Thursday, January 18, 2007

Aztecs vs. Greeks (Murray part 3)

Today, Charles Murray turns his attention to the intellectually gifted, which he defines rather broadly as those with IQs over about 120. It turns out these articles are available online, so you can read today's installment here.

Basically, in this installment, Murray calls for the gifted to be given a challenging, classical education. He further states that we need to encourage gifted kids not to become just smart but wise. "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."

I totally agree with this, just as I agree that gifted kids need to learn grammar and logic. There's no point telling kids just to be creative and express themselves without giving them the tools to do so in a coherent fashion. As an art, music and history junkie myself, I also think it would be great to make sure children have a classical education, which Murray calls for (full of ethics, study of the Greeks rather than the Aztecs, which is how this essay gets its title, and so on).

Unfortunately, for all his lauding of a classical education, Murray fails to tie the knot demonstrating why studying the Greeks makes anyone good and wise. He repeats William Buckley's joke that it would be better to be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard, but it must be pointed out that the vast majority of Harvard faculty have studied the Greeks and art and ethics, while the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book have not. If the Harvard faculty have not become wise (defined, here, I suspect, as envisioning a society with rules similar to ones Murray and Buckley would design) than we have a logical problem. Unfortunately, this essay doesn't address that. I guess Murray simply had to crank out a part 3 of a 3-part series.

But if anyone reads Aztecs vs. Greeks and decides to push for education that holds gifted kids' feet to the fire, intellectually, than I'll be happy. There is great satisfaction that comes from trying something difficult and achieving it. This is one of the reasons Jan and Bob Davidson give their fellowship awards every year; the projects kids undertake go far beyond what is ever assigned in school. The results are rarely easy to come across, and the projects rarely easy to produce -- at least if you're going to win. Likewise, it wasn't until I got to the Indiana Academy that I discovered how hard I was capable of working. I decided I wanted to take AP Biology and Chemistry simultaneously during the fall of my senior year, and I wanted to get As in both. That required not only doing well, but according to our grading system, doing a full standard deviation better than my very intellectually gifted classmates on each test. I struggled -- writing up lab reports at 2am -- but I did it. It's a lesson of perseverance and being in control of one's life I've since taken to book writing and other long, difficult projects. It's a lesson I worry too few gifted kids learn. No one should expect life to be easy, at least not if you're going to enjoy it.


Anonymous said...

“Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.” Charles Murray

I whole-heartedly agree with this statement. The future security of our nation is also at stake. I am certain that groups who wish to destroy us do not ignore the intellectual development of their most gifted members!

noshua watson said...

I do agree with the importance of wisdom, humility and a liberal education. But I'm not sure why this applies only to intellectual elites.

I also find it hard to believe that only the Talented Tenth (I wonder if Charles Murray would appreciate the WEB DuBois reference) are doing novel and worthwhile work in society. Having been educated with and worked with elites in the US, Europe and Asia, I can guarantee you that most of them do not have IQs over 120 or at least don't act like it :)

I will be the first to acknowledge that smart kids have distinct educational needs, but I don't see how the issues addressed in Dr. Murray's essays differ from the educational issues that the general US population faces.

His premise also ignores that even if you give gifted kids the best educations, you can't control what they'll do with it. For every gifted success story I know, I can think of someone who crashed and burned. And even if they don't bomb, they grow up to become management consultants, which is not what I think Dr. Murray intends.

Sorry for hijacking your boards, Laura. The topic of intelligence with Charles Murray and giftedness talk on top was too button-pushing to ignore. At least it's a change from "Oh my child is sooooo special. I don't know what to do with her!"

Laura Vanderkam said...

Hi Noshua: Hijack away! It's a fun topic. I'm not sure where to draw the dividing line of where gifted education should kick in, be it the talented tenth Murray hints at, or more the top 1% or even the top tenth of that percent. An excellent, regular school could probably challenge and nurture someone with an intelligence at the 90th percentile. Things become more challenging with outliers on either side.
But I do think Murray is onto something when he says that gifted kids should have that point hit home: that it's a gift, and they have a responsibility to do something with it. I wonder if more emphasis on this could prevent some of the crash-and-burn stories we hear about (and yes, have both seen) or the phenomenon of the best minds of a generation choosing to short one stock, long the other, then take 25% of the upside? (I'm fine with mocking hedge funds... but management consulting pays the mortgage in this house :)

The Princess Mom said...

