An old friend asked me to contribute something to an issue of the Mensa Research Journal he was guest-editing on the topic of “Barriers to Educating the Gifted” (vol. 40, No. 2; summer 2009). Here’s the result, plus or minus a few footnotes and editorial fiddles:
“Our children are our future.”
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
“Human ingenuity is our greatest resource.”
“In America we believe in education.”
We hear such things constantly, and we spend hundreds of billions on schools. With all that money and attention it seems we ought to be raising up squadrons of geniuses backed by armies of competent, engaged citizens.
As far as I can tell, that is not happening. I am no expert on education, just a concerned citizen, survivor of public and private education, and father of three other survivors. I am also a writer on public affairs, so I try to keep track of what goes on. And it seems to me that the result of all the concern, talk and money has been grade inflation and padded resumes rather than intellectual engagement and high achievement. Our kids are all above average, and 22-year-olds have resumes that list everything but the Nobel Prize, but our culture is commercial junk and we import our scientists and engineers.
What has happened? More effective educational systems have existed, and they still exist here and there, so why can we not have one? The question of gifted and talented education gives us an entry into the issue.
What is gifted and talented education?
A layman might assume that gifted and talented education has to do with helping young people with special potential in art, science or scholarship, realize that potential. The goal, he would think, is attaining excellence in some field, with the particulars depending on the capacities of the student and the requirements of the field.
If that is gifted and talented education, then American values keep it out of the public schools. Those values make it impossible to deal with excellence, at least in things that are not accessible to everyone.
Excellence demands discipline, and it cannot be divided up equally. That puts it at odds with our national creed of freedom and equality. In sports excellence is OK, since everyone can be a sports fan, but it is not OK—for example—in literature. Literature has to do with gradations in taste and value, so a multicultural consumer democracy cannot take it seriously. That, at bottom, is the reason in recent decades even that academic literary critics have been abandoning literature as literature in favor of social theory and popular culture.
Critics often complain that America is anti-intellectual. The criticism has a lot to be said for it, but the scope of the problem is not often recognized. It is not just NASCAR fans, Oprah watchers, and cigar-chomping businessmen. It is also pundits, thinkers, scholars, moral leaders, and our most cherished national ideals.
America is democratic in many ways, but when basic things go wrong the blame rests on the leaders as well as the people. Democratic societies are not completely democratic. They live by ideals, and leaders give ideals shape, direction, and application. The basic commitments of our leaders—even our intellectuals—are at odds with intellectual excellence. It follows that our public schools have no real use for the things of the mind, and gifted and talented education is all but impossible among us.
The problem springs from all aspects of the American outlook—from our idealism as well as our concern with practicality.
As idealists, we believe in the infinite potential of every human being. We are here to be all that we can be—even, according to some, to act out our own divinity. Some such view is part of our national religion. It has been that way since Emerson, the philosopher of America, made each individual his own Jesus, before whose “immense possibilities … all mere experience, all past biography, however spotless and sainted, shrinks away.”
Such views can make education seem irrelevant. As Emerson said, “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” After all, who can teach a genius how to be a genius, or a god to be a god? From Huck Finn to the hippies and other genuine or would-be children of nature, we have often considered those least exposed to formal education to be the ones most in touch with themselves and the things that really matter. That native tendency has drawn additional strength from European sources such as Rousseau, as well as from the absence of other visible alternatives to commerce and technology as a source of ideals of life.
Nonetheless, experience often fails to support our faith in infinite human possibility. Cynicism is a perpetual temptation in America, but it is one we fight against. When experience disappoints, and reinterpretation or denial is not enough, we aspire to put things right through education. We hope that through the schools we can liberate man and the world, so they can realize their true nature and become visibly what we know they must be in reality.
It follows that for us—at least in an idealistic mood—the point of education is to extend a sort of this-worldly salvation to all. Any other view would deny our faith in the infinitude within each of us. It would treat some of us as less than infinite, and therefore less than fully human.
