Saturday, May 31, 2008

Raising a gifted child

What a sad world where talent is seen as a burden. My son (now a mathematician) was definitely seen as "different" as a child but it was so obvious that he was like his academic father that it was seldom held against him

A very good friend of mine was pulled aside yesterday by her son's daycare teacher to be told in hushed, sympathetic tones, "We think your son is gifted". Her heart sank. Rather than being thrilled at the virtually limitless potential contained within her child, her first reaction was tearful. "I don't want my child to be different, I just want him to be normal, to be average," she said sadly. In those first moments she could only see the difficulties ahead for a child who didn't fit into the cookiecutter establishment.

And this is a common first reaction for parents when a teacher pulls them aside for that talk. In fact, according to Judith Hewton, the current secretary and past president of Queensland Association for Gifted and Talented Children (QAGTC), it's virtually the only thing a parent can think about when the possibility is first raised. She has 20 years' experience with gifted children and at the QAGTC she is the first port of call for parents who have been given "the chat".

"It takes a while for them to process what it all means and embrace it," she says. "At the beginning, when parents come in to see us, they're not big-noting themselves, `Ooh, my child is better than yours'. It's not like that. All they know is someone has noticed their child is different," she says.

Even at just three years of age, my friend Melissa's son, Billy, is old enough to be assessed. Hewton says it's crucial to find out early if your child falls into the `high achieving' category. In a society where the establishment - from daycare to primary school and high school - is built to cater for the masses, for the ordinary, it's very difficult to manage the extraordinary when they occasionally turn up. Which is why early detection is crucial and it can make all the difference to the child's self-esteem and development.

"Research indicates gifted children need to be with other children with similar minds, ideas and attitudes; we all need that. They need to be able to go as fast as they want to (through the curriculum)," Hewton says. "Another key finding from research is that many of these children are looking for (validation) from teachers. They don't necessarily want the teachers to be gifted also, or want them to know everything or even do a lot for them. They just want recognition and respect," she says.

And high achieving children aren't necessarily the top of the class. In fact, often the opposite is true. Gifted children in the classroom are often the underachievers. For those children who go on undetected, boredom sets in and behavioural problems arise. They don't do well academically and experience a broad range of problems. These problems are often mis-diagnosed by the system, which is usually better versed in conditions such as ADHD or Asperger's Syndrome.

"Teachers aren't trained at college to identify gifted children,'' says Hewton. "And yet, we (at QAGTC) estimate the top 10 per cent of the population fall into the gifted category. So in Queensland we're talking about 80,000 children. That's a high incidence group, so we've got a gifted child in every classroom, possibly even two," she says.

Hewton believes more could be done to support the gifted child in the classroom, beginning with making it compulsory for schools to develop a program and actively manage gifted children. "(The Education Department) puts out policies but there's no way of forcing schools to adhere to them. There is some funding and some training and people in different areas who (are employed at the school) have `gifted' next to their name but they're usually only part-time. It seems there's only enough funding for part-time, never full-time," she laments.

Finding out your child is gifted needn't be a tragedy. Through education and learning how to extend the gifted child parents can find that home life becomes harmonious and school life is no longer the drudge it once was. Properly raised, gifted children can achieve great things. And when they are being challenged and extended in the right ways by parents and teachers, they are no more demanding than raising a child whose abilities fall within the `normal' range.

For parents the rewards of raising a gifted child can be many. Hewton urges parents to be active in extending their gifted child. The Association runs seminars, conferences and offers significant support to parents in their education of how to raise a gifted child. "They are delightful," Hewton says of gifted children. "And have enormous potential to create a lasting, positive impact on the world. How many of us can say that?"


BOOK REVIEW of "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life" By Anthony T. Kronman

Review by Christopher Orlet

How many English majors does it take to make a cinnamon dolce latte? (That's actually the set-up and the punch line.) If current trends continue, java junkies will have to rely not on tragically tattooed English majors but on high school drop-outs and illegal immigrants to mix our ridiculously expensive frappacinos and caramel macchiatos.

With university costs topping $50,000 a year and the cost of food, fuel, insurance, and pretty much everything else rising, majoring in the Humanities seems to make little economic sense. Which is why universities in the US and the UK have seen dramatic decreases in the number of students majoring in English, philosophy, fine arts, classics and history. (The Humanities still thrive in the rarified air of the Ivy League and Oxbridge where money is not generally an issue, but these few schools are the exceptions.)