In reading the responses to some of Murray's articles (not this one as there were none posted) I noticed a tone that Noshua Watson repeated. "His premise also ignores that even if you give gifted kids the best educations, you can't control what they'll do with it. For every gifted success story I know, I can think of someone who crashed and burned."

Absolutely true. I'm the parent of at least two gifted underachievers. But why shouldn't gifted kids be lazy if nothing is expected of them? Why should they bother doing their best work if their less-than-best work is good enough for the classroom?

This is why gifted kids need to learn in gifted-only classrooms. It's not to form some kind of "The Skulls"-esque evil elitest cabal but to show them that they're not always the smartest kid in the room. The heterogeneous classroom is the great equalizer--everyone learns at the pace of the slowest third of the students. By third grade, our kids know exactly how much is expected of them, and it has nothing to do with how much they're capable of doing. We're training a generation of civil servants--kids who will only give as much effort as is required of them, not an ounce more. This is a tragedy not only for the Talented Tenth but for the Talented top-half (or two-thirds) of our future workforce.

Anonymous said...

I too stumbled over the peculiar inclusion of Buckley's classic joke about who he'd rather be governed by. That joke deftly scoffs at the premise of all 3 of these articles so I'm not sure why Murray thinks he agrees with it. According to all 3 articles, he ought to shudder with revulsion over the implications of that joke.

I do agree that there should be specific gifted education so that these kids will be challenged. That would go a long way towards preventing the underachiever syndrome. That one point is the only thing I agree with in all three articles. As to the rest...I agree with Buckley's joke. I mean ACTUALLY agree, which means not agreeing with pretty much everything else Murray ever commits to writing. (And I own a Boston phone book. So I can check up on who I'm randomly "electing".)

May I also add, praising humility is pretty rich coming from "Bell Curve" Murphy.

Anonymous said...

Sad to say, Laura, I dissagre with you here: An excellent, regular school could probably challenge and nurture someone with an intelligence at the 90th percentile.

See, the point of being an excellent regular schools means that 90% of regular schools (the non-excellent ones) wouldn't be able to give a reasonable education to the to kids in the 90th plus ppercentile of IQ.

Also my guess is that many kids who score at the 90th % of an IQ test have average or below average subtest in some areas and 99.9% in other areas. So while these children could be helped in their weaker areas, they still wouldn't be challenged or supported in their areas of strength. Sad to say, research shows that the best way to reach these kids is with proper challenge to their strengths. Our current mode is to put all the attention on the weaknesses, and it a very poor approach.

BTW - "Oh! My child IS sooooo special. I DO know what to do with her!" But the personal cost to do it are more than I was prepared to handle when I took on the job of parent. And even if I pay it, I can't go back to being unaware that there are plenty of other children out there like mine for whom no one will be able to pay that price, let alone willing.

Bottom line - lets give ALL kids, including bright, gifted, twice exceptional and unusually gifted an appropriate education because it's the decent thing to do, not because any of them are or are not going to turn out any particular way.

Do gifted kids have a responsibility to give back because they are gifted? No - I think that all people, of all ages, have a responsibility to give back - it's part of the nature of being human.

Slowly getting off soapbox....

noshua watson said...

The burnouts I'm referring to were in one of the better known early entrance college programs. From what I know, Laura's also referring to people who attended her highly selective gifted program.

Even with specialized attentive accelerated education, gifted kids are sometimes still just kids who get arrested, get pregnant, drop out, do drugs or just end up being average adults. Honestly, the most dominant trait I see in the business, political and academic leaders that I work with is persistence, not intelligence.

As for where the cutoff should be and who should receive gifted education, I think that accelerated courses should be available to anyone who wants to take them. Judging from the performance of regular kids whose parents get them into honors and AP classes and minority students whose teachers set up special AP classes for them, it seems that kids live up to the expectations and environment that they're in. Even superstar professors have more and better publications when they're surrounded by better colleagues at a higher ranked school.

So unless your kid can skip at least 3-4 years in a subject, I don't think they're that gifted and I don't think that it merits separating them into another classroom. We should raise the bar for everyone. And morally, shouldn't we all be expected to contribute to society?

Anonymous said...

