Philosophy and Controversy

Does giftedness exist and, if so, is it important?

It is clearly my position that it both exists and that it is important. Otherwise, this website would not exist! That said, I’m going to go ahead and explore the question anyway. You know where my bias is, though, so turn your filters on as you read. While I will try to present both sides with equanimity, that doesn’t mean I will succeed.

I find that arguments about the existence of giftedness often start in a place that I find hard to accept, myself, and I even agree with the conclusion. “Well, if it didn’t exist, then how could some people do so well on IQ tests?” Obviously, IQ tests are an artificial construct and might measure nothing more than that thing that people who do well on an IQ test can do.

But let’s look instead at prodigies. Merriam-Webster has as the applicable definition, “a highly talented child or youth.” In the realms of psycho-educational research, prodigy is often defined as “a child or youth who can perform in one or more discipline at the level of a gifted adult.”

Now, in all fairness, I have heard the argument made that prodigies are a product of their environments and that if one sets out, as a parent, to have a prodigy, one can do so. Yes, there may be a price, but that is beside the point. Zsuzsa, Sophia, and Judit Polgar’s father wrote a book about how he had done just that – taken three ordinary little girls and turned them into brilliant chess players.

Giftedness is a field dedicated to the proposition that some folks learn either faster or more deeply than others, that they may have deeper understanding intuitively, that there can be a qualitative difference in that learning, that knowledge, that intuition.

A key debate is the nature vs. nurture argument, though there is a strong voice that says it just doesn’t matter – we should serve the students, based on who they are, regardless of how they got that way.

The flip side of the debate argues one of three points: a) it is giving more to those who already have more; b) giftedness is a construct of society and all children are gifted; c) giftedness is inherently a racist (or classist) philosophy and violates the notion that ‘all men are created equal.’