Indeed the Humanities are a tough sell in the best of times, and God knows it is tough to pay off those student loans on a barista's wages. Today, business savvy students are demanding more bang for their buck, which translates into specialized training, not education.

It is not just the new crop of students who think so. Recently in the UK, an Education Minister drew flak when he called some history professors "ornaments" and suggested their departments did not deserve state funding.

Rising costs, however, cannot completely explain the decline of the Humanities. There must be other factors at work.

The decline of the American university has been a perennially popular subject for editorialists since Henry Adams' day. Nearly 75 years ago, Albert Jay Nock complained that universities were offering training, not education, for the obvious reason that "education is a flat liability," and a "subversive influence." Nock noted that, "circumstances have enabled our society to get along rather prosperously, though by no means creditably, without thought and without regard for thought, proceeding merely by a series of improvisations; hence it has always instinctively resented thought, as likely to interfere with what it was doing."

As early as 1987, Allan Bloom's surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, alleged that universities had "extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life." In subsequent decades Dinesh D'Souza and Roger Kimball have taken up the subject.

Now a self-described non-partisan academic has seen the fading light. Yale law professor Anthony T. Kronman's Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life attempts to explain why the Humanities have been relegated to second-class status somewhere above Physical Ed, but below HVAC repair, and what this may mean for our civilization.

AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity -- before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility -- to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.

This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato's Republic.

Like Nock, Bloom believed the university should provide the student with four years of freedom, "a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate." More important, the college years were "civilization's only chance to get to him." (Somehow I doubt Tom Wolfe would agree.)

The Humanities also served a primary existential purpose, which was to counterbalance "the defects of a democratic order" (Bloom's phrase), and to fill "a void by pointing to the human ends which the ideals of liberty and equal rights are unable to prescribe," adds James Pierson in the New Criterion.

The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers' bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.

From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.

In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today's student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.

Inevitably this atmosphere of conformity and groupthink results in a sterile learning environment, where dialogue and debate are limited for fear of uttering the wrong sentiment and facing disciplinary action.

A RADICAL FREE MARKETER might say that the Humanities deserve their fate since they proved unable to compete in both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. However it wasn't the marketplace that killed the Humanities, says Kronman. Rather, it was the one-two punch of political correctness and research specialization.

Of these, political correctness and its offspring diversity, multiculturalism and constructivism (which gave us such wonders as "rainforest math" and "African math") have done the most damage. With more women than men on college campuses, and near majorities of foreign students, to say nothing of the distinctive viewpoints, experiences and traditions they bring, political correctness is seen as an "instrument of corrective justice" -- payback for the sins of all of the Dead White Males that created the racist, patriarchic and imperial West.

Not only are the ideas and institutions of the West and the works that embody them no more valuable than those of other non-Western civilizations, but professors find it difficult to teach Western Civilization courses when they loathe its chief representatives. Lost in this political quagmire is the question of how we can hope to understand or appreciate or compare and contrast ourselves to other cultures if we are wholly ignorant of our own?

The final blow to the Humanities has come in the form of the modern research ideal, an idea that honors and rewards original scholarship, specialization, and incremental thinking, and whereby academics "choose an inch or two of the garden to cultivate," and which the Greeks and the renaissance scholars knew was the antithesis of true learning.

Kronman reminds us that specialization is anathema to the broad study of the "great conversation" that has been going on throughout the history of Western Civilization. When he focuses on original discoveries, Kronman argues, "a scholar does not aim to stand where his ancestors did. His goal is not to join but supersede them and his success is measured not by the proximity of his thoughts to theirs, but by the distance between them -- by how far he has progressed beyond his ancestors' inferior state of knowledge," all of which leads him to pretentious philosophical departures like deconstruction, where one misses the big picture by focusing on the minutiae. As Pauline Kael's reminded, "Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole."

Despite the obvious doom and gloom Kronman sees reason for optimism. Political correctness has had a 40-year run and at long last seems to be on the wane. A few universities are even dusting off their Great Books courses.

And then there is obstinate human nature. The instinct to find an ultimate meaning remains as powerful as ever, it has just been directed away from its proper home in the universities toward fundamentalist religion, New Age spiritualism, and Barack Obama's campaign.

It's time to bring the eternal questions home. Can I get a "Yes we can?"


1 comment:

Karl said...

"I don't want my child to be different, I just want him to be normal, to be average,"

I'm sure the parent who said this would never say that on learning her child was athletically gifted.