The Right Coast

August 17, 2004
Gifted kids
By Tom Smith

Gifted kids face a lot of problems in school, and so do their parents. The Davidson Institute was established by the couple that made a fortune with games like MathBlaster, and are now full time philanthropists in education. I hear good things about them.

Public schools often practice a kind of thick headed egalitarianism, where the only way to get special attention is to bring a weapon to school or be the right type of victim. The public schools in our area explictly profess a "the gifted can take care of themselves" philosophy. La Jolla and other top districts have a GATE or "gifted and talented" program, but I am told to get into it, you have to perform very well on a spatial intuition test, which wouldn't do my oldest boy any good, who is lucky if he can tell a square from a triangle. Shapes apparently "discriminate" less against non-white persons. Since my oldest boy's giftedness runs straight down the middle of verbal intelligence, that doesn't do him much good.

One of the problems with gifted kids is that, perhaps by definition, their gifts tend to be unique or at least unusual. One kid might be a mathematical prodigy, but not particularly good at language or creative writing. Another might be the next J.K. Rowling, but unable to grasp square roots. They tend to demand individual attention, which most schools don't want to give, and may not be able to. Gifted kids often get easily bored, which can make them less than a joy to be around. Some teachers think gifted means able to do twice the quantity of stupid homework they give to the rest of the kids. Kid despairs, ditches homework, gets a "C" and voila, problem of giftedness solved, since kid obviously isn't as smart as teacher (no rocket scientist) was told. Then there is the stigma in the culture against being smart, which makes you a geek or a nerd. You can try home schooling, but maybe you don't want to live in a trailer, so require two incomes, and fear your child will become socially isolated outside of school, which can very well happen.

We have our kids in a pretty good Catholic school, which does a fair job of accommodating special needs. It speaks volumes that having an IQ far outside the norm on the high side makes you "disabled" in a normal classroom, and yet it does. My poor sixth grader simply put his head on his desk and slept while one of his teachers, a remarkably dense human, would blather on about whatever coursed briefly through her uncluttered mind. It was very difficult to deal with. It was disrespectful, and yet she really was a boring idiot. Try explaining to a sixth grader with a very high IQ that in the long run it is in his interest to suffer fools gladly. I got into a lot of trouble in high school for treating certain nuns as if they were as stupid as they were. What would really be best would be private tutors, a la the English aristocracy.

There are good non-religious (for example, Episcopalian) private schools in San Diego, that weigh in at about $15K per kid per year, which for us would be $45K per year in after tax money, or $90K in income. So sad, but we don't have $90K in annual income to spend on grade school at the moment, what with nannies and vacations to pay for. Even if we did, it's not entirely clear these schools are a boon to gifted kids either. The law of large numbers and regression to the mean being as ruthless as they are, the children of the wealthy tend to be somewhat but not dramatically smarter than most kids, and these schools seem geared to their constituencies, rather than to unusually bright, and unusual in other ways as well, kids. I'm not convinced it would be worth the money, in our case.

While I'm at it, I suggest you read a chapter in almost any of the science or history textbooks used in elementary or middle school, public or private. Written by committees, apparently, of total hacks, these texts manage to take inherently interesting topics and absolutely butcher them. I mean, how do you make volcanoes boring? Believe me, it can be done. Earthquakes and tidal waves? Yawn. It is truly an outrage. Any educated person, and I mean it, could write a better science text than the ones we force our kids to use. I mean for heaven's sake, just start by descibing the carnage done by a big volcanic eruption, and go from there. Jane is swallowed by lava. Why does she burst spontaneously into flame? Because lava is X degrees and the human body burns at Y degrees. What's lava? Explain briefly, then move on. John is crushed by a volcanic bomb. What is a volcanic bomb? Explain. How hard could that be? Maybe it would work better for boys than girls, but that's half the population. I would have the kids so terrified they would want to know all about the intricacies of volcanoes just so they'd hope to have a chance of survival. The political correctness of the history texts is also stifling and ridiculous. The standard California state history pablum on the missions depicts them as concentration camps. Yet the Mexicans are also victims, even though they are the ones that enslaved the Indians (assuming that's what handing out food and religion amounts to), which is quite a trick. The only absolute moral value in these materials, apparently, is recycling. For a while, my kids were coming home preaching about how we were not to throw away newspapers and the like. I put a stop to that nonsense in a hurry, I can tell you.