Schools vary on what constitutes a “gifted student”; the children who, as their icy brilliance matures, will grow into our corporate overseers and financially relevant humans. How does one determine which student’s mind’s eye is sufficiently unglazed, gazing haughtily down at their peers from vertiginous intellectual heights? The Matildas, the Harriet the Spies, the Max Fischers. Most schools have vague parameters for the decision like “exhibits high performance capability in an intellectual, creative, or artistic area”, or they use IQ tests or select the top 2-5% in academic performance. Regardless, once you’re not tracked into the gifted program—which starts as early as preschool—you will remember you are not gifted, that you are average or worse, that you are a dummy.
I certainly didn’t forget. In elementary school and into middle school, I was an embarrassingly late bloomer. I didn’t learn to read until I was 7 or 8, at which point, the school finally assigned me a remedial reading tutor who taught me using books for kindergarteners. My grades were average to poor. I floundered through middle school, came perilously close to failing classes, and was a frequent visitor to the counselor’s office, always suffering yet another self-induced nervous breakdown (“I HAVE NO FRIENDS AND I WANT TO DIE!”, etc.). No, these are not characteristics of a “gifted child” or even an “average child”. This is defectiveness.
But in high school, that changed. The gifted and talented program at my school was called Humanities. With a curriculum crafted by the best teachers in the school, if not the district, Humanities was a two-year interdisciplinary knowledge binge, incorporating subjects as diverse as: architecture, literature, world religions, art appreciation, world history, music theory, creative writing, critical thinking, and probably more I can’t remember. In one class, students might (attempt to) carve Michelangelo’s David out of a block of soap. In another, they’d be exposed to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s 5th symphony and later, asked to identify them based on a brief excerpt.
But it wasn’t all soap carving and jamming out: the tests were notorious, these unreasonably rigorous assessments of medieval or renaissance history more appropriate for a college student than a child. Projects were mercilessly challenging; e.g., a 27 page art critique explicating features like composition, line, and color for a single painting. And during the summers, you could—albeit for a few thousand bucks—go on the Humanities Europe trip, where you’d actually see the art, buildings, and historical sites you’d studied in class.
I can’t overemphasize how much this program altered my life’s trajectory. Before Humanities, I’d read books, listened to music, and seen art, but I didn’t understand or even much care what was actually “good” or why it was “good”. I had almost no basis on which to interpret or appreciate the world around me. My conception of other cultures consisted of what I’d seen in movies, and I couldn’t even identify most countries on a globe. Though there’s a lot of cynicism about the effectiveness of unconventional teaching methods, Humanities, taught me I didn’t have to resign myself to what had always been expected of me, that I could exceed my own self-assessment if I made a deliberate choice to do so.
But here’s the kicker: my registration in the program was an accident. One day after school, a friend told me he wanted to take the Humanities test, the assessment to see if you possessed the cognitive rigor to hack it in the gifted and talented program. I didn’t care about this. School was over. An after-school test? That’s superfluous school, unnecessary school, ew, gross, extracurricular learning is gross. But rather than wait for him outside, staring an inspirational Garfield poster, I decided on a whim to just take the test with him since I’d have to wait anyway. When the results came in a few days later, it turned out I’d passed. The universe is, after all, chaos and nonsense.
So remembering the inadvertence of my own admission, when I read about how gifted programs don’t work, I think the real problem is they’re not offered to the rest of the student body, integrated into every classroom. Placing students in these different tracks (honors, AP, regulars, etc) casts a long-lasting label on the abilities of “regular” students and, equally terrible, inflates the egos and sense of entitlement of the so-called “gifted” students—students, who, due to home environment and greater opportunities, are more likely to be white and middle class. For many of these gifted kids, this doesn’t help them excel so much as it hinders them, and what’s worse, it entrenches academic disparity between socioeconomic classes.
Even the IQ test, the traditional method of selecting gifted students, fails to recognize nontraditional forms of intelligence and scientists now see it as a pitifully simplistic measure of the complexities of human intelligence. Controlling for genetics, a bad home environment with low-income parents can reduce IQ by 12-16 points. Clearly, IQ tests can reveal a lot, but they can’t reveal the full scope of a student’s potential.
Every child deserves to be challenged, the chance to rise above expectations, and I see no reason why the curriculum and alternative teaching methods of gifted programs like Humanities can’t be integrated into regular classrooms other than, say, institutional intransigence and lack of funding. Would a lot of kids fall behind or fail? Definitely, but I would guess most of those same kids would fail in a regular class as well. And some kids might find they’re smarter than they thought.