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Paideia and that kind of stuff

A friend is guest-editing a special issue of some publication that will deal with problems of gifted and talented education. For some reason he asked me to contribute an article, and here’s an initial sketch that I plan to expand a great deal. Any comments at this point would be nonetheless welcome.

Gifted and Talented for What?

The most basic problem in gifted and talented education is what it’s for. That depends on the point of education in general. But what is that?

Education is such a big business today that it’s hard to say. In earlier societies young people learned informally and by imitating their elders. Formal education was brief, to the point, and emphasized basic skills. Today we have school, pre-school, after-school, summer school, and graduate school. Education is an all-day year-round arrangement that comes in every flavor imaginable from infancy well into adulthood.

Something so all-embracing cannot easily be summarized. Still, big institutions do serve discernible goals. Education is preparation for life and must be guided by life’s purposes. The bigger education is the more it must attend to those purposes on the grand scale.

Dealing with large questions of purpose may be difficult, but every society does so as a practical matter, through the standards implicit in its practices and institutions. Without some sort of view on what life is about society could not function at all. In particular, it could not socialize its young.

Nonetheless, answers to such questions often conflict and are constantly contested. The issue for American education is how to understand the questions, arrive at usable answers, and apply them to the process through which young people become adults.

For gifted and talented education the issue is more specialized: what to make of the special gifts and talents some young people have, and what turn to give them. That question can’t possibly be answered without an understanding of what the gifts and talents are for, which in turn requires at least implicit thought about what human life is about.

Gifts and talents often go with high purposes. For that reason we can start by noting that Americans have an idealistic streak that especially applies to education. At least since Emerson we have wanted to believe in the infinite potential of every human being.

On such a view, we are here on earth to be all that we can be. The purpose of education is to develop the potential of every child, so little Johnnie can grow up to be Big John and little Missie Big Mama. Taken seriously, such a view would abolish gifted and talented education by making it universal. Every child has specific qualities, and the point of the system is to develop them as gifts and talents. What room is there for special programs for the few?

Indeed, the likely result would be to give more support to those who have fewer obvious gifts. The obviously talented child would get a plan of studies that lets him pursue his dream of becoming a concert pianist. Everyone would get a special plan, though, and special needs are likely to get more backing than special talents. After all, a child prodigy can presumably take care of himself, and if every child is special, is it fair that in the pursuit of specialness any child should be left behind?

For such reasons it’s natural for Americans to have mixed feelings about what’s called gifted and talented education. They may accept excellence as a goal, but the belief in the infinite possibilities of human life—not to mention parental and populist demands that every child get whatever advantages some children get—gives them a sense that excellence should be for everyone.

Nonetheless, Americans are practical as well as idealistic. Goods are better when realized, so practicality is not simply mean-spirited. While universal gifted and talented education may be a splendid ideal, it is difficult to put into practice. It may make more sense to pay attention to what can actually be achieved, and concentrate on visible talents that can be developed in straightforward and reliable ways, than attempt to elicit the latent genius of the apparently untalented.

Also, public spirit is an American ideal as well, and the public good can’t be reduced to the private good of each student considered separately. So education also needs to look at the child from the standpoint of other people: how useful can he be to society as a whole? On that view a “gift or talent” is something that can benefit others, and the point of educational policy is getting the best return on investment from the standpoint of overall social well-being.

But what is social well-being? The infinitude within each of us can’t be defined socially, so it’s not individual self-realization. Still, the American definition of the term must respect, as much as possible, the individual differences we emphasize. Otherwise, we will not accept it.

The result has been to define the supreme social good as promotion of individual choice. America is all about freedom and choice. If that is the standard, then social well-being is a matter of helping all the people get what they want. The most practical and objective measure of what they want is what they are willing to pay for. The goal of social life, and therefore education, then becomes greater economic output. The schools are there to produce the workers America needs to meet the challenge of global competition in the twenty-first century.

Presumably, the workers America needs are the ones it’s willing to pay for. On that line of thought, schools should prepare children for the highest-paying jobs possible. Gifted and talented education then becomes a matter of special help for young people who look like they have what it takes to make lots of money. It’s a way of helping tomorrow’s rich become richer.

That’s a surprising result. On the other hand, liberal political philosophy can easily be understood to support it. Philosophical liberalism is all about individual autonomy. It tells us that social institutions should promote the ability of each individual to pursue his own goals. The liberal view, then, is that each child should determine what he wants, and education should help him go for it.

“Go for it” could refer to self-realization, mystical experience, or anything whatever. In practice, though, it most often refers to the pursuit of power, prestige, pleasure, or money. That makes it potentially quite troublesome. The pursuit of power and prestige creates conflicts with more losers than winners. The pursuit of pleasure may take the edge off conflict, but tends to be nonproductive and even self-defeating.

