children are gifted in some manner. It is the “everybody is a winner” mentality; there are no exceptions, because everyone is exceptional.

Reader Yeah… commented:

“All student are gifted in their own way, some excel at sports, the arts, math, sciences, english, etc…”

Reader bruninyc wrote:

“I hate the term ‘gifted,’ and I certainly do not believe a high IQ is an indication of future success,” and “I do think that it is the parents and schools responsibility to create an environment that would offer as much as possible in languages, arts, along with math, science and reading so that they may develop their own brand of genius.”

Giftedness is Elitism

The final theme is that the gifted are elitist, that they represent the “haves” versus the “have nots.” In this view, the gifted are the one percenters (or more accurately, the two percenters) who stand above the “unwashed masses.” They are the product of richer parents, or more favorable home environments, and should be an object of sacrifice, serving those less fortunate instead of getting special attention.

Reader Two Cents:

“In the majority of cases, what is called ‘gifted’ is, in reality, nothing more than a child who is a product of a strong, educated, supportive household.”

Reader K commented:

“Personally, I think overbearing parents use the term, ‘gifted,’ FAR too much and since these kids grow up to be nothing special, why waste any particular time or funds on them? Let them be the kid everyone goes to for help with their schoolwork. Let them be the ones who never have to study. No need to put them up on a pedestal and give them a swelled head. They’re going to have enough trouble when they get into the real world and realize nothing comes easy any more.”

Reader Angee wrote:

“I get what she’s trying to share, but the education establishment has to come up with something a little more sensitive to the rest of us so-called non-geniuses. To say a group of kids is ‘gifted and talented’ immediately isolates this group and means what? The rest of us are not gifted? And we aren’t talented? The child whose brain can’t be measured (and it’s ability captured accurately by some human made test) means they’re of substandard intelligence? Really? I’ve seen children with Autism, Downs Syndrome, ADD/ADHD and the like do things that defied explanation. What about THEIR genius?”

The Grumblers – Toward an Understanding of the Most Virulent Criticisms of the Gifted

The examples cited are views shared by many people outside the gifted and talented community. And it would seem, on the surface, to be a simple case of envy. But I believe that reaction goes beyond envy. The language of the criticisms, at times, suggests the gifted as some sort of hostis domesticus, or the enemy within. In my view, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand can help us to better understand the phenomenon that is taking place.

I should preface this by saying that, while I do not agree with all of the precepts of Objectivism, I do find considerable value in Rand’s ideas – particularly those related to exceptional people, whom she exalted.

In her essay titled “Age of Envy,” Rand described, from her perspective, the psychological processes at work in the mind of critics of those possessing virtues and values. She begins by describing the phenomenon as “hatred of the good.”

Writes Rand:

“Hatred of the good for being good means hatred of that which one regards as good by one’s own (conscious or subconscious) judgment. It means hatred of a person for possessing a value or virtue one regards as desirable.”

She then gives some examples:

“If a child wants to get good grades in school, but is unable or unwilling to achieve them and begins to hate the children who do, that is hatred of the good. If a man regards intelligence as a value, but is troubled by self-doubt and begins to hate men he judges to be intelligent, that is hatred of the good.”

In this case, it isn’t simply the envy of the gifted, but hatred for daring to be more than the hater.

Notice, too, that in both examples, Rand cites the “good” as individuals who are descriptively gifted. And it is not the only time she does so in the context of the essay; she goes on to again cite people who score high on IQ tests and Mensa members. She also mentions pressure for girls to hide their intelligence to remain appealing to boys and for the highly intelligent to hide their knowledge for the sake of social relationships.

To me, it is clear that there is a strong resentment for the gifted (that one could call “hatred”) included in many of the readers’ comments to the two articles mentioned. And it is sometimes easy to dismiss such critics because we suggest that it is simple envy. But envy implies coveting the giftedness, and I don’t believe that they all want to be gifted – many really want everyone to be equal and the same and hate those who are not. They want that there be no gifted at all.

