Let’s just say I’ve read a LOT of articles and books on giftedness over the past 13 years, give or take. So something has to be pretty “wow” to, well, make me go “wow,” or in other words make my “I Wish I Could Have Read This Years Ago; It Would Have Explained/Helped So Much” list.
An Interview with Roland S. Persson: The Talent of Being Inconvenient (First Published in The SENG Update Newsletter, June 2010) is one such article. Dr. Persson looks like a member of the World Wrestling Federation or the older brother of Mr. Clean, but is in fact a Professor of Educational Psychology at Jönköpping University in Sweden, where his research focuses on giftedness, with an emphasis on social context and the gifted individual in society.
So what blew me away in this interview? It’s the first time I’ve heard someone provide a coherent framework for understanding that which I’ve been clumsily trying to put forward these past 2.5 years in this blog, namely that verbally* gifted kids (and by extension I guess, adults) have it harder vis a vis their artistically and mathematically/science gifted peers. (*IMO, verbal giftedness goes beyond facility with reading and writing. It is sophisticated vocabulary, persuasive argument, deep interest in–and the precocious ability to question, analyse and think critically about–philosophical, ethical, moral, sociological, political and historical issues.)
Now some scoff at this notion. Elementary school, they argue, is ALL about literacy and that “soft,” “easy,” “girly” stuff. Instead, pity the mathy, science-kid! It’s why our nation is falling behind and we have to pour inordinate resources into STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, for those of you who might not be in the know.) Or pity the artsy kid in this day and age of No Child Left Untested curriculum narrowing.
However what I have experienced through my girls, have heard mentioned quietly by some in the know, and have tried to argue here, is just the opposite. “Geeky” mathiness–particularly among boys–is what our society typically reads as “gifted.” By and large our school systems are pretty successful in meeting that need. Not perfect, but there is a greater openness to and ability to provide acceleration, as well as a burgeoning math/science pipeline in place to foster and reward this type of gift (think math competitions, science camps, scholarships and mentorships, etc.). Musical artistic talent too tends to be celebrated and rewarded. It’s “okay” for kids to be prodigies in these realms and it feels like summer programs for kids are chock-a-block with theater and art opportunities. Meanwhile verbal talent is seen as somehow commonplace (“Everyone catches up by third grade and learns how to read”), thus serving as the source of endless frustration for parents trying to work within school systems to find appropriate educational pathways.
Frankly, I bought into the mainstream construct too. It was only in the wake of a CTY SET ceremony that the reality was spelled out for me. “Just look at the awards program,” this gifted expert told me. “There is an entire page, four columns in small type of kids who made SET in math (700+ on the Math portion of the SAT before the age of 13). Meanwhile, there is a quarter of a page, two columns in larger type of kids who reached the same mark on the Verbal section.” Okaaaay. Light bulb going off. It explained why even in gatherings of EG/PG kids, my kid still had a hard time finding “her people.” There truly aren’t that many. Throw is the gender skew at the very far right of the bell curve and there really aren’t that many.
But back to Dr. Persson (whose research/writing I’m now going to have to seek out). My “aha” in the interview was his Hero, Nerd and Martyr taxonomy of giftedness. He writes:
Somewhat simplistically, perhaps, I construed societal functions as Maintenance, Escape, and Change, typified by the more common parlance expressions of Nerd, Hero, and Martyr…. Gifted individuals interested in, for example, technology, medicine, or finance—“the nerds”—all serve supportive functions in society. They are rarely controversial because their skills contribute towards maintaining society, its leaders on all levels, and its power structure as a whole. Also individuals gifted in sports, music, and the arts are much appreciated. A few are rewarded more for the moments of release from stress that their gifts offer. They allow us for a moment to escape into a very positive experience. As scientists, we go to great lengths to study the constituents of their skills.
However, when it comes to gifted individuals having the potential to change the social world by their knowledge and insight, they are rarely as appreciated as their colleagues more devoted to maintenance and escape. We tend to fail to realize the consequences of having an uncanny grasp of cause and effect, so typical of the academically gifted. When confronted with certain conditions and decisions, the gifted individual is very good at understanding what the outcome will be. However, being one voice in a group of others less equipped to foresee the results and problems, who in the group is inclined to listen and acknowledge the single and voice differing in opinion and conclusion? If this individual is being contrary to the leadership, harassment and being contrary to the leadership, harassment and persecution are sure to follow in one way or
another. Interestingly, it rarely matters whether the gifted individual is right or wrong; he or she poses a threat to the credibility of authority. Again, history is full of examples, and “martyr” is sadly an appropriate term.
The greater the prestige to be lost, the more severe the battle to retain dominance and authority.
Or, as Ellen Winner (1996) put it Gifted Children: The gifted are risk-takers with a desire to shake things up. Most of all they have the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view. They are oppositional and discontented.
I also like what Persson has to say earlier in his article about why and when are gifted individuals likely to be “considered inconvenient or ignored.” For me, this explains so much of our journey, particularly with C.
You can be “inconvenient” in any number of ways, of course, but in relation to being academically gifted, it is not always appreciated amongst teachers or other students to be a “know-it-all”: one who usually has all the correct answers. …. Then, of course, there are school systems which do not recognize giftedness at all as a viable reason for an adapted curriculum, such as is the case in the Swedish and Norwegian school systems. In these environments teaching is certainly student-active, but giftedness is a considerable inconvenience because students who want more, know more, and learn quicker than everyone else only become a further reason for teacher stress. Gifted students become inconvenient indeed! In a recent study, I found that 92% of students in the Swedish compulsory school system, with an IQ beyond 131 (n = 287), were everything from ignored to harassed by their teachers, resulting in some students even becoming suicidal….
A gifted individual becomes inconvenient either when posing a threat to others’ low self-esteem or when being perceived as a threat to social authority…. History is replete with examples: individuals who see and understand injustices, bring them to light believing this will be a good deed, but, more often than not, find themselves having become “inconvenient.” In short, our genetically imprinted social behavior, which we share with other species, decides whether we are friends or foes of authority. As a rule, perceived “foes” are ignored.
Boy did this resonate…. He also has some pretty interesting things to say about gifted individuals in the workplace. So a three-fer.
Next up, my look at another recent “wow.” This time a memoir that ties in very neatly with this Persson interview.