The gifted get short shrift
In the third of a brilliant three-part series on the state of American education, Charles Murray (co-author of "The Bell Curve") argues that political correctness and the fear of being "elitist" keeps the US from nurturing its best and brightest. One of the other articles was a fascinating discussion about how far too many Americans go to college....
Aztecs vs. Greeks
By CHARLES MURRAY, Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2007; Page A17
If "intellectually gifted" is defined to mean people who can become theoretical physicists, then we're talking about no more than a few people per thousand and perhaps many fewer. They are cognitive curiosities, too rare to have that much impact on the functioning of society from day to day. But if "intellectually gifted" is defined to mean people who can stand out in almost any profession short of theoretical physics, then research about IQ and job performance indicates that an IQ of at least 120 is usually needed. That number demarcates the top 10% of the IQ distribution, or about 15 million people in today's labor force -- a lot of people.
In professions screened for IQ by educational requirements -- medicine, engineering, law, the sciences and academia -- the great majority of people must, by the nature of the selection process, have IQs over 120. Evidence about who enters occupations where the screening is not directly linked to IQ indicates that people with IQs of 120 or higher also occupy large proportions of positions in the upper reaches of corporate America and the senior ranks of government. People in the top 10% of intelligence produce most of the books and newspaper articles we read and the television programs and movies we watch. They are the people in the laboratories and at workstations who invent our new pharmaceuticals, computer chips, software and every other form of advanced technology.
Combine these groups, and the top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. Of the simple truths about intelligence and its relationship to education, this is the most important and least acknowledged: Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.
How assiduously does our federal government work to see that this precious raw material is properly developed? In 2006, the Department of Education spent about $84 billion. The only program to improve the education of the gifted got $9.6 million, one-hundredth of 1% of expenditures. In the 2007 budget, President Bush zeroed it out.
But never mind. A large proportion of gifted children are born to parents who value their children's talent and do their best to see that it is realized. Most gifted children without such parents are recognized by someone somewhere along the educational line and pointed toward college. No evidence indicates that the nation has many children with IQs above 120 who are not given an opportunity for higher education. The university system has also become efficient in shipping large numbers of the most talented high-school graduates to the most prestigious schools. The allocation of this human capital can be criticized -- it would probably be better for the nation if more of the gifted went into the sciences and fewer into the law. But if the issue is amount of education, then the nation is doing fine with its next generation of gifted children. The problem with the education of the gifted involves not their professional training, but their training as citizens.
We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist, and inequality of responsibilities, which is also elitist. And so children who know they are smarter than the other kids tend, in a most human reaction, to think of themselves as superior to them. Because giftedness is not to be talked about, no one tells high-IQ children explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift. That they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones. That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.
See others in the series:
• What's Wrong With Vocational School (1/17/07)
Our culture puts a false premium on the college degree.
• Intelligence in the Classroom (1/16/07)
The culprit for educational deficit is often low intelligence.
The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities -- in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today's education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, "I can't do this." Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them. That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire.
The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks. The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.
The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.
The encouragement of wisdom requires an advanced knowledge of history. Never has the aphorism about the fate of those who ignore history been more true.
All of the above are antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today's schools at every level. The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.
In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato's Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did.
* * *
The goals that should shape the evolution of American education are cross-cutting and occasionally seem contradictory. Yesterday, I argued the merits of having a large group of high-IQ people who do not bother to go to college; today, I argue the merits of special education for the gifted. The two positions are not in the end incompatible, but there is much more to be said, as on all the issues I have raised.
The aim here is not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education. Accept that some children will be left behind other children because of intellectual limitations, and think about what kind of education will give them the greatest chance for a fulfilling life nonetheless. Stop telling children that they need to go to college to be successful, and take advantage of the other, often better ways in which people can develop their talents. Acknowledge the existence and importance of high intellectual ability, and think about how best to nurture the children who possess it.
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