Friday, October 01, 2010

Congrats to the 2010 Davidson Fellows! Plus a note on the humanities

I was in Washington DC on Wednesday night for the 10th annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony. Held this year at the National Museum of the American Indian, this event always brings together an incredible group of people interested in gifted education. As well as, of course, the Davidson Fellows themselves. You can read the bios of this year's winners here.

One interesting trend this year was that a very high percentage of the fellowships were in science. There is no particular limit on the number of fellowships awarded each year; it's more a matter of recognizing eminent work. I suspect that what is going on is that at least a handful of highly effective schools are starting to recognize the massive amounts of scholarship money available for students who do scientific research. I've written about school research programs in the past (see "Real Kids, Real Research" in USA Today). Indeed, when I was writing about the Westinghouse/Intel Science Talent Searches for Scientific American, I definitely saw the same schools appear again and again. Between Siemens and Intel, a top young scientist can wind up with six-figures of scholarships.

But the Davidsons are pretty much the only game in town with literature and the humanities. You don't see many "humanities fairs" like science fairs. And plus, in our zeal to promote STEM as the wave of the future, we forget that the humanities are actually, ahem, hard too. When done right. Of course, they usually aren't. In general, math and science have not been watered down as much as the humanities, so we find it easier to recognize excellence. We accelerate kids in math, but not in the humanities.

The net result of all this is that schools are just not as focused on nurturing, say, writing talent. We don't build up programs for accelerating the brightest young writers. The Indiana Academy is one of the few specialized public secondary schools for gifted kids that actually mentions humanities in the name. While science research programs are more rare than they should be, at least more of them exist than, say, programs that pair up a young writer with the masters of the field. Or young philosophers, poets, and so forth.

Many of the Davidson Fellows simply come out of the woodwork -- dreaming up an amazing idea and making it happen. But others have definitely been helped by having the architecture of a supportive school around them, one that recognizes scientific research as both important and doable, even for high school students. Can talent exist in a vacuum? Probably. But it has a much harder time, and you lose people on the margins. I do hope that we can start to see more structural support for gifted children with core competencies in the humanities in the future. One scholarship contest is a great incentive. Ten would be even better.

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