Perry Glanzer on Secular Angst About Gifted Students
Many public schools have traditionally offered “Gifted and Talented programs” or special classes for “gifted children,” and I sometimes mused to friends that Americans United for Separation of Church and State should have been screaming in protest. Calling kids “gifted” implies that Someone gave them the gift. If you believe “gifted” students are really just the fortunate winners of the gene lottery or the propitiously fated products of competitive evolutionary development, why would you call them gifted? You should call them lucky.
Obviously, “Lucky and Talented” doesn’t have the special ring parents and educators find attractive. And “More Evolutionarily Advanced” seems downright undemocratic, if not social Darwinist. I prophesied to friends that educators uncomfortable with the word “gifted” might change the preferred term to “talented.”
I was almost right. Educators are beginning to call these children “exceptional.” It is the same word they use for children with physical and mental handicaps, and it not only avoids any theistic connotations but also solves the problem presented by words like “gifted” and “handicapped,” which imply that some exceptions are above the norm and some below it. Public educators tend to fret about unpleasant questions, such as, “What message are we sending about the worth of these ‘gifted’ children as well as of the children who are not so ‘gifted’?”
The Worthy Child
This question about the message the language of “giftedness” sends is not a serious problem for Christians because we recognize an important distinction. God has made each child in his image, and therefore each child is equally valuable, but he has also given unique gifts to various children. Intelligence is only one such gift, and although it is highly prized by the world, we know it is not nearly the most important.
Secular American public education cannot rely on such theological insight to avoid the harmful effects of distinguishing between gifted, average, and handicapped children. When children must be viewed through secular eyes alone, educators understandably see the specter of hurt feelings and poor self-image. They therefore rush to find a safely secular way to insist on every child’s equality to his peers.
An incident in the movie The Incredibles captures the problem with this sort of linguistic leveling. The gifted superhero mom tries to explain to her gifted superhero son, Dash, why he should not use his gift of speed on the school’s sports teams. The son claims with exasperation, “But Dad always said our powers are nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special.” To which the mom replies, “Everyone’s special, Dash.” But the astute Dash notes, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
Similarly, public educators use the language of self-esteem to affirm the inherent worth of children. Consider a typical book, Educating the Heart: Lessons to Build Respect and Responsibility, by Frank Siccone and Lilia López, two educators who specialize in writing and teaching about this topic.
In chapter two, “Pride and Joy: Celebrating Self,” the authors try to teach children “that you are lovable with or without your faults; the faults are related to what you have or what you do, not who you are. You, the person, are completely worthy of being loved.” Later in the chapter, they instruct teachers to teach students relaxation techniques in which they repeat such mantras as, “I like myself. I am happy. I am in perfect health.”
Why should a child believe this? Merely asserting that he is completely worthy of being loved fails to answer the obvious question he may ask, “What makes me worth something? Is it merely a matter of how I feel, how well I do, or the votes of people who matter? All these may change. I could feel bad. I could fail. People might not like me anymore. What gives me worth that I cannot lose?” The ungifted will wonder why they should esteem themselves when the world plainly doesn’t.
The Giver’s Gifts
In contrast, the claim that all children are made in God’s image gives all children everywhere, no matter what gifts they have, a timeless reason for believing that they matter as much as the genius and the prodigy. It also allows us to acknowledge that while certain children are not gifted, they are still God’s gift to us.
Nonetheless, we should not confuse this with giftedness. The child prodigy in piano, math, or art enriches our lives, not least by showing us the valuable talents the Giver can give. By replacing “gifted” with “exceptional,” not only do we no longer recognize the Giver, we even refuse to recognize the gift as something of worth and value. By applying the language of “exception” to both gifted and handicapped children, we reduce a gifted child’s unique talent to something that is not good, just different.
Describing certain children with extraordinary abilities as “gifted” does not erase all difficult questions. In fact, for Christians, it sometimes raises further questions about God’s fairness. Why should some children find math or art or writing so easy, and others struggle to pass even the courses designed for the average student? Why should some children have minds that will lead them to good colleges and good jobs, while others can expect only boring jobs that do not pay well?
Christians struggle with these questions, but it is only because we recognize the gifts and the Giver. Those who refuse to recognize that gifts are indeed the gifts of a Giver are left with only lucky and unlucky exceptions, and no convincing way to tell the unlucky that they matter. It is kinder to everyone to call the gifted “gifted.”
Perry Glanzer is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Baylor University and the author of The Quest for Russia?s Soul (Baylor University Press). He attends First Baptist Church in Woodway, Texas.
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