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On Thought and Language:Communication Takes Time

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Norman Cousins, the long-time editor of Saturday Review who, in recent years, was best known for his books on illness and the psyche, died Nov. 30 at the age of 75. The following essay was submitted to Time magazine shortly before his death and published posthumously. We thought it well worth reprinting:

A neighbor's daughter showed me a question from a state bar examination she took recently. It called for a 500-word essay having to do with an aspect of interstate commerce.

My concern here is not with the question; I assume it pertained to a conventional legal issue. My concern rather is with the time allotted for the essay: 30 minutes. This absurd limitation for a serious piece of writing is not unusual. Essay-type questions in high-school and college examinations routinely allow half an hour or less for expository answers. In the very act of testing writing skills, the schools foster poor writing habits.

Clean, precise writing or speaking requires systematic, sequential thought. Words have to be crafted not sprayed. They need to be fitted together with infinite care. William Faulkner would isolate himself in a small cell-like room and labor over his words like a jeweler arranging tiny jewels in a watch. Thomas Mann would consider himself lucky if, after a full day at his desk, he was able to put down on paper 500 words that he was willing to share with the world.

Much of the trouble we get into (as individuals or organizations or as government) is connected to sloppy communication. Our words too often lead us away from where we want to go; they unwittingly antagonize friends or business associates. We are infuriated when our position is not understood and then becomes the collapsing factor in an important business deal. Or we are terrified when the leaders of government miscommunicate and put their countries on a collision course.

The school can have no more important function than to teach students how to make themselves clear. But by putting speed ahead of substance, the school creates false values. Racing against the clock is not an ideal way to organize one's thoughts or arrange one's words.

The same hazards apply to speed-reading. Yes, we are bedeviled each day by a mound of papers, and we need to have some way of getting swiftly at the vitals of letters or articles or presentations. But the habit of skimming is too easily carried over to cre6ative reading. Few things are more rewarding than the way the mind can hover over a luminous paragraph or even a phrase, allowing it to light up the imagination. The way the mind transforms little markings on paper into images is one of the highest manifestations of human uniqueness.

The teacher in high school who made the greatest impression on me would often devote the full classroom period to a single passage from a literary work, helping us get inside the author's mind and effect a junction between purpose and artistry. I still have a vivid memory, for example, of the way she slowly read the passage from Swift in which Gulliver was tied down by the Lilliputians. Each word became part of a picture in the mind. I don't know how long it took Swift to write this particular description, but it helped open young minds to the kind of imagery that belongs to creative expression. We had the same sense of literary splendor when our teacher read--so carefully and lovingly--from Thomas Hardy or the Brontes, or when she asked one of us to read Flaubert's word portrait of Emma Bovary.

On the opposite extreme, one need not strain for specimens of poor communication in everday life. Like polluted air, it surrounds and encases us. I see it in the wording of informed-consent papers that patients are asked to sign before undergoing medical procedures. I see it in the small print of insurance policies or on the backs of airline tickets. I struggle over it in tax forms or information from government agencies. I agonize over it in the instructions that come with do-it-yourself kits. I strain to comprehend it when I stop to ask directions, or when I hear a sports announcer explain why an outfielder played a single into a triple or why a wide receiver ran the wrong route.

Much of the stumbling and incoherence that gets in the way of effective communcation these days has its origin in our failure early on to develop respect for thought processes. The way thoughts are converted into language calls for no less attention in formal schooling than geography or mathematics or biology or any of the other systematic subjects. Squeezing essential meaning into arbitrary and unworkable time limits leads to glibness on one end and exasperation on the other. We need not put up with either.

Copyright 1990, The Time Inc. Magazine Company. Reprinted by permission.

Don't All Children Have Gifts?

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 17, January 16, 1991, pp 27,36

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Don't All Children Have Gifts?

David Myers

Ninety-five percent or more of children are ungifted." That's what my local school district's newsletter told me the other day. Moreover, it went on to explain, this ungifted majority--nearly all our children--has trouble grasping and retaining knowledge, working independently, forming good relationships, even appreciating social values. My school system, like many others across America, therefore proudly proclaims that it serves society by protecting these dullards from challenge and enrichment. None of the overstimulation (or expense) of extra field trips, independent reading, "hands-on learning," or "vocational mentoring." And, one presumes, none of the toys, games, and books in The Gifted Children's Catalog, which arrived by the same day's mail.