Philosophical liberalism therefore tends to channel the self-interested impulses it accepts as basic human nature into the moderate and lawful pursuit of money. We can all become prosperous, so money is democratic to a degree. And since plans of life usually require economic resources, the liberal standpoint finds it possible to reconcile the goal of autonomy with training young people to become the workers business wants.

Such goals of course apply equally to every individual. Nonetheless, many liberal theorists—John Rawls for example—point out that allowing special advantages to some can pay off for those who are worst off by increasing economic output. “Gifted and talented” students then become those who are most likely to make the system more efficient. They are trained toward that end on the theory that they will become especially productive, and the resulting increased wealth will become the rising tide that raises all boats.

The effect, then, of liberal political principles is that education tends to become a process designed to turn young people into docile, efficient and law-abiding workers and consumers, with special attention to those (the gifted and talented) who are most likely to contribute to the success of the system as a whole. Paradoxically, the liberal idea of autonomy turns young people most of all into components and clients of a very large economic machine.

The tendency to understand liberal principles in such a way is strengthened by the position of education as a big institution that’s prone to look at social well-being from the standpoint of other big institutions and so take managerial concerns very much to heart.

It is also strengthened by other aspects of liberally-minded education, for example training children to be tolerant and to celebrate diversity. However idealistic such goals sound, the effect of enforcing them is to teach children to reject parental, cultural and religious loyalties and standards, or at most to treat them as private tastes and consumption choices. The only standards and connections they are taught to take seriously are those generated by market and state. Once again, the effect if not the conscious goal is to turn children into pliant careerists and consumers adapted to the needs of twenty-first century global economy and government.

The liberal approach has important advantages. It reconciles the private purposes of individuals with the interests of major social institutions. It emphasizes the American ideal of autonomy while taking social goals and functioning into account. Nonetheless, it still seems to leave out basic things. It makes education a matter of promoting economic prosperity and the achievement of individual goals. Are those things what America is all about? Are they the sort of thing that inspire love of life and country? And does the production and delivery of autonomy even make sense as a social goal?

It’s hard to know how to respond to such concerns, since defining ultimate goals is so difficult in America. Many find the liberal answer unavoidable because (they say) in a diverse society education can’t be oriented toward a particular way of life ordered by particular values. If schools try to do so people complain.

That is why in theory liberalism tries to avoid recognizing the special value of particular ways of life. Each of us has his own definition of the good life, and it’s illiberal to choose one and give it preference to the others.

The practical resolution of such difficulties is necessarily more concrete: to distract people from ultimate questions, keep them busy through gainful employment, give them as many consumer and lifestyle distractions as possible, and suppress social prejudices so they don’t bother each other and everyone can pursue his own career and consumption preferences.

Such an approach, of course, is not as neutral as advertised. It has its own implicit values that define a very particular way of life. That way of life treats career, consumption, and idiosyncratic hobbies as the greatest good for individuals; makes tolerance, inclusiveness, and support for the political order that promotes them the supreme moral standards; and promotes global markets, transnational bureaucracies, and supposedly neutral and rational expertise as the highest social authorities. None of that is neutral. School and state are still choosing what students should believe and how they should live. But if so, where’s the autonomy?

On a more immediate level, it’s not clear that the liberal view makes for the effective schools liberal goals require. The attempt to achieve value-free neutrality makes liberalism technological. It understands a school as a tool, the function of which is to promote goals other than its own—those of individual students and of business and government. Education, though, has to do with the development and formation of human beings. Human development is less a matter of technology or attaining external goals than of personal commitment, and even devotion, to goods that are real and sustaining.

Economic utility is a good thing, but it’s not something people love and give their all to. Education, and therefore gifted and talented education, need goals that are more humanly valuable to educators and their students. Teachers are likely to be better teachers if, for example, they love their subject matter for its own sake—if music teachers love music and history teachers love history—and if the school makes that love basic to its purpose and way of operating. And students are likely to learn more if the things they are taught are treated as intrinsically valuable and not simply a way of getting something else, like money.

While technical education is good and useful, it’s not the kind of education that is most necessary. At their best, schools are devoted to goods like humane learning that can stand on their own as goods even though they also have an instrumental use. The benefits of study come in part from that instrumental use, but also from the experience of participating in practices and traditions that have their own value. We learn how to live well from concrete examples. So education means—among other things—helping children learn to live well by inducting them into practices that embody values worth making part of life.

On such a view, talented and gifted education becomes education of those children who have special potential in some field of academic inquiry or cultural activity that’s valuable for its own sake. If they have musical talent they are inducted into the musical culture, scientific talent into science as an enterprise, and so on. The particulars depend on the capacities of the child and the traditions and necessities of the field, but the goal is promoting the development of the student, and excellence in music and science, together as a unity.

