[Susan notes: It is interesting to read the range of opinion in these letters. Also of interest is how much space the Times gave this topic. ]
Published in New York Times
I read with great interest Ann Hulbert's article (Nov. 20). My son was a Davidson fellow two years ago at 17 and was awarded the round of Washington Senate visits and dinners. I found much in the article compelling. But a major theme is that kids of prodigious ability may be pushed by well-meaning but overbearing parents and mentors.
My experience was unlike that. At age 2, my son was plunking out tunes on a toy piano. He wanted desperately to learn to play. At 4, we found a teacher willing to work with him. He practiced five hours a day because he wanted to. I would make him stop practicing and go outside. One of the hallmarks of the gifted is an intense immersion in an area until it is mastered, and then the child may move on to a new obsession. This was exactly the pattern in our son.
He went to a regular kindergarten, and within months we were called to a conference because he was, in the teacher's words, "the most distractible child I have ever seen." Testing showed he was above the 12th-grade level in most areas, yet the school refused to accelerate him or do anything other than place him in the highest reading group. In desperation, we began to home-school.
My son was almost completely self-directed in his education. I took him to the library, and he found math books and taught himself high-school math through calculus by age 9. He was desperate to find kids who could relate to him, particularly in math, music and computer languages. No one pushed him.
He is currently a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, intensely happy and surrounded by peers for the first time in his life. The Davidson scholarship was just what he needed to be able to attend M.I.T, and we are grateful for it.
In discussing the "well-organized effort to recognize" the talents of America's smartest children, Hulbert might have mentioned the gifted and talented children who go unrecognized because they are members of society that our educational system marginalizes. There are "brilliant" children who attend struggling schools in poor urban and rural areas of America. These children do not have access to enrichment programs, private music lessons and mentors. Most children of poverty attend schools that focus on basic skills and test preparation. Without advocates, the potential of these children is not often realized.
It is easier to be a genius when you don't have to pay the rent. We live in a world that values dependability over brilliance and where jobs that reward curiosity may not support a family. The time to explore and take bold risks is a luxury few of us, genius or not, can afford once we leave school. Measuring programs for gifted children by the success of their adult graduates overlooks the significant hurdles that lie just after graduation.
You focused on the extreme stories that revolved around the development of talent. In fairness, you might have mentioned that you can look to any arena - sports, dance, music, beauty - and find talent development that turns kids into competition drones. And often, though not always, those children are driven by parents to compete and gain attention.
When it comes to education, laws like No Child Left Behind make progress (in the form of annual evaluations). Yet there isn't even a subcategory in No Child Left Behind that requires measurement of annual progress for gifted kids. So what should parents do? They should search out programs that keep their child progressing.
I wish you had portrayed some of these more human elements of the quandary of being a parent of a gifted young person and of being that gifted young person himself. Then put the lens on the inadequacies and peculiarities of how parents, struggling to find outlets for these children, search for and find, or don't find, enrichment that works.
Jill Miller Zimon
Pepper Pike, Ohio
I have found that there is often an inverse relationship between what I perceive to be a genuinely innovative thinker in my third-grade classroom and the attitude of the parents. The most intellectually curious and imaginative problem solvers have parents who are supportive of rather than ambitious for their child. And each year I am struck by how some of the most perceptive children come from families whose parents have no time to advocate for them and no "gifted" agenda to pursue.
Barbara Yost Williams
When a child demonstrates extraordinary athletic prowess, nobody argues against special coaching or scholarships. These are seen as natural and appropriate responses to their talents, and they are lauded and celebrated as superstars. Nobody says, let's target our athletic spending on the clumsiest children, who aren't interested in sports; the gifted athletes can take care of themselves, with or without our help.
Yet most people believe that intellectually gifted children will succeed with or without special help and do not need or deserve special programs designed to develop their gifts. Few teachers are expected to accommodate the needs of children with I.Q.'s of 60 to 70 in the same class as normal learners without additional support to meet their special needs. Yet in all but a few states, teachers are routinely expected to accommodate children with I.Q.'s of 130 to 140 in a mainstream environment with no additional support.
Barbara R. Blakeslee
Boynton Beach, Fla.
Genius develops alone in the dark like a photograph and can't be cultivated in a petri dish. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci being given an I.Q. test by his contemporaries. He would have failed, of course, because he was conceiving ideas and inventions 400 years ahead of his contemporaries, breaking domains, not excelling within them. So while it may look as if Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth and Davidson fellowships are nurturing gifted children, they are in fact simply "growing" others like themselves: mechanically dexterous conformists.
No one can dispute that leading scientists and mathematicians have very high intelligence. But surely, outstanding ability in music, literature and other creative arts is not solely the province of those with extremely high I.Q.'s. If brilliant writers, artists and musicians were tested, I suspect many of them would not make the cut. It should be simple enough to test a group of outstanding people in the creative arts to find out if their intellectual candlepower matches those in math and science.
Your article mentions that investigators tracked musical prodigies with high I.Q.'s, but only classical musicians were noted. What about such great musicians as Scott Joplin, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson?
Edwin P. Berlin
Questions for Jean Baudrillard
Deborah Solomon's exchange with Jean Baudrillard (Nov. 20) was brief, direct, informative and interesting. I hope you will consider finding key intellectuals in other countries and have similar dialogues regarding us and them.
Warren L. Molton
Kansas City, Mo.
The Center No Longer Holds
My thanks to Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson for their succinct analysis of how a right-wing minority has hijacked our government (Nov. 20). If only some altruistic invaders would arrive to restore democracy, I’m sure we’d all throw flowers at their feet.
Victor A. Gallis
Clearly the import of this essay has less to do with politics than that we are no longer a functioning democracy.Neither the interests nor the votes of most Americans are represented by a system in which wealth and political machinations are the determinants of government policy.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising then that, in the name of counterterrorism, so many other fundamental achievements of democracy are under attack: habeas corpus, the right to face one’s accuser in a courtroom and the inalienable rights of privacy and expression of dissent. Autocracies and plutocracies in the past gave reasons, usually relating to security, for curtailing all these essential prerogatives.It’s more than frightening to watch it happening before our eyes.
C. K. Williams