The INTELLECTUALLY GIFTED will light the path
the rest of us must follow

An essay by Ken Wear posted 11-11-04
On attitude of the gifted, click here.

The future of our species will be determined by our children. And it is the intellectually gifted among them who will, through their contributions, point the way and determine what that future holds. They must be identified and prepared since we allow waste of those gifts at our peril.

The world honors and rewards many facets of giftedness: the powerful muscles or dexterity or endurance of athleticism; the color or depth perception of visual artists; the tonal perception of instrumental musicians or the vocal quality of song; the acute sensitivity of taste and smell in the culinary arts; the power of observation and ability to mimic of the actor; . . . All of these are gifts in the sense a person possesses the relevant traits to an uncommon degree. Yet we have difficulty describing giftedness and in enumerating its various forms. Probably the best we can do is expose each youngster to a full range of interests to let him learn where his talents and interests shine.1 To view footnote, click here

I do not challenge the need to indoctrinate each student in a basic sense of values, in an orderly acceptance of the environment in which he chances to be placed, and in possibilities for his own advancement by his own efforts. There must always be balance between needs of the student and the needs of society. But I also understand the value to society of motivating and nurturing each youngster to a performance consonant with his innate abilities and peculiarities. It is this need in the area of intellectual giftedness to which this epistle is addressed.

Who cares? THAT'S OUR FUTURE; we all have a stake.

We cannot know source or cause of giftedness other than that (presently unidentified) genetic characteristics underlie it and opportunity allows its enhancement. But we know with a certainty that the future of our species will be determined by the performance of individuals who rise to prominence, and a person's innate gifts have a strong influence on the level of prominence he may achieve. Most assuredly the mentally handicapped, inept or unprepared can do little more than survive. We know intuitively that it is the outstandingly and profoundly gifted who will light our path to the future and set the tone for society through their contributions.3for footnote, click here Advancements toward the artistic, scientific, technological, biological, spiritual and physical needs of our society depend on our ability to identify and encourage preparation of those of outstanding ability.

Preparation. Innate gift is not enough; it must be recognized, encouraged, developed, applied. And it is during the formative years of schooling that we become aware of our gifts and the gifts of others and undertake, as best we can, to make something of them. We can ill afford, because of backwardnesses in our educational systems, to waste this one resource above all resources that holds promise for the future of our species. We must aggressively seek to identify those possessing various abilities to an outstanding degree and actively encourage them, within the bounds of developing the whole person, in developing their unique qualities to the extent their innate abilities permit. The future of our kind demands it.

I am of above-average intellect, else I would be unable to present this thesis with a degree of coherence. But I shared my home with a person of recognized athletic ability and now recognize a competition between several gifts in any one person.

I cannot overemphasize the uniqueness of the individual, the peculiarities in his sets of natural endowments. Occasionally a musical prodigy will arise and receive notice and acclaim, even adulation; but we leave it to accident, personal ambition and the baseness of the commercial world to bring individuals to prominence in music, acting and the visual arts. Because of our intense national interest in competitive athletics, we systematically encourage the identification and development of young people of outstanding athletic ability. But what of intellectually challenging pursuits? Competitions involving learning spark little interest or attention outside their limited communities. But isn't it from these and other intellectually stimulating fields that progress must come? Left entirely to commercial interests, entertainments (including athletics) will dominate our commitments and the rewards and advances that may arise from other unique qualities of the individual will be ignored.

There must be tacit admission that, however we attempt to address the future role of intellectual giftedness in our society, both the gifted and our responses to them arise from a base of average mortals. If we knew how to alter our genes to produce giftedness perhaps intelligence would receive attention, but we would quickly run afoul of our inability to describe the factors that contribute to giftedness and our lack of knowledge of the interplay of genetic factors. Perhaps it is for this reason we have chosen to elevate the lesser gifted, that it has become a national obsession: This we know we can do.

Our governments have taken up the cause of the lesser endowed in efforts to bring their scholastic performance up to a more nearly average level, and we applaud efforts to make these lives productive and meaningful. But I fear that, in our devotion to these individuals, we largely ignore the needs of the intellectually gifted. Half of our population is centered on the median of 100; much of the lower quarter needs special programs to assure their lives can be productive and satisfying. But ought not at least an equivalent amount of resources be devoted to the upper quarter? It is a mind-set out of kilter with the future to so favor one group and ignore the other; it is a confused mind that holds that the most fruitful commitment of our resources is to bring the slow learners up to speed.

Identification of the gifted:

Giftedness is not defined by race or sex or background or parentage. I have met, in the academic environment and in personal life, persons whose abilities far exceed mine. Some have achieved (or headed for achievement) well beyond average; many have not. But it is the duty and prerogative of the bulk of mankind, those of us hovering around averageness, to identify, encourage and fund those of high ability -- the highly and profoundly gifted. We know many of the needs of our society of today, but we cannot predict with confidence the needs of tomorrow. Any more than we can predict upon birth the endowments of an individual or how he will develop or how he will fit into and contribute to the larger society in which life immerses him.