Such a view abolishes gifted and talented education by making it universal, or rather by turning it into remedial education because it requires us to make special efforts to open up excellence to those who seem to lack it.
Every student has specific qualities. Our ideals require us to view those qualities as special gifts, and the educational system as a system for developing them equally in all cases. The result is that those who lack obvious gifts get more support than those who have them. A young Heifetz may get a special plan of studies, but everyone gets a special plan, and special needs require more support than special gifts. Student prodigies can take care of themselves, but the important thing is to leave no child behind in the pursuit of specialness. To deny someone his specialness is to deny him his earthly salvation.
If need be, and no other possibility presents itself, we bring about excellence universally by redefining it so all partake of it equally. If man is divine, everything he does is worthy of awe and admiration. That being so, everyone gets first prize! Who can say, after all, that negotiating the complexities and ambiguities of the situations in which American teenagers now find themselves is less demanding, or humanly less worthy, than what Einstein did?
You cannot live on a steady diet of ideals, and like other people Americans have contradictory qualities. They are practical as well as idealistic.
Universal gifted and talented education is difficult to put into practice, and it is hard always to convince ourselves that everyone is a genius in his own way. For that reason we sometimes prefer to pay attention to what can actually be achieved, and concentrate on visible talents that can be developed in a straightforward and reliable manner.
Public spirit is another American ideal, and the public good cannot be reduced to the private good of each student separately. So education also needs to look at the student from the standpoint of other people: how useful can he or she be to society as a whole?
With such a view a “gift or talent” becomes something that can benefit others, and the point of educational policy is to get the best return on investment from the standpoint of overall social well-being.
But what is social well-being? It is different from individual self-realization, since it must be something everyone can make use of. Still, the way we define the term must respect, as much as possible, the unique value of each individual. Otherwise, we cannot accept it without turning against our deepest convictions as Americans.
The result is that social well-being becomes defined as promotion of maximum choice for everyone. America, we are told, is all about freedom and equality. Social well-being then consists in everyone getting what he wants, as much and as equally as possible.
We cannot tell people what to want, so we need a measure. The most objective, practical. and universal measure of what people want is what they are willing to pay for. The public good, and the goal of education, therefore becomes maximum economic output, so that people can get the most of what money can buy. More concretely, with nationalism added to the mix, the purpose of the schools becomes production of the workers America needs to meet the challenges of global competition in the twenty-first century.
Presumably, the workers America needs are the ones it is willing to pay for. On that line of thought, schools should prepare students for the highest-paying jobs possible. Gifted and talented education becomes a matter of special help for young people who look like they have what it takes to make lots of money. It is a way of helping tomorrow’s rich become richer.
Two basic tendencies within the American outlook thus lead to two different understandings of gifted and talented education. One turns it into remedial education, the other into a scheme for making the rich richer. The two understandings conflict, neither makes much sense, and neither has much to do with artistic, scientific, or scholarly excellence.
So what to do? When people face basic difficulties, they philosophize. Americans who think philosophically about political questions generally become philosophical liberals. Our national faith in the infinite self-sufficient worth of every individual requires it.
Philosophical liberalism takes the individual and his interests and purposes as its basic standard. While it starts with idealism and the individual, it is about government and therefore about practicality. As a result it ends by restating the “practical” view outlined above, but in a more complex, nuanced, and comprehensive way.
Liberalism wants to maximize the autonomy of the individual. It tells us that institutions should promote the ability of each individual to pursue his own goals. On that view, each student should determine what he wants, and education should help him go for it.
In theory, what the student goes for could be mystical experience, self-realization, the infinite within, or anything whatever. Liberalism is a public conception, though, so it concerns itself with goals that are easily recognized and which people can be relied on to want regardless of idiosyncratic tastes. In practice, it assumes that people will mostly want power, prestige, pleasure, and money.
