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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Schoolhouse Slur

Schoolhouse Slur

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Educators often describe students as "bright," but the word may be as harmful as a racial epithet.

In an affluent, well-educated, profoundly aspiring suburb of a major American city, teachers meet to select children from their school for a districtwide gifted program. Sorting “exemplary” students from the merely “commendable”—the former designated by blue folders, the latter by mere manila—in such a set-ting is no easy task. The educators in this meeting, however, shoulder their burden with stalwart energy, revealing considerable confidence in their ability to make life- shaping decisions based on the perceived intellectual lives of 8-year-olds. If schools are designed as sorting machines—organized to pick out the able from the less able—then this school is working at the top of its game.

During the long, tiring morning, I sit in the back of the room wondering about the many children— the 90 percent of the 7- and 8-year-olds excluded from consideration—whose work does not appear “exemplary,” whose folders are not blue. These not-gifted children, for me, are the interesting ones: The ones who won’t reap the advantages of the “Challenge Program,” who don’t catch the fancy of the assembled team, who aren’t labeled “bright.”

What if—I sit in this meeting silently keening—what if the assumptions about aptitude underlying the talk in this room are simply wrong? What if our ability to identify giftedness in 8-year-olds is shadowy at best? What if gifted programs themselves are primarily a way to deliver highly desirable academic services to students who are already advantaged? And what if the criteria we use to sort children is based on the same caste-creating ignorance that gives words like “nigger” their hatefulness and currency?

I recall W.E.B. DuBois’ words about his realization of “blackness”: “It dawned upon me . . . that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil.”

Racial coding and epithets—or our too-confident thinking about children along narrow, deeply imperfect “ability” lines—create searing internal divisions, often wounding irreparably. Otherness, Blackness, Not-Smartness all rob our children of the desire to tear down the veil and get to the other side. How then not to view the use of “bright”—and the implied “not-bright”—almost as a racial slurring, as epithetical, as unsophisticated, unexamined eduspeak with the sorting power to change lives and harm children?

To be clear: When we describe children as bright—and how often do we hear this in school? Three, four, 10 times a day?—we are suggesting the existence of not-bright children, whomever they may be. In my experience, these not-bright are usually an undifferentiated, unspecified group. They are those who won’t be nominated for the gifted program, those who fill the remedial tracks of our school programs, those who will drop out and be disenfranchised, those who just don’t get it.

A child who reads early in kindergarten is often described as bright; a 4-year-old who can place dinosaurs correctly in the Triassic period may be thought of as gifted; a senior admitted by early decision to Stanford University is considered smart. But what, exactly, are we talking about? Is the child who does not read until the 3rd grade stupid? Is the 4-year-old who cannot accurately sort between the Triassic and the Jurassic periods dumb? Is the senior rejected by Stanford unintelligent?

When children are casually described as bright—as if we knew what we were talking about and as if we were referring to some universally understood concept of demonstrable ability uninfluenced by environment and social class—I now feel the slap of the racial slur, the shock of the unpardonably uninformed, the burn of trying to manage the gap that now yawns between me and the speaker of such a loaded word.

I wish I could protect all children from the superficial, life-limiting conceptions of their abilities.

My own unpacking of threadbare, pernicious concepts of ability began some time ago. To better understand the exceedingly narrow ways in which teachers seem to conceptualize their students’ abilities, I looked at a peculiar little piece of early 20th-century American history: the classification of soldiers in preparation for World War I and our embrace of “scientific” sorting mechanisms for students based on intelligence testing in the 1920s. The intelligence test, then used in schools purportedly to identify those with academic promise, became another flattening and superficial way of sorting students as products, poorly understood by teachers, administrators, and parents and unexamined in larger social and cultural contexts. Like so much in American education, our ideas about intellectual aptitude and the relationship between effort and demonstrable skill seem to have arisen almost accidentally, a forcefully haphazard amalgam without reference to the ways these notions affect or actively harm the real lives of children.

New research suggests that human intelligence and ability is far more complex and multidimensional than ever before appreciated, and that aptitude is plastic, mutable, and developed over a lifetime. Perhaps most pointedly, research seems to confirm what life in the “real world” already proves: that human beings show extraordinary ability to learn new things at any age when they are convinced that they have encountered something worth mastering and when they are not afraid to make mistakes in the process.

Yet most educators simply aren’t aware of the cognitive revolution that has occurred over the past three decades, or the ways in which understanding of the human mind and human ability has expanded. They still regard human intelligence as fixed and innate, a product of genetics plus a wee bit of environment, and measurable as a “quotient” set at an early age that remains stable throughout life.

So in the face of a transformational body of research, we are nevertheless left with the ugly persistence of “bright”—and the implied “not-bright”—defacing conversations in schools everywhere.

As the mother of four, I must find ways to raise my children in schools that will seek, American style, to assess the “level and range” of their abilities. I wish I could protect them from that. As an educator profoundly interested in the improvement of the public schools, I wish I could protect all children from the superficial, life-limiting conceptions of their abilities imposed on them by adults. Though I know there are differences between children intellectually, we are only begin-ning to understand those differences and their magnitude. Until our conceptions are considerably more sophisticated, adults should focus on what every child would be able to do, given genuinely interesting instruction. When we assume that more rather than less is possible, children will surprise us with how much they can do.

I got a lesson on that only this morning. My 6-year-old son insisted on practicing his reading with a linguistically complex picture book called Shrek!, by William Steig. (“His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together,” Shrek! begins.) I thought the book was too difficult for him, so I gently suggested The Baby Blue Cat Who Said No. He shook his head. Picking up Shrek!, he painstakingly but competently made his way through two pages. He smiled at me. Effort creates ability, he seemed to be saying.

I’m trying to learn.

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Pages 44-45

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