Now, I did have a bit of a beef with some of Sternberg’s comments. I think the tests he’s developed for helping colleges to get a more diverse student body, and helping students who have different forms of intelligence connect with those colleges rather than being shut out because they don’t do well on the SAT, sound great.
But I am left wondering what bearing they have on giftedness of the kind my child exhibits. Maybe none, and of course that doesn’t make them any less valuable. What I don’t like are some of the comments he made that suggest that his tests do have some implications for how my child should be schooled or raised, because there I don’t really agree.
His examples seemed to set up a false dichotomy between students with strong analytical skills and strong creative skills. Never did he proffer an example of a person who scored highly on a standardized test and was creative or socially skilled. The good test taker invariably turned out to be the dud in college or the workplace, while the poor-to-average test-takers turned out to be the go-getter world-changers. As he said early in his speech, “successful intelligence” requires all three skills, but he spent most of the talk deriding the measurement of analytical ability.
In fact, he said that highly gifted students are discouraged from developing their creativity because it would detract from the things that make them seem highly gifted. Say what? This was followed by the suggestion that those who score well on IQ tests don’t want to give them up because they don’t want to “give up on what it is that makes them special.” As the talk went on he also began to blend together students who do well on standardized tests, students with high grades, and “book memorizers.”
Perhaps given the chance to reflect and rephrase, Sternberg would have said this differently. But I really disliked the “nerd patrol” sterotype of highly gifted robots as a foil to the wonderfully flexible creative people out there who don’t score well on tests. If scoring well on a standardized test is not something to be unduly proud of, surely it is not something about which one ought to be ashamed.
This points to an issue I have with how we often deal with “cultural differences.” When we say that “cognitive competence” is a cultural value for certain groups, the implication seems to be that because it is a cultural value rather than a universal value, it is no value at all. From what I can tell there is a notion out there that our goal ought to be to get outside of culture, which is preposterous. Just as human beings are physical, and not all mind, we are social, whether we like it or not. Respecting cultural differences and erasing them seem to be easily confused, I suspect because we don’t want to accept the extent to which we are creatures of a particular place and space. But I digress . . .
One of Sternberg’s last comments was that his definition of giftedness was that a gifted person is a person “gifted in making a positive difference in the world.” We’re back to everyone being gifted, because in this sense everyone is gifted, just as everyone is gifted because everyone has gifts. This is why “gifted” is such an unfortunate word choice for whatever you want to call these kids who are atypical by a particular, defined group of standards. I stand with Joel McIntosh, who said to me in a separate context, “I don’t care if we call it gerbil.” And we might as well, because if we are reaching the point of saying that “giftedness” equals “having value as a human being,” then we’re not really saying anything. It is an article of my faith, of course, that all human life is equally valuable.
I think it is wonderful to correct unfair means of social stratification, and to broaden the set of skills that we value. But trying to erase all distinctions among people and their abilities is not very helpful for those people trying to navigate the reality that they are in some way significantly different. And as for valuing people according to being gifted in the positive difference they make . . .
Well, in practical terms, almost no one would be gifted under the age of, say 8. (Or, at age 8 and under, everyone would be “potentially gifted,” which is the same thing.) And of course who gets to decide what is a “positive difference”? This is just a feel-good thing to say that has no practical bearing on educational policy or procedure. “Hurray for Everybody! Overcrowded public schools: go forth and provide individualized education for every student in your classrooms without any additional time or money, without any new curriculum, and without any ideas on how to cope with the tremendous disparities in ability and background among students! On your marks, get set, go!” And then we go back to business as usual.
Beyond that, I was troubled by the implication that gifted children owe anybody anything, or at least anything in particular. Brilliant, talented homemakers, women of the “opt-out” revolution: does this sound familiar? Have you ever heard that you are wasting your education/mind/talent at home? Doesn’t it make you want to kick someone’s ass?
On the contrary, we owe gifted children the opportunity to grow and be whatever their “internal compass” (as Karen Isaacson called it) is telling them to be. And that may very well not fit a test-maker’s notion of “successful intelligence.”