I would like to see gifted kids given extra attention. Our educational system is too egalitarian when it comes to the kids who do well and too pandering when it comes to the kids who aren't succeeding. "The smart ones will do well, regardless." That's the justification for spending a million dollar grant on transforming the school into "small learning academies," which will include lots of voc ed, no additional college prep classes, and adamantly prohibits "tracking." I frequently hear that all kids are "gifted" in some way, but I'm not hearing the equally true aphorism that we are all "learning disabled." I'd like to see resources reallocated, shifting a few dollars from the "at risk" to the "of promise."

Anonymous said...

I think that the reason Murray champions classical education is that it relies heavily on authority rather than experiment as the source of knowledge. Quite frankly, the Greek ideas of science are a few thousand years out of date.

The traditional liberal arts education is so short on science and math that many of our college graduates are getting BA degrees with only grade-school competence in math or science. Burdening our brightest students with an authority-based education will further limit our supply of scientists (we are already heavily dependent on immigration to supply our country with scientists and engineers---look at almost any grad school in the country).

Quiltsrwarm said...

The deal with learning about ancient Greek culture and language is that our democracy is based in the culture and our language is based in ancient Greek and Latin (helps with learning spelling and word meanings).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge proponnent of classicist education. IMHO, the method is too rigid for gifted needs. As homeschoolers, we can choose the teaching method we'd like our kids to learn by, however, the learning style of the child often trumps the teaching method. Many gifteds do not learn in such a logical way as the classcial teaching method requires, and these kids will make teaching classically difficult. Holding a child's feet to the fire isn't the same as teaching classically -- I think Murry misses this point by not understanding a classical education.

If you don't know what a "classical education" is, the following might be thought-provoking. Basically, the classical method teaches a "trivium" of thought processes through three four-year sequences. Each four year sequence follows the same historical perspective -- ancient history, dark ages/mideval history, renaissance/early industrial, and modern/current. Each year of the four year sequence is spent on one of these four periods in time, in order, focusing on different types of learning in each era. Sound familiar? Public schools used to be set up in this way (thus the 12-year program of learning we are all familiar with).

Here, I pose some questions/thoughts for those who feel a re-introduction of the classical education model in our public schools would help our gifteds...

The first sequence, the early education years (grammar), memorizing facts and figures from histroical periods is key (read here: drill and kill). Yes, kids are sponges and absorb everything they can get their little minds around. For gifteds, though, this process often is complete before they are done with the second year's worth of classical ed. So, if the public school went back to using this method, would it be flexible enough to allow such a child to progress to the second sequence (the logical) before the fourth year is complete?

The second sequence of learning in the classical sense requires a student to start putting two and two together, to draw relationships between events in history and today (in a nutshell). I think many gifteds who are very young are able to do this without direction -- it is a part of being gifted and kids can't help but to draw such relationships, and they will often do it in the process of learning their facts and figures from the first sequence. Can a public school, as it is currently set up, be flexible enough to allow such children the freedom to learn at such a fast pace, even by classical standards?

Then we get to the heavy writing (rhetoric) sequence of a classical education. Bascially kids will need to be able to sculpt their learning into new ideas, and write convincingly about them, based on all the learning that has happened before (this includes advanced studies in mathematics and science). A great idea, but can a public school do this again?

Current public schools, in general, have yet to prove they are capable of teaching advanced thought processes. A fact illustrated in the "remedial" courses college-bound kids are forced to take because they really aren't prepared for college-level learning.

I do not at all agree that a classical education model will work for most gifteds -- their thought processes just don't work that way. An education model that removes grade levels and promotes higher learning/thinking skills across the board will not only more effectively challenge gifteds, but the model will challenge kids of normal leanings to do better. Our country deserves no less than that.

Anonymous said...

"But I do think Murray is onto something when he says that gifted kids should have that point hit home: that it's a gift, and they have a responsibility to do something with it. I wonder if more emphasis on this could prevent some of the crash-and-burn stories we hear about..."

I so disagree with your comments here, Laura. First off - how is giftedness a "gift"? To some, it is a burden borne of years of teasing and neglect at the hands of others. For those with strong self-identities and support systems, they do see giftedness as an advantage in life. But why stress it as a responsibity to do something? Sure - it increases a competitive nature, and yes - it can and has achieved great accomplishments in various areas of study. But at what cost? Is not the cost of burnout too high? Is it worth it to place so much of a demand upon a very small segment of the population?