We do not know with certainty how best to set before the individual the challenges that will assist him in his personal development toward adulthood and a productive niche in society. Let me emphasize that scholastic endeavors are not the only target of these comments. Because other talents exist that may be difficult to identify but which can benefit society, all children should have an opportunity to discover their uniquenesses even though it is the exceptional few who will shine and come under the umbrella of my comments here.

Identification presents peculiar concerns. It must begin in schools populated by the offspring of the general public. If parents, educators and observers allow it, it is easy enough to identify youngsters who consistently outperform their peers in various areas. IQ and motivation are significant factors. But I submit that all children should be exposed to a range of activities intended to identify latent talent as athletes, musicians, actors, artists, educators, . . . as well as strong interest and potential ability to perform in the various scientific disciplines. Those who show promise should be offered special opportunities and encouraged to undertake projects that will further and better define their interests and abilities. The outcome of such programs, to which all children should be exposed, would serve to identify at least a substantial percentage of youngsters of uncommon ability.

I have tried to visualize a system under which gifts, and their degree, can be recognized and their development encouraged. Summer school vacation may be used not only for vacations but also for camps (funded by parents) having the dual purpose of fun and opportunities to pursue specific interests such as music or painting or nature pursuits. (I have not included athletics since the ordinary operation of school activities usually brings this to the attention of responsible adults.) Reports to parents by camp counsellors of each youngster's activities may uncover uncommonly strong interests and talent, which may (let me emphasize "may") lead to redirecting home efforts or suggestions to school personnel. Over several such camps latent interests should become increasingly obvious. (Hopefully community organizations will fund camps for youngsters whose families lack resources.)

A second echelon of efforts to identify various gifts could be after-school or week-end programs or camps (funded partly by parents and partly by community organizations) to pursue recognized interests or talents in order to assess degree and perhaps alter school assignments and activities to encourage pursuit of development of gifts that have been identified.

There should emerge from these efforts knowledge enough of gifts and talents to justify specific efforts at development. Many will find school programs or summer camps are adequate, such as band or chorus or acting. But some few will possess gifts adequate to justify more extreme measures, possibly assignment to special schools dedicated to general development of the highly and profoundly gifted or to specific professional areas. It is here that community, state or foundation funding becomes a factor in providing suitable environments.

There must be no stigma attached to reaching higher than innate gift will support. Not reaching, not trying, reduces us to voluntarily copying those lacking in awareness of their own individuality. And we cannot allow ourselves to forget that there are other arenas of life outside and beyond the specificity of a recognized career stream. Balance! There must always be balance between career and person.

Preparation of the gifted

I wish to present specific thoughts about how we may best augment efforts toward education of the gifted at their various levels of their giftedness.

One rule: There should be no turf wars. This is far too important.

To my mind the best we can do is set before the individual opportunities that will allow his selection, by personal interests and inclinations, to pursue directions in which he is led by his own sense of the future and his place in it. We should, of course, remain available to give what assistance and counsel we can, perhaps in directions we feel most beneficial to society at large, or perhaps in directions we feel will be the most fulfilling to that individual. And we must rely on our existing educational system, augmented in ways that are within reach, to pursue our societal interest in seeing to the development of each individual.

It would be advantageous if we could recruit gifted teachers to develop, foster and carry out educational programs for the gifted. Within the confines of our public schools we can likely cater to the special educational needs of, say, the brightest 10% -- or perhaps even 5% or 2%. But as level of giftedness increases it becomes increasingly difficult to even recognize their peculiar needs and even more difficult to recruit leadership of comparable gift. So we are handicapped in providing a suitable environment for their development. Yet we must seek ways to identify these increasingly rare persons, our highly and profoundly gifted, and offer them the most suitable environment we can devise as well as the resources to develop their peculiar talents.

To a limited extent, where local resources and local insight permit, our schools have prepared educational programs for the brighter students. The value of extending such programs for the more highly gifted is beyond question, and it is left to the ingenuity of the 'average' citizens responsible for their children to devise, fund (or seek funds) and carry out such programs. But, as a practicality, it must be private sources that prepare, present and carry out programs for those gifted where their numbers locally cannot justify programs for their peculiar benefit.2 To view footnote, click here

My confidence in offering suggestions within the limits of practicality ends here. How best to enlist and organize people and resources I can only speculate. Society has been blessed by a few individuals who have recognized the need and acted within the limits of their vision and resources; many profoundly gifted have been identified and are currently sponsored and adequaely funded. But it is a need that pervades society and I offer below what thoughts I can.

Since you are reading this on the web, I assume you can search for suitable opportunities. My searching suggests:

  • Duke University Talent Identification Program
  • John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth
  • Davidson Institute for Talent Development
  • Davidson Academy (for the profoundly gifted)(located on the Reno campus, Univ. of Nevada)

    I visualize a need for schools that specialize in the highly and profoundly gifted, that can offer short term and long term residence (with adequate provision for parental visits). Perhaps a network of schools, each with offerings peculiar to selected interests. They should be generously funded, have well-maintained state-of-the-art equipment, be part of a literature and library circuit of extreme breadth, cater to nutritional, physical, social and emotional needs of the students, . . .

    Only with wide exposure to a variety of avenues in the adult world can the student discern his special calling and assist in outlining programs for his own personal development.