At least, this is what my school district said in so many words. What they literally said--and this surely marks the 143rd time I've read these words--is "educational experts say that as many as 5 percent of all children may be gifted" and that these talented few have special qualities and needs. Framed this way, it sounds much nicer--like when the heart surgeon tells patients they have a 90 percent chance of survival (rather than a 10 percent chance of death), or when the grocer tells customers the ground beef is 75 percent lean (rather than 25 percent fat). Said either way, the information is the same. But the effect is not, because the nice way of saying it hides an ugly message.

Likewise, when someone tells us the giftedness glass is 5 percent full, we needn't be gifted to know what that implies about the other 95 percent. Although well-intentioned, what it implies is offensive and wrong-headed. So much so that it's time someone dared to declare that the emperor of gifted education is wearing no clothes.

Why? First, the "5-percent-are-gifted" maxim perpetuates the old idea that giftedness can be defined by a single test score. In reality, gifts come in many different packages. Intelligence researchers are approaching a near consensus: We have not so much an intelligence as multiple intelligences, each largely independent of the other. Some children have distinct aptitudes for verbal reasoning, others for music, others for perceptual judgment, others for social insight. Thus the one who has the academic smarts to excel on school aptitude tests is often not the one who shows the most creativity or has the street-smarts for managing people. Mozart was a genius at composing music, as was Einstein at physics, but who knows their potential at poetry, painting, or politics. (We do know that Einstein was slow in talking and Benjamin Franklin failed arithmetic.) Having had children whom the schools classified on both sides of the gifted divide, I can appreciate what today's intelligence researchers emphasize: that nearly all children--not just the celebrated 5 percent--have special talents.

Second, there are hidden costs to labeling children as winners and losers, gifted and ungifted. Such labels can create their own reality. In experiments, labeling people as hostile, outgoing, or brilliant induces others to treat them in ways that elicit hostility, outgoingness, or apparent brilliance. Labels may be fables, but even fables can be self-fulfilling.

Moreover, people often accept the labels hung on them, causing some to believe they have the right stuff, others to view themselves as merely mediocre. After her slightly brighter friend Sarah began special out-of-classroom activities for "smart kids," Maria, an able 8-year-old, began calling herself "unsmart." Aldous Huxley's eerily familiar Brave New World sorted, labelled, and grouped children, all of whom learned their place: "Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid."

Third, gifted education segregates the advantaged from those less advantaged, and often those white from those black and brown. How ironic that a society founded on the idea that all are created equal and deserving of equal opportunity at every step, should now be regressing toward the discarded medieval system of separating elite from non-elite children and pointing both groups towards their social destiny. I understand why those who believe their children gifted (and who typically are among the privileged and influential folk of their communities) lobby so forcefully to get their children the best teachers, the best education, with the "best kids." But is this fair to those whose parents are less privileged, influential, and vocal? And is this new segregation healthy preparation for working and living in an increasingly multicultural society?

If academic segregation benefitted students then we would face a dilemma. But half a century of educational research reveals no such benefits. The recent report of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development therefore condemned academic tracking as "one of the most divisive and damaging school practices in existence." Denying "ungifted" students equal opportunities for computer work, museum visits, and short-story writing serves only to promote social isolation and resentment. No wonder the more communal societies of Japan and China have no tracking in their schools.

We needn't succumb to gifted education's yearnings for intellectual aristocracy to thank the movement for reminding us that not every 3rd grader should be taking the same spelling test or working the same math problems. Lenny Ng, who scored a perfect 800 on the sat math test at age 10, does have special educational needs. We can accelerate him to a grade level closer to his mental age--something done with great success with youths who have a special aptitude for mathematics. Within classrooms, we can individualize instruction without creating an academic caste system that tells Sarah she is a gifted person and Maria she is an ungifted person. Besides, reading superstars may be unexceptional in math, art, and pe, and some talents blossom late. So real children just don't fit neatly into our arbitrarily-labelled boxes.

Ergo, let's drop these pernicious labels. Let's instead affirm all children's gifts. And let's get on with answering the question posed by John Gardner in his book Excellence: "How can we provide opportunities and rewards for individuals of every degree of ability so that individuals at every level will realize their full potentialities, perform at their best, and harbor no resentment toward any other level?"

After hearing an address on education entitled, "First, Teach Them to Read," Martin Luther King Jr. leaned over to a friend and said, "First teach them to believe in themselves." By encouraging all children to believe in themselves--to define and develop their gifts--we keep faith with our democratic ideals while strengthening our creativity as a society.

David G. Myers is a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. Among the many books he has authored is the widely used textbook, Social Psychology, now in its third edition.

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