On Being Gifted

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A thought-provoking article appeared in the Atlantic last week: Simply put, there is a war on the less gifted.

In a society that places great emphasis on test scores and where employers tout their ability to hire the best and the brightest, there is nothing more critical to us than being intelligent. For many of us, intelligence is our identity, the sole basis by which we integrate into the real world.  What about people who do not test well and are not the conventional “talent” that your average run-of-the-mill employer looks for?

What the Atlantic article says is that as a society, we are too harsh on those people who are neither academic stars nor bright cookies in a conventional sense.  We denigrate them in our everyday conversations for example, by comparing them to a bag of hammers or referring to them as “not the sharpest crayons in the drawer”.  In other words, the world is run by smart people, and it is through the eyes of these people that we measure human worth. Just look at the last few Presidents of the United States and their employees: a succession of Harvard/Yale degrees with a few slightly less elite degrees peppered throughout. No doubt many of these statesmen have scored very well on tests.  The author’s point is that the intelligent really should not shape our society in a way that measures human worth using “giftedness” as a yardstick.

The author is right.  Every word of this article should be read by parents and educators. For too long, we delude ourselves that with the right educational opportunities, the less gifted could be molded in the image of their “intellectually superior” friends.  Instead, our leaders should tap into the full spectrum of human potential by reshaping the economy, school and culture.  Some of the most intelligent people I’ve known in my life did not turn out to be masters of the universe as predicted by their test scores. On the contrary, those classmates who were not spectacular in an academic sense have proved themselves in a way that defies expectations.

In a way, nothing in this article says anything new. It really is a confirmation of what we have known for a long time: the world would be a lot richer if we could each find a niche. Some of the most economically productive countries in the world do not send more than half of their children to universities. These countries also have much lower unemployment rate than that of either Canada or the United States.  The challenge is to identify children’s strengths early on, not when they are ready to take their university entrance exams.  Importantly, there should also be programs in place to develop those strengths so these children will go on to be productive citizens. There is nothing non-gifted about somebody who finds their own niche and does well in it.

Let’s put an end to this gifted v non-gifted charade.

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