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Don't Squander Genius

It's always interesting to learn what exemplary students think of themselves.  Jordan Ellenberg, who started reading at 2 and multiplying two-digit numbers in his head at 5, clearly was a child genius ("The Wrong Way to Treat Child Geniuses," The Wall Street Journal, May 31).  Yet he argues that even the highest IQ is no assurance that it alone will result in contributions to society.

Ellenberg has a point.  Contrary to what is believed, knowledge is not power.  It is the use of knowledge that results in power. Some of the most valuable members of society were not child prodigies.  They possessed average intelligence in literacy and numeracy but excelled in other areas that Howard Gardner has identified as multiple intelligences.  We can argue all day long that the 10 domains Gardner identifies are more accurately talent than intelligence. But I see no practical purpose engaging in a debate.

Where I disagree with Ellenberg, however, is over educational policy. Although geniuses don't hold the key to the future of this country - since they constitute only 1 in 10,000 of the population - they are an invaluable asset that is being squandered.  I know of no democratic country where gifted or genius children are not nurtured early on.  (I realize that not all gifted students are geniuses, but I maintain that together they are an extraordinary asset.)  Only in the U.S. is differentiation anathema. I think we are going to pay a stiff price for our denial.

The hard part is gaining consensus on how and when to identify such children. Doing so will require examining our assumptions. As Richard Hofstadter explained in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction in 1964, Americans have a "resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life." As a result, we are profoundly uncomfortable with separating students in schools based on their ability.

When I was teaching high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had many students in my English classes who were below average in literacy. Yet they were gifted musically, artistically, socially et al.  One of my students went on to become a professional media photographer, another formed a highly successful landscaping company, and a third made a name for himself as a creative designer of furniture. They found great pleasure in their work and made solid contributions to society.

Years ago, the Army ran an ad campaign to recruit high school graduates.  I still remember the tag: "Be all you can be ... in the Army." In the final analysis, isn't that what's really important?  Let's not feel guilty about accepting that axiom.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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