As a result, the individual empowerment liberalism wants to promote is potentially quite troublesome. The pursuit of power and prestige leads to conflicts that create more losers than winners. The pursuit of pleasure takes the edge off conflict, but tends to be nonproductive and even self-defeating.
Philosophical liberalism therefore tends to approve channeling 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 peaceful and even democratic to a degree. And since people do want money, and 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 needs. Freedom stops being “another word for nothing left to lose” and becomes a matter of career and consumption.
Ideally, those goods should be equally available to everyone. Nonetheless, liberal theorists such as John Rawls point out that allowing special advantages to some can pay off for those who are worse off by increasing economic output. On such a view, “gifted and talented” students are those who are likely to make the system more efficient. If special training is likely to make a particular student especially productive, the resulting increased wealth can be part of a rising tide that lifts all boats and thereby justifies the special treatment.
The effect, then, of liberal political principles is that education becomes a process designed to turn young people into docile, efficient, and law-abiding workers, consumers, and hobbyists, with special attention to those (the gifted and talented) who are most likely to contribute to the success of the system as a whole.
The tendency to understand liberal principles in such a way is strengthened by the position of education as a trillion-dollar industry that is 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 supported by other aspects of liberally-minded education, for example training students to be tolerant and to celebrate diversity. However idealistic such goals sound, the effect of enforcing them is to teach students to reject parental, cultural, and religious standards and loyalties, or at most to treat them as private tastes and consumption choices.
The only standards and connections diversity-trained students are taught to take seriously are those generated by market and state: money, career, consumption, doing what the law says to do, believing what the experts say to believe, and accepting the politically correct suppression of everything that conflicts with what is officially asked of them. If the training takes, students abandon particular loyalties and become loyal only to the system as a whole, to their own careers and consumption choices, and perhaps to a few private friends.
Once again, the effect if not the conscious goal is to turn students into pliant and politically correct careerists and consumers adapted to the needs of globalized twenty-first century government and economic life, with the gifted and talented as the future shock troops of liberal capitalist labor.
The liberal approach has important advantages. It emphasizes the American ideal of autonomy while taking social goals and functioning into account. It reconciles the private purposes of individuals with the interests of major social institutions. And since most people support or at least can be brought to acquiesce in it, it brings social peace.
In addition, many find the liberal approach unavoidable as a theoretical matter because (they say) in a diverse society education cannot be oriented toward particular substantive values like God, country, family or the good life. It must be guided by the liberal values of choice and tolerance.
That is why in theory liberalism tries to avoid recognizing the special value of particular ways of life. Each of us has his or her own definition of the good life, and it is illiberal to choose one and give it preference over the others. Social institutions should just try as much as possible to give people what they want.
A problem with the theory is that the liberal system cannot really give people whatever they want, since they are encouraged to want—and allowed to pursue freely—only what fits the smooth operation of the system. If you like liberalism you are welcome to engage in public life. If you want to live in a libertarian or Catholic social order, you will run into a great many systemic obstacles. These can range from judges who say that what you want is unconstitutional to opinion leaders who say it is a thought crime.
Like other social systems, bureaucratically-managed liberal capitalism needs to adapt the people to its demands. It rules by distracting people from ultimate questions, keeping them busy through gainful employment, giving them as many consumer and lifestyle distractions as possible, and suppressing social prejudices and particular social connections so people neither annoy each other nor have particular grounds for mutual reliance.
Each is left to pursue his separate career and consumption goals within a comprehensive managed system. A successful and much-admired candidate for the presidency recently stated the outlook now ascendant: it is only those embittered by exclusion from the joys of careerism and consumerism who cling to religion, local community, and the symbolic institutions of an older republican civic order, such as private ownership of guns.
The liberal approach, of course, 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. Nor is it natural to human beings: that is why educators now find themselves constantly called upon to drill correct attitudes and ways of thinking into their recalcitrant charges. Education has become re-education.
