Can gifted education work? Four original thinkers have their doubts

Thursday , June 19, 2014 - 10:33 AM

By JAY MATHEWS

I am among those people who think gifted education classes are usually a waste of time and money. It’s better to give super-bright kids a library card or a computer with a Web connection and get out of their way.

Unfortunately, there is no research proving me wrong or right. So I have gone the unscientific route. I asked four original thinkers how much their schooling contributed to their success.

They all work in journalism, the only field in which I am capable of recognizing innovative thought. They are Almanac of American Politics author and commentator Michael D. Barone, Vanity Fair columnist Michael Kinsley, and Washington Post columnists Robert J. Samuelson and Gene Weingarten. All four have long been known for surprising insights and fresh perspectives on key issues.

They are leery of formal gifted education, although they found some value in schools they attended. Only one of the four, Weingarten, recalled being in any kind of gifted program. In New York City, he skipped third grade and participated in an eighth-grade “enriched” class, then was accepted to the Bronx High School of Science, a famous magnet school for gifted students. He didn’t like it.

“The school was insanely competitive, and ego shattering, and even disadvantageous to your future,” he told me in an e-mail. “I remember — this is embarrassing, but I do — that I graduated with a 92.18 GPA, and was not in the top 10 percent of my class. I remember that I didn’t get into Cornell because they had a quota for students from any one high school.”

Both Barone and Kinsley attended high school at Cranbrook, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., private school whose alumni also include Mitt Romney and Daniel Ellsberg. Barone and Kinsley think they benefited from the 1,000-word essay required of every Cranbrook student each week. Kinsley said the exercise followed a “cycle I can still recall: autobiographical article, formal essay, informal essay, light verse, serious verse, historical essay, etc., etc., etc. This was pretty good practice for writing a weekly column, which is how I spent most of my career.”

Mostly, school did not inspire independent thought in these four writers, however. At the private Williston School in Easthampton, Mass., Samuelson said he had “plenty of homework and fairly tough grading, but no apparent effort to teach originality or creativity. I suspect that many of my teachers would have thought the notion absurd and maybe subversive.” His tendency as a columnist to hold anti-mainstream views, Samuelson said, was largely inspired by one of his college professors, the famously contrarian political scientist Edward C. Banfield.

Their families encouraged fresh thinking. All of them had something in their characters that rebelled against convention. Barone, whose recall of obscure statistics and maps is legendary among political analysts, remembered how thrilled he was at age 8 when his parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia with the complete 1950 Census results. When his mother sent him out to the back yard to play, “I would sneak back down in the basement where we kept the encyclopedia, and make tables showing the populations of major cities in 1940 and 1950.” He can still recite those numbers, as well as identify your congressional district from your address.

All four tended to agree with Weingarten that creative people are best left alone. “If a brilliant writer is a compulsive nose-picker,” he once told a group of newspaper executives, “don’t lecture him about his nose-picking; give him access to a windowless room and clean off the underside of the table yourself. They thought I was kidding.”

Both the gifted and the rest of us can learn much from deep, sophisticated courses. We should have more of those for everyone. Great teachers know how to nudge potential original thinkers in the right direction. But it’s up to the students. They don’t need a gifted program. They need time and space to do what they like.

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