Education Opinion

Neither Freak Nor Geek: The Gifted Among Us

By James R. Delisle — October 27, 1999 6 min read

The new television season has barely begun, and already viewers are confronted with an age-old stereotype that just won’t die: the gifted kid as nerd. “Freaks and Geeks,” the NBC creation that rewards bullies with their own sitcom, pits the smart kids (the “geeks”) against the jocks, with the stoners (the “freaks”) characteristically occupying their own Never-Neverland. Pitting the athletes against the “mathletes,” the show assumes viewers know that the road to social acceptance will always be tough for kids who value brains over brawn.

You can’t ‘train’ children to be gifted; you can only cherish and protect the insights and vision they possess naturally.

As a teacher and counselor of gifted students for more than 20 years, I have only two things to say to this show’s producers: “welcome” and “thank you.”

Huh? As an advocate for gifted kids, shouldn’t I be hurling brickbats instead of bouquets at this show’s designers? Why would I appreciate a program that trivializes and demeans the very students who are already among the most picked on in our nation’s schools? I’ll tell you why: because the presence of “Freaks and Geeks” on Saturday night’s television lineup re-establishes the existence of gifted kids as a visible entity in America’s classrooms. For the past decade, thanks to the myopic work of Howard Gardner, who wants us to believe that “all children are gifted at something,” I was beginning to feel that gifted kids no longer existed in the make-believe world of multiple intelligences. “Freaks and Geeks” might just be the vehicle to refocus our attitudes toward an essential truth: In a world of equals, some are more intellectually equal than others.

Case in point: Jason. At the age of 7, while lunching at McDonald’s with his dad, Jason asked why the Duplo blocks that had always been on the restaurant’s tables during previous visits were missing. Dad’s “I don’t know” response to this basic question led Jason to head home and write the following essay, which he titled “Disintegration":

Have you ever noticed that all things seem to disintegrate piece by piece? McDonald’s restaurants are disintegrating. They are taking the Duplos out. They have taken all the slides out of our McDonald’s because someone got burned on one. Sometimes I feel like I’m disintegrating when I have to do worksheets and worksheets at school and when I have to answer silly questions. When I have to sit there and do what I already learned instead of something new and interesting, I feel like I’m in a battle and being torn apart bit by bitthe battle of work. Sometimes I feel like I’m disintegrating and leaving parts of myself in the past. I’ll never be small enough for Daddy to carry me up the stairs again and I am too big to be on Mommy’s lap while she rocks. Disintegration!

The multiple- intelligences adherents might qualify Jason’s essay as an example of linguistic intelligence, one of the many separate intelligences that seem to grow in number with each new edition of a Gardner book. Advocates of curriculum differentiation for every student might attest that all children are capable of Jason’s level of prose, if given the proper curriculum and instruction. Full-inclusion proponents would say that Jason’s presence in a heterogeneous classroom would give other students a model to emulate in their own writing assignments. To these assertions I respond thusly: You are missing the point. Instead, I would argue that what distinguishes Jason’s work from that of other 2nd graders has little to do with the work itself and much more to do with the person who wrote it; someone whose intensity, insights, and ability to conceptualize at abstract and complex levels distinguish him as a breed apart from other 7-year-olds. Not a freak, not a geek, Jason is merely an example of a now-neglected truth: Giftedness is not dependent on something you do; rather, giftedness is determined by someone you are.

This approach to viewing giftedness as a psychological trait rather than one manifested in outstanding projects or high test scores is not new, merely forgotten. In the early 1900s, when Lewis Terman began his longitudinal study of 1,500 children with IQs above 140, giftedness was noted as being a confluence of intellect, emotions, and insights. As Terman wrote in 1905: “Heroic effort is made to boost every child just as near to the top of the intellectual ladder as possible, and to do so in the shortest possible time. Meanwhile, the child’s own instinct and emotions ... are allowed to wither away. No adjustment of clock wheels, however complicated and delicate, can avail if the mainspring is wrongly attached or altogether missing.”

Lewis Terman knew then what our current emphasis on multiple intelligences has caused many to forget: The gifted child thinks, acts, and feels differently than other children. Giftedness is a trait no more universal in people than being tall or blue-eyed, and no more present in everyone than having an ear for music, an eye for art, or a heart for empathy. Most importantly, you can’t “train” children to be gifted; you can only cherish and protect the insights and visions they possess naturally. In essence, gifted children simply are.

Yet in today’s schools, with the hue and cry for “high standards for all” and “talent development for everyone,” it is ironic that the students missing out the most on these reforms’ benefits are gifted students like Jason. Because of the misguided notion that giving more to a group of students who already appear to have so much--gifted kids--is elitist or wasteful, everyone gets clumped together in the name of equality. The results? Gifted kids get bored, special programs that serve them are resented, and “Freaks and Geeks” becomes part of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of unseen yet obvious human differences. In Jason’s word and world, “Disintegration.”

There are solutions to serving gifted students well, and we need look no further than our own history to find them. Starting with our attitudes and beliefs, let us first acknowledge that children like Jason exist in our schools. Like Jason, they may question the value of their own existence, ponder the existence of God, or talk about their ideas and dreams at a depth that is both uncanny and uncommon among young children. Next, let us return to Terman’s notion that giftedness is not just an intellectual trait that can be captured by more and harder curriculum, but rather, that being gifted is fraught with social and emotional elements that will require “advanced training of the heart” for the child to function fully and well. Then, let us put our egalitarian biases behind us and admit that the most economical, efficient, and beneficial placement of gifted children in our schools is with intellectual peers who will both enrich and challenge them.

We do not force star athletes to compete against intramural squads every day of each year, nor do we cluster the most refined musicians in an orchestra with those just beginning their music lessons. How, then, can we assume that grouping gifted students with less-able age-mates for the duration of their education will benefit them in any legitimate ways?

Without a doubt, giftedness is a worthwhile trait for both the individual and our society, but we should be honest enough with ourselves to admit that not everyone has it. This artificial show of egalitarianism denies everything we know about the sanctity of human differences.

Finally, let us respect gifted children enough that we will acknowledge their abilities and insights as a natural part of who they are--not better or worse than anyone else, neither freak nor geek, but merely a member of our diverse human family, where “one size fits all” just doesn’t fit anyone.

James R. Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and a part-time teacher of gifted students in the Twinsburg, Ohio, schools. His most recent book is Once Upon a Mind: The Stories and Scholars of Gifted Child Education, to be published by Harcourt-Brace next year.