The fact is that in liberal society school and state choose more than ever what students should believe and how they should live. Paradoxically, but nonetheless truly, the liberal ideal of autonomy means that young people must be turned into components of a big economic machine, and other aspects of their lives must be suppressed in the interest of its smooth functioning. If that is so, though, where is the autonomy? Has something gone wrong? Does the rationally organized production and delivery of equal amounts of autonomy to everyone even make sense as a social goal?
Problems in ways of thought lead to practical problems in the schools. More specifically, the liberal emphasis on purely individual goals and on the demands of the social machine undercut the effective schools liberal ends require. Liberalism makes education a matter of promoting social tolerance, economic prosperity, and the achievement of private purposes. It thus makes education technological. A school becomes 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, cannot be a tool. It has to do with the formation and development of human beings. Human development is less a matter of technology or attaining specific practical purposes than of commitment, and even devotion to goods that are sustaining and enduring enough upon which to build a way.
Economic utility is important, but it is not something to live by. Education, especially gifted and talented education, needs something more. Teachers will be better teachers, for example, if they love their subjects for their 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.
Also, 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. That is especially the case if the goal is excellence. We do not give ourselves wholeheartedly to study if its benefits are simply instrumental. It must be absorbing in itself.
The best education inducts students into principles and practices that are not only absorbing but embody values worth living by. Education is for life, and we learn to live from concrete examples.
Humane learning is educational because it can stand on its own as a life-enhancing good even though it may also be useful for other purposes. It is able to do so because art, science, and scholarship, while disinterested, are not altogether self-contained. Art is not just for art’s sake, nor are science and scholarship guided solely by their own internal purposes. Each is motivated by a vision of truth and beauty, and thus by an overall understanding of life and the world.
Those who pursue them gain something of that understanding, each in his own way, and that is the ultimate reason for their educational importance. They show us something valuable about life and the world that we could not learn otherwise. Those—the gifted and talented—who can best pursue them, and realize in their own lives the goods they make available, are suited to become leaders of the next generation. That is the chief goal and justification of gifted and talented education.
The basic problem with gifted and talented education in America, then, is that education necessarily involves the question of what life is about, and we can neither avoid the question nor give it a coherent answer. As it is, we either say it is a matter of getting what we want, or that it does not need to be answered, because every human being is sufficient unto himself, so every human action and way of life automatically embodies all the value it needs.
Neither answer is helpful in education. Without more useful answers, gifted and talented education cannot go forward, because it cannot know what it is about. America can disestablish religion formally, but it is much harder to keep concerns that at bottom are religious in nature out of education. If we do not know what life is about we cannot know what gifts and talents are, what they are for, or how they should be developed.
The American Way?
A second problem gifted and talented education must deal with is American culture, especially as reflected in teen culture. That problem is closely related to the problems we have discussed regarding values. If intellectual leaders have difficulty thinking about how to live well because the form of society they believe in does not allow such thoughts to be taken seriously, other people will have trouble also.
Difficulty thinking about how to live affects life itself. When people come to believe that thought on ethical issues has no objective value they respond—quite rationally—by rejecting the things of the mind. If we are completely at a loss as to what is good in life then thought has no standards to apply and cannot go anywhere. If thought is non-functional, though, why bother with it? Why not just do whatever pops into your head? But if that is as good an answer as any to all life’s questions, then education, especially gifted and talented education, is in big trouble.
What are viewed as the good points of American education, like coeducation and the promotion of diversity and inclusion, make matters worse. They tell us that universal standards applicable to everyone are the only standards to live by. Other more particular standards and connections that vary by time, place, and those involved, must be deprived of effect.
That is not how people live, though, so education based on that view will not engage life effectively. For example, the goal of 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 all but impossible.
Coeducation, and the loosening of sexual standards that is required by the liberal ideal of choice, exacerbate the situation. They mean that 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, means students show off in ways they invent for themselves—that is, crudely and stupidly. The scholastic ethos becomes defined by the popular and the unpopular, cool kids and losers, jocks and 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 that situation still more fraught. If gay is OK, then anyone could be gay, and those who are not insist on making that clear to everyone. Philistine attitudes are an easy way to do so.
