- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008



The last of three excerpts.

College is usually pretty easy for the gifted who go into the humanities or social sciences. Those who major in mathematics, engineering and the hard sciences have to pass a tough curriculum, but all the other gifted can readily find undemanding courses in today’s colleges that allow them to get a degree without approaching their intellectual limits.

This wouldn’t be so awful except that many of these same students arrive at college having been told all their lives that they are absolutely wonderful human beings - and so very, very smart - and they leave college without having any reason to doubt it.

It is a product of the age of self-esteem. Since the self-esteem movement began in the late 1960s, it has become an article of faith among great swathes of American parents and K-12 schools that children are supposed to be praised, because praise fosters high self-esteem. Criticism is destructive, because criticism produces low self-esteem. Classroom competitions should be avoided, because they damage the self-esteem of the losers.

The encouragement of high self-esteem independently of real reason for that esteem became an all-purpose solution to the problems of children. Psychological health, high educational performance, earnings as an adult - whatever the desired outcome, higher self-esteem would help produce it.

Over the last several years, the self-esteem movement has been debunked in the technical literature. The landmark change in scholarly opinion occurred in 2003, when a review of the 15,000 studies that had been written on the relationship of self-esteem to the development of children concluded that improving self-esteem does not raise grades, career achievement, or have any other positive effect.

Worse, scholars are finding that praise that is not linked to performance backfires. For example, contemporary parents commonly tell their children that they are smart, in contrast to an earlier era, when parents were worried about giving their children big heads. But according to a recent meta-analysis of 150 praise studies, praising children for being smart tends to produce children who choose the easier alternative when given a task, who are risk-averse, and who have a diminished sense of autonomy. Researchers are discovering that the more children are praised for being smart, the more important it becomes for them to maintain their image. Their goal becomes to protect themselves, not to outshine others through superior achievement.

It should go without saying that this upbringing does not fit all gifted children. But it corresponds with the milieu in which many gifted children grow up, with the observed behavior of many gifted children, and with the current state of knowledge about the effects of praise.

There is a healthier alternative - healthier for gifted children and for the society that some of them will run as adults. Since they are in fact academically gifted, it is fine to tell them that. Trying to hide their academic ability from them would be futile anyway. But they must also be told explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift that they have done nothing to deserve. They are not superior human beings, but very, very lucky ones. They should feel humbled by their good luck.

At that point, praising them for actual accomplishment is appropriate. But even then, lavish praise is not what students need. Think back on your own college days. The praise you cherish is more likely to be the words of the exacting professor who, when you had done the very best you possibly could, said “Not bad.” That’s what today’s gifted students will cherish if we give them teachers who demand their best.

This healthier alternative also means making sure that at some point every gifted student fails in some academic task. There is no sadism in this, but an urgent need for our luckiest children to gain perspective on themselves and on their fellows. As matters stand, many among the gifted who manage to avoid serious science and math never take a course from kindergarten through graduate school so tough that they have to say to themselves, “I can’t do this.” Lacking that experience, too many gifted graduates are not conscious of their own limits. They don’t know, as an established fact, that there are some things they just aren’t smart enough to figure out.

Everybody else knows that for a fact. Making sure that all gifted students hit their own personal walls is crucial for developing their empathy with the rest of the world. When they see others struggle with intellectual tasks, they need to be able to say “I know how it feels” - and be telling the truth.

But empathy is not the chief reason that gifted students need to hit the wall. It is even more important that they achieve humility. A wonderful maxim is attributed to George Christian, one of Lyndon Johnson’s press secretaries: “No one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life.” The same principle applies to those who will become members of America’s elite. No one among the gifted should be allowed to rise to a position of influence without knowing what it feels like to fail. The experience of internalized humiliation is a prerequisite for humility.

There is much more to be said about college and the gifted, but my theme should be obvious by now. The gifted disproportionately come from homes in which they already have everything going for them, and I have no interest in providing them with still more perks. But the nation has an interest in their education. Since they include the people who will end up running the country, it is time for colleges to start holding their feet to the fire.

Charles Murray is the author of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”

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