• Jan and Bob Davidson: Genius Denied; Simon & Schuster; 2004; 242pp.; $24
The American education system purports to accommodate the particular needs of all students. We have numerous programs for those with learning disabilities. We have special curricula for students of various ethnic backgrounds that are said to boost their self-esteem. We have vocationally oriented schools for students with strong interests in fields such as the fine arts.
But as authors Jan and Bob Davidson argue in Genius Denied, there is one group of students whose educational needs receive little more than lip service, if even that — gifted children.
“Over the years,” they write, “we have discovered that when it comes to leaving no child behind, highly gifted students are the most likely to fall through the cracks in American classrooms.” The authors, who founded a successful educational software company, sold it several years ago to be able to devote their time and resources to a cause for which they have a great passion. Genius Denied makes a powerful case for programs to develop the talents of America’s brightest youngsters.
The book reverberates with stories the Davidsons have collected about the difficulties and frustrations that gifted kids face in an educational system where, by and large, their remarkable talents are ignored. Consider, for example, Rachel, who grew up in a small Pennsylvania town. Early in life, she displayed astounding verbal ability and by the time she was in middle school, she was writing a novel. “Every night, she scribbled and typed a bit more for a novel, an arching saga that swelled to four hundred pages. Meanwhile, at school, her English teacher insisted that the class circle nouns in sentences, and then sent everyone home with more worksheets of the same. The pointlessness of it stunned Rachel.”
Rachel’s parents approached the school administration, asking for more appropriate work for their daughter, but hit a brick wall of indifference. Not only did school officials insist that Rachel remain with her classmates, but they even refused to give her any credit for advanced-writing classes she took on-line through Johns Hopkins University. (Several universities have established programs to help provide gifted children with accelerated learning opportunities.) Requiring Rachel to do the same work as other students her age was like forcing a race car to putter along at 25 mph, but school officials weren’t concerned with her educational needs.
Children like Rachel are few and far between, but the Davidsons think that the small number of them is beside the point. No child, they argue, should suffer an inappropriate education, but it occurs frequently with gifted kids. Why? The chief culprit is the hostility that many educational theorists have for giving gifted students any special treatment.
What the Davidsons label as “false egalitarianism” is rampant among the self-proclaimed experts whose opinions dominate in the education establishment. They quote one educational theorist to give the reader a taste of the regnant ideology: “The sorting of students into groups… contradicts American values of schools as democratic communities of learners which offer equal educational opportunity to all.”
These educational levelers insist on treating gifted children in the same way the internal revenue code treats highly productive individuals — as resources to be exploited. A favored approach is to assign gifted students to help teach others who don’t learn so rapidly.
Another justification for ignoring the needs of gifted students is the popular “multiple intelligences” theory, which says in essence that every child is gifted. Big deal if some kids excel at math and reading — others have their own kinds of genius, like “kinesthetic intelligence.” In other words, since some kids are great athletes, why make a fuss over kids who are whizzes at math?
What is to be done? The authors would like to see the public education establishment start taking the educational needs of gifted kids seriously, suggesting that “all teaching candidates should be trained in gifted education, just as prospective teachers learn about reaching other populations.” My guess is that little improvement will come that way. American schools of education are too steeped in the “progressive” educational theory that embraces leveling.
The most effective approach, I believe, will be for universities and organizations such as the Davidsons’ own Davidson Institute for Talent Development to continue to find gifted children and offer them the super-charged learning opportunities that they need. The egalitarian mindset of public education is an obstacle far more easily avoided than overcome.