In any event, diversity and inclusiveness make it impossible to study the humanities in a straightforward manner. As things are now, Shakespeare cannot be studied for his intrinsic value. If we take Shakespeare seriously, the culture that produced him looks better than other cultures. That means he has to be debunked, so his example does not give special authority to one particular culture and its standards. He must be studied, if at all, from the standpoint of sex roles, social history, colonialism, and so on. But then why study Shakespeare instead of the Yellow Pages?
Diversity and inclusion also mean that parental and community views on moral and cultural issues cannot be allowed to matter, since those views conflict and the views of one cultural group cannot be given preference over those of another. As a result, the larger community is left to view education purely as a means to money, career and prestige. Parents demand special programs to help kids get into top colleges, and that is what passes as gifted and talented education. Rhetoric about creativity and intellectual excitement is window dressing that does not matter much to anyone. As long as the student gets on the parents and community do not care, and the students and many faculty do not care either as long as they can get on with their other interests.
Finally, schools and local communities feel the effects of social tendencies such as the dissolution of family life and other human connections, which deprives settled standards of any place in which they can exist, and the dominance of electronic pop culture, which is driven by money and celebrity and makes every imaginable image and sensation equally available to everybody without effort. In the setting such things create, where can the complex and subtle goods be found that gifted and talented education is supposed to promote?
What to do?
Defining the problem does not solve it, but might make productive discussion easier.
For example, it can show us that cutting the problem down into pieces can make it more manageable. Education is a big business today, so much so that it is hard to deal with as a whole. In earlier societies young people learned informally and by imitating their elders. Schooling was mostly brief, to the point, and emphasized basic skills. Today we have school, pre-school, after-school, summer school, and graduate school. Education has become an all-day year-round arrangement that comes in every flavor imaginable from infancy well into adulthood.
Since education is so big, and takes up so much of life, it cannot function rationally without dealing with life’s purposes on the grand scale. We cannot discuss such issues in America, so the system breaks down overall. We want it to redeem society through education, but cannot discuss what redemption is. That is not a recipe for success.
Under such circumstances it is hard to expect a solution to the problems of American education overall until American society pulls itself together and settles on some reasonable view on what life is about. That would require a general social transformation that is not likely any time soon, and in any case is beyond the scope of this essay.
In the meantime, there are partial measures. We cannot save the whole world, and we cannot save something that is as big a piece of the world as the American educational system, but we can let people do things on a smaller scale that work better than what we have now. Education is a local activity: a teacher at one end of a log and a student at the other. Vast structures are more likely to distract from its essential purposes than promote them. Also, freedom and equality do not have to be monolithic. America has been about federalism and local control as well as about liberty.
Without vision the people perish, and at its best, gifted and talented education is education for vision. We may have trouble putting together a worthwhile vision of life as a national society, but we can still have worthwhile visions locally that motivate and give substance to the education of future generations of leaders. Even if American society in general cannot agree on what life is about, those involved in particular educational institutions may be able to come to some kind of practical agreement that is sufficient for their purposes.
On that view better education, and therefore better gifted and talented education, would mean less centralization, more local control, and more emphasis on private schools, homeschooling, and religious schools. The future of American education may well lie in dismantling centralized structures and letting the real experts—parents and others directly involved in educating young people—get on with the job based on their best understanding of how life should be.
Whatever may be true of vast structures, those on the spot really do care when a young person displays special talents. Gifted and talented education is a normal part of education because the point of education is developing what is there by reference to what is good. The issue, then, is not how to contrive it but how to do away with the things that suppress its natural development. Facilitating that development should be a leading goal in American education. The very ambition of American education, its desire to transform everything while taking no positions and infringing on nothing, may well be part of what must be overcome.