My friend Genna had the opportunity to attend a students’ panel on gifted education last Sunday. She didn’t make it, because I seduced her into lying in the park, looking for dinosaur-shaped clouds late the night before. I promised I would write this post to make it up to her, so I think this is roughly what she would have had to say.
We both have had the good fortune to be part of an amazing community of “gifted students”, students who entered the University of Washington as much as three years early. We were both in the accelerated programs of our elementary and middle schools. I am very glad that I was given the opportunity to move ahead like that, academically. I “would have been bored.” But isn’t it odd that the reason most often given for gifted education is a negative? Why in the hell should boredom be the default?
I would hazard that many kids, not just those “identified” as “gifted”, are bored in school. Take mathematics as an example. I was not bored in middle school or the intro Calculus series, but only because I could do the work quickly. Not having the time to be bored and being interested are two very different things. The math that most people do in school just isn’t interesting. At home, I had a lot of math books; I recommend Martin Gardner’s The Colossal Book of Mathematics to anyone the least bit curious in discovering what math is actually all about. It was the subject of many a happy afternoon.
So, in order to be “challenged” in an interesting, not-just-busy-work way, I had to go and investigate for myself. “Oh, that kind of inquisitiveness is a primary sign of giftedness!” Man, I don’t know what you even think you’re talking about. I was just a kid reading stuff that he really dug. So was the dude who only wanted to read dinosaur books. He got shut down.
Here are some problems with the whole notion of giftedness, and its implementation. First of all, The Colossal Book of Mathematics is, as its name suggests, pretty heavy. It’s a well-bound hardback book, and retails on Amazon for like $20. If you’re a kid from an affluent family who’s been identified as “gifted”, well, it’s your lucky day. But the ability to spend money on your child’s extra-curricular interests is obviously dependent on socioeconomic status. Children from families that are more concerned with making the next rent payment than snapping up the latest vocabulary-building board game simply won’t demonstrate giftedness, at least not in the sense that I’m criticizing. All our discussions of giftedness should keep in mind that it’s a phenomenon limited to those wealthy enough to afford it. And of course this is strongly tied to race. My accelerated program in middle school was at least 90% White or Asian, in contrast to the rest of a school located in the middle of the Central District. Exactly how productive is it when all of a gifted child’s peers are white like him, and those posited as academically less than are people of color?
That gets at my second point, which is that giftedness, when presented as a category, is nothing but problematic. It’s obviously not the case that my White and Asian peers and I were all smarter than the Black and Hispanic students sharing our halls. Why were we split up that way? Making it a category encourages gifted students to think that they’re better than their peers, which is something you definitely don’t want when the differentiation falls along racial lines.
And what did I really gain? The chance to do some work earlier? A lot of it was still busy work. The high points of my education have all been a result of me challenging myself, to take a college course outside the normal track, to learn something that was not expected of me. I have gained more in two hours of reading about the beautiful symmetries of quotient groups and cosets than I did in an entire quarter spent integrating solids of revolution.
Public education should be the subsidization of young inquiry. Because let’s face it, it’s probably not the case that the trigonometry you hated will be of any use to you whatsoever. But for the kid who actually enjoys discovering the patterns in sinusoidal functions, that’s not really the point. As for dinosaur bones, those are undoubtedly even more useless than the law of cosines, but that doesn’t mean we should dissuade children from an interest in them. And those who are interested are no more and no less gifted than those who are not. They have simply had the good fortune to find something that moves them. An education should provide that chance to everybody.