Such a vision of education might possibly be squared with philosophical liberalism. As I have mentioned, liberal philosophy permits deviations from its principle of maximum equal individual choice if the deviation improves the lot of the worst off. Allowing schools to promote academic and cultural pursuits for their own sake, and give special attention to those who can provide leadership in those pursuits, very likely makes education work better because those involved see more in it. The result is likely to be uplift for the disadvantaged and everyone else.

Nonetheless, promotion of scholarly and cultural activity for their own sake is still incomplete as a goal, because art and scholarship are not altogether self-contained. Art is not just for art’s sake, nor is scholarship guided solely by its own internal purposes. Each is motivated by a vision of truth and beauty, and thus by an overall understanding of life and the world.

In the end, schools cannot do without such an understanding„ however difficult discussing it may be in a diverse society that emphasizes individual autonomy. Education, including gifted and talented education, must understand itself at least implicitly by reference to the good life as such, both for the individual and for society at large.

In summary, we have several very different goals that seem necessary to American education, and therefore American gifted and talented education. Education must promote:

  1. Open-ended individual self-realization.
  2. General practical social and economic goods.
  3. Scholarly and artistic goods specific to academic and cultural communities.
  4. The good life as such.

These goals can be conflicting and contentious, and there’s no clear way how to resolve the conflicts and contentions. The fourth is the most contentious of all, but also the most important.

The basic problem with gifted and talented education, therefore, is that education is for life, and we can neither avoid the question of what life is about nor give it a coherent common answer. Without some practical resolution to that question, though, gifted and talented education can’t sensibly go forward. If we don’t know what life is about we can’t know what gifts and talents are, what they’re for, or how they should be developed.

The American way?

The second problem gifted and talented education must deal with is American culture, especially teen culture. That problem is closely related to the first problem. If we have difficulty thinking about how to live well, we’ll have difficulty actually doing so.

We’ll start by rejecting the things of the mind. To be worthwhile thought must be to the point. If we’re at a loss as to what our purpose should be we’ll have trouble with thought. It won’t go anywhere. If thought is non-functional, though, then culture will become anti-intellectual. Why take something seriously that doesn’t lead to anything and doesn’t know what it wants? Education, especially gifted and talented education, will be in big trouble.

Coeducation and ideals of diversity and inclusion make matters worse. Diversity and inclusion makes it impossible to present the young with any particular cultural or gender-related ideal—the ideal of the gentleman, for example—to use as a model. Without such models, education becomes much more difficult.

Diversity and inclusion also make it impossible to study the humanities in a straightforward way, since the humanities are always culturally linked. As things are Shakespeare can’t be studied for his intrinsic value, which would have to be measured by the standards of a particular culture. He has to be debunked, lest his example give special authority to some particular culture and its unenlightened standards. So he is studied from the standpoint of European colonialism and the social construction of gender.

Coeducation, together with the loosening of sexual standards that is required by the liberal ideal of choice, means students become obsessed by the need to impress the opposite sex. The absence of civilized role models, which are gender-linked and culturally specific and therefore forbidden, mean they show off in ways they invent for themselves—which means crudely and stupidly. The scholastic ethos becomes defined by the popular and the unpopular, the jocks and the nerds. Coeducation also means narrow sex roles. Boys who want to show off to girls want to look masculine, so they emphasize physical competition and avoid the arts.

Mainstreaming homosexuality makes the situation even more fraught. If gay is OK, then anyone could be gay, it’s in the air, and those who aren’t want to make a point of it. Philistine attitudes are a handy way of doing so.

Diversity and inclusion also mean that parental and community views on moral and cultural issues don’t matter, so the larger community is left to view education as purely a means to money, career and prestige. They want and get special programs to help kids get into prestigious colleges, and that’s what passes as talented and gifted education. There’s lots of rhetoric about creativity and intellectual excitement but those things either don’t exist or don’t matter much to anyone. The parents don’t care as long as the kid gets on, students and faculty don’t care as long as they can do what they please, and everybody’s happy riding in their SUVs or watching football or Oprah.

What to do?

Defining the problem doesn’t solve it, but it might help make productive discussion possible.

In America we believe education can redeem society. It is more realistic to think society must pull itself together to redeem education. A scheme of general social redemption is beyond the scope of this article. In the meantime, though, there may be some partial measures.

Even if society as a whole can’t agree on what life is about, those involved in particular educational enterprises may be able to come to some sort of practical agreement. On that view better education, and therefore better gifted and talented education, would mean less centralization, more local control, and more emphasis on school choice, private schools, religious schools, and homeschooling.

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