To simply say that intelligence is an ability for which it makes it easier for someone to readily achieve their personal goals is great and accurate. But to put added pressure upon an already marginalized population that they must achieve greatness by someone else's standards as it is their responsibility above all others to to so is ludicrious.

The vast majority of fresh ideas and world achievements have not been made by those who are of the highly intelligent. Perhaps it is exactly by not being of this group that allowed these people the full freedom to achieve what they - and not what others - wanted to achieve. To think that it is only the highly intelligent who are the movers and shakers in the world is beyond elitist.

Wisdom, not intelligence, is the ultimate goal. And wisdom is indeed elusive. Yet wisdom is readily found in all walks of life. We need to recognize this, and appreciate this, or stay forever behind our rosy mirrored glasses.

Anonymous said...

As Ms. Watson so eloquently described with conviction, her own personal experiences, and thus so stated-- I will say that I too agree and will generalize that success is not born out of talent, but rather Determination. Although talent may lead the way to making the next "Einstein", "JFK".. these individuals were bonded by a common thread of PASSION AND VISION in which all that they came to achieve they could soo tangibly see in the late hours of night while the rest were asleep (sort of speak)before introducting it to the rest of the world. Giftedness at its best!

I must say that human nature is streaked by many great qualities, both great and flawed, but do come together like a colage of wonderful emotions constituting the life they will, achieve what they will, and most of all HOW they will.

At the end of the day, people, gifted or not, are human beings who will love, lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes dive into the bottom depths to maintain their place as "elite" or is it "elite"??

These gifted programs, although structured and founded, to insolate a selected few in order to futher nurture their expanding minds ever so hungry to learn, to comprehend, utilize and finally create-- also groom the worst of qualities in these individuals.. grooming an arrogance streaching a distance from the "real world". In addition to this, to preserve this stance of being "elite" in every way, the pressures that are exhumed and followed, no matter the cost of resorting to the darkest of human character--deception and envy. Remember such movies as "school ties" a fictional story but trully based on true human character in schools, environments, places of the "ELITE".. a student will do everything to make sure he or she will be graduated into Harvard as his father/mother done, and his father/mother before him done, it is a way, it is the only life--and in the end, it must be protected no matter the cost.. RIGHT? So, "HUMILITY"-- yes, an element I can not say exists in the so-called "ELITE".. I would say that although a child is accelerated that he or she should know the differences, sprititually and culturally, of both places--a hard task, but not an impossible one. This can be best be handled by not placing them in solely "gifted programs"...

Burning out-- now that is another subject, perhaps one best to be revisited with those who can speak from experience not those who resided on the other end. Maybe burning out as it is negatively seen is not what it seems to you, but to them, a self-awakening to knowing that true LIVING is not about being more in "ELITE", but to really understand after all why we are here and what it is to truly know LIFE==enlightenment, if you will. All great people haved moved society and caused changes creating ripples for things to never be as they have been-- Martin Luther King, Einstein, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Malcolm X (later years), Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton and soo many more--these people are "ELITE"..because they captured the true meaning of life and conveyed such ideas to the masses.. they created change. They weren't perfect, or considered "Gifted" before, then or later, or they were so-called "burn outs" at one time... These were and are leaders of yesterday, now and will be tomorrow--. Being "Gifted" is a great study, but I don't think we take time to study about "ethics" and the changing agents of society.. this is an imperfect world made of imperfect forces.

rbraverman said...

this is the response I sent to the Wall Street Journal:

/ Education/
Aztecs vs. Greeks

January 18, 2007; Page A17

As Advocacy Vice President of the New Jersey Association for Gifted
Children ( and as a proud public school educator teaching
gifted students in Mount Laurel, NJ (
(NJ Turnpike exit 4), I was pleased to see some attention directed to
the most neglected students in the USA. Thank you, Charles Murray, for
writing about the needs of so many of our children in a publication so
significant as the Wall Street Journal. We need to consider investing
now...some of our money, our time, our attention and resources to the
children who are asked to sit and wait, teach themselves, or be the
helper while other students work to master standards below the gifted
students' challenge level of instruction.

To reply to the question: "How assiduously does our federal government
work to see that this precious raw material is properly developed?" I am
sorry to say, it does not work, nor does the federal government provide
for these children. Unlike other special needs populations, there are no
laws to protect the rights of these students to grow and to learn at the
speed and depth of their potential. Most of the attention, funding and
programs in our schools are focused on remedial learners. Children are
locked into the Industrial Revolution model of grouping students by
their chronological age without consideration for mastered skills. NCLB
has turned the joy of learning into an exercise in test preparation and
has zapped the energy of so many dedicated professionals, let alone
their students.