Says Rand:

“This is particularly clear in the much more virulent cases of hatred masked as envy, for those who possess personal values or virtues; hatred for a man (or a woman) because he (or she) is beautiful or successful or honest or happy. In these cases, the creature has no desire and makes no effort to improve its appearance, to develop or to use its intelligence, to struggle for success, to practice honesty, to be happy (nothing can make it happy). It knows that the disfigurement or the mental collapse or the failure of the immorality or the misery of its victim would not endow it with his or her value. It does not desire the value, it desires the value’s destruction.”

So, in this sense, some detractors of the gifted do not covet the giftedness, they hate it for existing. Because it is unobtainable for them, they seek its destruction so that others may not possess it.

The anonymity of the Internet only makes it easy for such haters to more openly express their views. The mask of civility can be taken off and they can be free to say the things they may be more reticent to say when looking into the eyes of these children and their parents. Rand seems to speak directly about these types of impersonal, online comment areas, when she writes:

“In regard to judging the emotional responses of others, it is extremely difficult to tell their reasons in a specific case, particularly if it involves complex personal relationships. It is, therefore, in the broad, impersonal field of responses to strangers, to casual acquaintances, to public figures or events that have no direct bearing on the haters’ own lives that one can observe the hatred of the good in a pure, unmistakable form. Its clearest manifestation is the attitude of a person who characteristically resents someone’s success, happiness, achievement, or good fortune.”

Rand concludes her essay with the following:

“Since nature does not endow all men with equal beauty or equal intelligence, and the faculty of volition leads men to make different choices, the egalitarians propose to abolish the ‘unfairness’ of nature and of volition, and to establish universal equality in fact – in defiance of facts. Since the Law of Identity is impervious to human manipulation, it is the Law of Casuality that they struggle to abrogate. Since personal attributes or virtues cannot be ‘redistributed’ they seek to deprive men of their consequences – of the rewards, the benefits, the achievements created by personal attributes and virtues.

“It is not equality before the law that they seek, but inequality, the establishment of an inverted social pyramid, with a new aristocracy on top – the aristocracy of non-value…

The reign of mediocrity, where virtues of exceptionality are forbidden. If left up to them, the critics of giftedness might create a society not unlike that in Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.

For some critics of the gifted, there is more to their criticisms than simple envy. An undercurrent of hatred exists among these detractors, a hatred that would prefer the elimination of giftedness over obtaining it. They won’t be happy until the moment arrives when there are no gifted. Until then, they will continue to decry programs for the gifted at every turn, grumbling towards Bergeron.

To close this blog post, I would like to quote a comment from Phillip’s Dad, who summed up the general feeling in the comments on both forums and provided a reasoned response:

“It’s interesting to see all of the resentment toward the gifted here. People of average intelligence trying so hard to prove they are just as good or just as successful as a gifted kid they may have once known. Hopefully you people are successful and happy and feel good about yourselves, but why so much resentment toward the gifted? Why don’t they deserve a challenging education too? Why do they have to be short changed so the rest of you can still feel good about yourselves? These kids are the kids that will be able to cure your cancers or heart diseases, or create the latest greatest technology that everybody wants, or the song that everyone is humming – someday – if we only value them enough to let them aim as high as their talents will take them. These kids only want to enjoy their lives and play with your kids without any fuss made. Let’s allow everyone to learn at their own pace and not create barriers for some [kids] simply because everyone else is not capable of what some kids are capable of doing with their talents.”



3 thoughts on “Gifted, the Grumblers, and Why Society Doesn’t Like Us – an Objective(ist) Viewpoint”

  1. I agree with what you write, James. As a classroom teacher, I do understand why people may resent gifted instruction as it seems to be taking a child who has already received a gift and giving them an additional gift of education. I have no problem bringing gifted instruction to the gen ed classroom and have done so. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to stretch some of my non-gifted students and it gave me the opportunity to identify some students being held back. THAT is the issue though. How to balance holding back and moving forward. While some may say they want every opportunity for their own child, they also want that child to not be overwhelmed. It becomes a balancing act that I’m afraid has no solution until schools become more flexible and give opportunities suited to each individual child to each individual child. It doesn’t take money. It takes training and even more so, autonomy in the classroom.

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