Education Commentary

Aren’t All Children Athletic?

By James R. Delisle — February 27, 1990 4 min read

In his Jan. 16 Commentary, the author and research psychologist David G. Myers asks the guestion, “Don’t All Children Have Gifts?” His democratic response, draped in images evoking the American Dream, is an emphatic “yes--all children have gifts!” He goes on to dismiss the past three generations of research and practice about gifted children by quoting John Gardner and Martin Luther King Jr., and by emphasizing how even Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein were intellectual diamonds-in-the-rough in their own lives as youngsters.

How unabashedly American to raise these cultural icons, and how unmistakably passe is the point Mr. Myers is trying to make. He should realize the truth imbedded in the Yiddish proverb that “‘For example’ is not ‘proof”'; an exception does not make the rule invalid.

As much as we would like to believe that all people are intellectually equal, even a casual glance into a classroom or a workplace would prove that this just isn’t so. Some children learn more quickly than others, and some learn more slowly. The concept of “average” is little more than a statistical explanation of a truth which should be obvious--that just as people can differ in height, weight, and temperament, they can also differ in intellectual capacity.

I realize this must sound, at best, undemocratic and, at worst, blasphemous. Surely, a just God would never endow some more than others, and a pluralistic society would never allow children to be taught at different rates and in different ways! Well ... sorry.

Consider this less volatile athletic analogy. Each of us, in our roles as educators, parents, or sports fans, realizes that some children have more of a (dare I say it) “gift” to play baseball than do others. Then consider figure skating: watch Brian Boitano for a minute, and then observe your local pro at the nearest skating rink. There is a difference, a qualitative one, just as there is between good movies and those with no plot, and a joke that is funny and one that falls flat. Why, then, are we ashamed, chagrined, and perplexed when school districts decide to plan programs for “gifted students”? Do we ever hear the same hue and cry when children are identified as handicapped for placement in school programs, or when a coach selects a small number of children for a starting spot on the varsity squad? Of course we don’t, for we recognize the validity of placing children together with others who are of “like mind” or with similarly refined athletic skills.

If taken to the extreme, David Myers’s assertion that all children should be treated egual, educationally speaking, would eliminate varsity teams, and first chairs in the band; it would eliminate the distinction between selective colleges and noncompetitive ones, and vocational training from heart surgery. Is that our “democratic” goal--as a country, a society, a culture? I think not.

Not all of Mr. Myers’s points are off the mark, and, in fact, I find myself agreeing very much with some of the issues he raises. For example, when he mentions that all children, gifted or otherwise, should receive enrichment through museum visits, concert performances, or creative writing, I heartily agree. When he mentions the absurdity of a publication called The Gifted Children’s Catalog, in which toys picked especially for “gifted” children are highlighted, I’m not sure whether I should laugh at the pomposity of the publisher, or marvel at the marketing strategy. (“Buy this toy and you have a gifted child--guaranteed!”) And when he decries a school district that says its gifted-child population includes 5 percent of the students--no more, no less--he points out a classic mistake made by people looking for “tidy,” clearcut solutions to the very complex process of identifying individual talents.

Unfortunately, when Mr. Myers asserts that gifted-child educators are trying to establish a social and intellectual elite, and are practicing a form of racism by separating the intellectual chaff from the wheat, he is way off the mark, and about 30 years behind in his thinking. Even a casual observer of current research in the field of gifted education would note how arduously its proponents are seeking to find new ways to identify talents in all children, not just the “privileged and influential lobby” that Mr. Myers mentions (and, I’d suspect, of which he is a member).

No, Mr. Myers, we who study gifted children and their education do so for the same reasons that coaches coach and special-education teachers work with handicapped children: to find the best mesh between individual talents and their full fruition. Do we make mistakes? Sure we do. Are we sometimes shortsighted? Of course we are. But please, see these errors in light of the bigger picture, for when one is dealing with human abilities, the one-best-path is not always obvious.

Mr. Myers closes his essay with an allusion to Dr. Martin Luther King, who reminded people that before we teach children any content, we must teach them to believe in themselves. More poignant and more accurate words were never spoken. But to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, who believed fully in the government that he helped design and we are now implementing, “There must always be a democracy of opportunity, but there will always remain an aristocracy of achievement.”

Can we be excellent and equal? It depends, I guess, on one’s interpretation of those terms. The reality, though, is that hidden differences do exist among people--intellectual ones included--and to deny this reality is the first step in equating “equality” with “sameness.”

We may not all agree on who gifted children are, but we should all agree that intellectual talents, when discovered, must be nurtured fully and well.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Aren’t All Children Athletic?