Friday, August 31, 2007

A Question of Geography

I promised a few weeks ago that I'd write more about the Davidson Fellows, the decorated group of 17 young men and women who will be awarded $10,000-$50,000 scholarships in Washington DC in late September. I still hope to connect individually with some of them in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, hunting through the $50,000 winners' bios, I noticed an interesting theme.

Raw talent can happen anywhere. But geography plays an important role in turning that talent into achievement.

I noted, for instance, that Davidson Fellow Laureate Katherine Orazem, a young writer, comes from Ames, Iowa. This is a small Iowa town, but not just any small Iowa town. It's also the home of Iowa State University. University communities have certain features that make them more welcoming for gifted young people than other places. For starters, professors at major research universities are smart people who often have smart kids. Having a concentration of smart kids increases the chances that the school district will choose to cluster and challenge them. That doesn't happen everywhere, as I've often written about my home of South Bend, IN (home to the University of Notre Dame and some awful secondary schools). But the odds are on your side.

In addition, the universities themselves offer resources that curious kids can take advantage of. You can audit classes (or enroll for credit). You can find mentors in the form of graduate students and professors. If your talents lie in scientific pursuits, you can possibly gain access to lab equipment that no secondary school will ever be able to purchase.

You don't have to live in a university town to succeed, of course. There are tales of previous Davidson Fellows traveling multiple hours several times per week to do lab work at far away universities. This requires parents who are particularly motivated to commute, or who have the time to do so. This is extremely tough to pull off in a two-income family, which is why it's easier to live in a university town in the first place.

So Yale Fan, winner of a $50,000 prize for technology, lives in Beaverton, Oregon (close enough to Portland State University to do research there). Alexandra Courtis, another young scientist, is from Davis, California. Madhavi Gavini, whose work combines medicine and science, is from Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University. The lone musician of the group, Todd Kramer, lives in Port Jefferson, NY, which is on Long Island. While Port Jefferson is not a university town, it is the final stop on a branch line of the Long Island Railroad. I don't know if Kramer took the train or his parents drove him into Manhattan, but Penn Station is just a 5-10 minute subway ride south of the Juilliard school, where he studied.

In other words, geography matters. A child with much musical potential born in rural West Virginia will have a difficult time finding teachers and mentors to nurture that talent. While we all love the story of a diamond in the rough, even these gems must be cut and polished in order to shine. Some locations do a much better job of cutting and polishing than others.

I'm not sure what is to be done about this. If all teachers were trained in identifying gifted children, and all schools had partnerships with the nearest major universities, and all states had residential schools for gifted high schoolers, maybe geography wouldn't be so crucial. But for now, it is.


Anonymous said...

Maybe its just that Davidson can't find those geniuses in West Virginia because they don't know how to look. and that the musicians there play bluegrass instead of classical so a fiddle virtuoso is much less to be found by those looking for exceptional talent that think it must come in a certian kind of container. The rich and middle class are more likely to know how to package their talents and gifts in recognizable forms.

Anonymous said...

I hope that my recollection is correct. We heard Bob Davidson speak during the YS gathering this summer. I seem to remember him saying that he grew up on a farm in New York and he and his wife made their own fortune. The Davidsons do offer financial aid for Young Scholars whose families cannot afford the full cost of talent development.

I agree that location, as well as family connections and resources, grant greater access to opportunity for Davidson Fellows to produce their end results. Those variables do not diminish the ability, initiative, hard work and accomplishments these young people have achieved. Our society needs to discover and develop more high potential children, not discount our best talent due to the help they may have received along the way.

Anonymous said...

I am having some trouble identifying with your attitudes expressed here. I hear a constant theme within your statements that genius needs to be "molded" "guided" "cut & polished". These choices of verbage seem to point to an idea that classification of genius is required, and that a strong push in to levels of acheivement not required of the average citizen is a must. From my own expeirience, social skills are not the highest among most of the gifted. Adding a further division by encouraging a student to obsess in one feild is apalling. As caretakers of these minds that will shine so much more brightly than our own, we should consider free will in these areas. Helping a child grow as a person, not a prodigy, should be our focus. Taking your statistics at face value, it says that genius is much more prevalent than the ability to nurture it. So then why would we mold it the way you have suggested? A true genius may be late in finding their calling, but I feel would be much more succesful in any field they choose to explore if they have had the chance to explore all of their options. And they are their options, not ours. It would do you well to consider that I think.