The Problem of Achievement (part 349...)
I've been getting emails from various blog readers about this topic, namely, the problem with pushing for gifted education on the basis that "these children will be our future Nobel Prize winning scientists, literary novelists, composers, etc."
It's not a bad argument in the sense that movers and shapers of our society do generally come from people in the top 1-3% of intelligence.
The problem is that many programs that recognize gifted students for their early achievements don't wind up choosing the ones who actually will shape the culture.
I was reminded of this by a story in today's USA Today on the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the paper's All-USA High School Academic Team.
Since the late 1980's, USA Today has been choosing a handful of high school stars to profile every year. I have my own beefs with the selection process (community service, geographic diversity, an athletic side and some sleek marketing will get you on the list faster than pure smarts will). But regardless, these are the folks USA Today says are the best of the best. Now it's looking at the best of the best from twenty years ago.
The paper takes great care to say all these men and women, now in their late thirties, are successful. And by most definitions they are. They're doctors, scientists, writers, moms, moms who are doctors, scientists and writers, etc.
You also haven't heard of almost any of them. The paper surveyed the winners from 1987-1996. One, David Liu, is a Harvard chemistry prof who was recently named to the Popular Science "Brilliant 10" for his research. Another, Brooke Ellison, has continued to garner headlines for her disability advocacy (paralyzed in the seventh grade, Ellison went on to graduate from Harvard. Christopher Reeve directed a cable TV movie about her life, and Ellison and her mom wrote a book about living with disabilities).
Many of the others no doubt have the potential to do great things. But by age 38, we're getting out of the "potential" age and into the years where truly influential people start showing results. The All-USA team is presented as the best of the crop. The twenty years after high school are enough time to start a billion dollar company, or get elected to Congress, write a best-selling novel, compose a symphony that every orchestra in the country is itching to play.
If these All Stars had done that, USA Today would have written about it. And they didn't.
But unlike the Prodigy Puzzle article from the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago, I don't think that means we should throw up our hands and say, well, let's forget programs for gifted kids since we don't know who will do great things with their lives. I view the issues as entirely separate.
As a society, we don't devote a huge chunk of our educational resources to meeting the needs of special education students because we expect them to win Nobel Prizes. We simply view it as inhumane not to develop potential, however much is there. We think society is better off if people find learning to be an enjoyable thing, however much they are able to learn.
Gifted students deserve no less. No matter what they do with their lives.