    There should be programs for visits and mentoring by renowned scholars and other outstanding figures.

    In areas of study populated by naturalists there should be extended exposure of students sharing these interests with extended stays in particularly sensitive environments.

    In hard sciences and biology and medicine there should be state-of-the-art equipment maintained at peak performance and readily at hand for their use.

    In the soft sciences such as economics and psychology there should be programs to immerse students in research and practices of the trade.

    Perhaps these special schools and programs should offer a curriculum with course levels ordinarily assigned to junior college, or even degree-granting colleges, so that graduates will be emotionally and physically mature enough to thrive in the academic environment of graduate and post graduate work in the universities where they must seek to complete their educations.

    We, as a society, must harness this resource of resources.

    Can we, as a society, afford to waste intellectual giftedness?

    I have avoided arguing for mandatory public schools versus assisting parents in choosing the school they deem most appropriate for their children: "choice." The same needs pervade both approaches to education: The gifted must be offered opportunities to develop their gifts. I note that the performance of home-schooled children far exceeds the performance of groups with which they have been compared. In a companion essay on school reform (click here) I advocate busing of school children for the purpose of placing them in environments selected to address their peculiar needs. And I raise the question whether education is important enough that we should separate education and state after the manner of separation of religion and state.

    How many gifted youngsters have been turned away from careers in teaching by what they observed their teachers enduring in the classroom during their own education?

    Education of Athletes:

    Because of the prominence of school athetics and the consequences of public interest, this warrants special attention. Potential atheletes, once identified, receive special attention and preferences not afforded other students, seemingly in utter disregard for both other gifts the student may possess and future consequences in his life. I am uncertain if it is family pride, student adulation, or community or school pride that drives the unique considerations offered aspiring athletes and their advocates. But I note that, if the result is subordination of scholastic requirements to the team's needs of athletic prowess, the student athlete is deprived of the education offered other students. Regardless of the student athlete's performance in his sport while in school, a high percentage of high school athletes are not offered athletic scholarships by a college; and, of those who are, a high percentage will be unable to compete in professional sports. The consequence is that they must compete, in whatever trade they select, with students who were offered the full measure of educational opportunities in their high school and college. My personal feeling is that, for the athletes, it is a cruel trade that benefits their sponsors at their expense. Adults, for the sake of their own personal ambitions, deliberately destroying balance in the education of their young.

    There are, of course, exceptions. No doubt many parents -- and many coaches -- insist on academic performance of their charges. And I note that many colleges demand of their student athletes a degree of scholastic performance in order to maintain eligibility for team participation (even though many colleges offer special -- academically non-demanding -- curricula for their athletes). But I note recent publicity about an eighth grade student who has already received an athletic scholarship to a major university, and in my mind I can visualize the impact on his personal relationships and on his high school academic performance. Should he falter in his athletic career, or suffer a career-shattering injury, the outcome of showering enticements on him early in life, to the detriment of his scholastic development, will likely be soul-wrenching disabilities and failures.

    From my observation, it is only giftedness in athletics that is so honored (or deprived).

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    Or, to view the contents of this web site, click here. I hope to pursue the topoic of giftedness and will welcome any useful suggestions you may contribute. To contact me by e-mail, click here, using as subject "I read your essay about giftedness."

    1 Personal attitude toward giftedness:
    One aspect of giftedness I wish to acknowledge here: While high ability is a world apart, we are what our genes decree and the gifted did nothing to earn the genes that created it. Giftedness ought to be recognized as a badge of honor, not haughtily or arrogantly. Neither condescendingly nor with embarrassment. Giftedness has unique concerns, unique problems, unique possibilities, although many of the gifted regard their giftedness as a curse because it sets them apart from their peers. Yet it offers unique opportunities for growth, for service, for fulfillment and the happiness those bring.

    Added July 2006
    Most parents think their children are gifted -- and perhaps many of them are, whether or not it is ever discovered what those gifts are, either by self or by parent. Unrecognized and undeveloped gifts represent a huge loss to us as individuals and collectively as a society.

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    2 Footnote Who will spell out an adequate organization of camps, schools, social services, academies and specialized schools? There must be a degree of coordination, else there will be waste as from time to time someone dedicated to this need devotes his time and resources to his own special interest, to the detriment of an all-embracing, cohesive program.

    Is it possible to formulate an over-all program that allows orderly and adequate networks? I confess I do not know who will lead such an effort or why others would follow. Many would suggest our Federal government should take the lead, but, when I examine the damage Federal involvement has done to public schooling, I am forced to conclude the Feds must stay out of it. My hope is that interested foundations can put their heads together and, with neither rancor nor competitive spirit, champion solutions.

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    3 Footnote We cannot know the degree of giftedness of various historical figures, but we can reflect on who among them has been the most influential in shaping society in its present form. I think of such figures as Aristotle, Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Newton, Einstein: What combination of innate gifts did each possess? I think we would all agree that there was an uncommon degree of mental activity in each, and it was that aspect of their lives that produced the results we honor them for. There were, of course, attendant skills or talents such as control of language and/or voice, and bodily vigor, that influenced their successes.

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