The majority of our teachers have had no training to recognize or
develop the talents of our G & T students, nor are they encouraged to do
so. The myth that these kids will make it on their own has lead to an
exodus of affluent highly able students to private schools, home
schooling, and outside of school programs. Hence we are setting another
great divide, leaving those who cannot afford to supplement or supplant
their free public education to "do time" in public schools without
programs for gifted students.

Some states include gifted education leaders at their state education
agencies, in their education budgets, and support programs such as
Governor's Schools. New Jersey does not do any of these things. Some
local districts provide excellent programs, but do so with local tax
money and little direction or leadership from the state or federal
governments. When tax time and failing budget crunches force districts
to look at programs to cut, guess which children are first to have
services eliminated? This problem exists nationally and is at a crisis

Many adults assume that the tests now required by No Child Left Behind
will assure Adequate Yearly Progress for all, but unfortunately the
tests have only been used thus far to measure districts, not
individuals. Those of us who advocate for gifted students have used the
phrase "No Child Allowed to Get Ahead" to better define the paradigm
shift away from honors classes and acceleration of students who have
previously mastered or easily master grade level requirements. Most
districts no longer use any form of intelligence testing, only Core
Content Standards that are fixed by grade level and have very low
ceilings. Inclusion and heterogeneous classes have blended all students
slowing instruction to middle levels, at best, in most classes.

What can be done? It has been suggested that a full blown awareness
campaign, with continuing help from the media, and public outcry will
assure that these children are no longer ignored or neglected. Parent
groups are forming to give support to each other and to make needs known
to local districts. Do we need class action law suits at state and
federal levels to assure that gifted students receive an appropriate
free education? That was the way that parents of special education
students got action, from the courts.

How many success stories have we heard of inventors and innovators who
made it in spite of the education system that thwarted their non-linear,
non-conforming attitudes? America is a land of opportunity. Protect our
precious resources, our children. Help those who want to learn soar
without limits. Let's not leave out the top five or ten percent of the
student population when planning for needed changes in education.


Roberta Braverman

I look forward to a reply (or better yet notification of publication of
my letter!)

Anonymous said...

I loved the article. "Gifted" has become synonymous with "difficult". My daughter is gifted, but I would really question hiring someone who claimed to be "gifted" due to the traits you mentioned. Many definitions of gifted speak of global concerns. I do believe that studying history by students who can really understand cause and effect can really help. It shows the reality that there is nothing really new and that there are always consequences for a leader's bad decision that history allows students to view and make connections to. And the "questioning" versus passive learning is a great way to do it. Of course, there is always the theory of having seventh graders just do community service for one year to really give them a true perspective on how bad their lives could be!

Anonymous said...

This is only a bit connected, but something I keep bringing up in education and getting strange looks for. There is always the "do we need a foreign language?" I love reading books on the history of English. English is made up of so many foreign languages and uses so many pieces of other languages. I am in a book club with really bright women with advanced degrees. They are all profient in "English" and one other language, yet completely stumble on any other language. We read books that may have words in Italian, German, French or other languages. It is pathetic that a person that was Valedictorian and a High School English Teacher would not be able to pronounce a German word while studying Willa Cather's "The Song of the Lark" or that parents at our school (while presenting during our Art History projects) cannot pronounce some of our Italian or German artist's names. And Latin is certainly not dead in Science. I was so upset that I memorized all that information in Biology to realize later that I could have just learned a little Latin and made it all very easy. And it would be nice for someone to really show kids how to make the Greek letters needed for math. We spend so much time on the Roman alphabet. I still struggle and have no idea if I am correct with my angles in Trig. When I volunteered in my daughter's first grade class, I told the kids that theta (or Teth) was a letter and that that is why we have a "th" sound. The kids were happy to hear it and it made so much sense to them. I still feel that "gifted children" don't need acceleration as much as they need more information! A reading specialist should have this information and the kids would be so hungry for it! To be truly literate, we really need to know the odd rules of many languages such as the "ch" in Italian making the "k" sound. This comes up so much more often for me than my years of Spanish - and I live in Texas. I am currently working on "not changing my facial features when someone says Mo-zart".