What’s in a Name?

30 Apr

I don’t have a passionate interest in the subject of what to call unusually intelligent people.  Our current term is gifted, which isn’t particularly descriptive or precise, but has been in use long enough that its general meaning is pretty well understood.  Because that meaning is general we’ve developed the descriptors of highly, exceptionally and profoundly to help pin down the degree of difference between the gifted and those whose intelligence falls toward the center of the bell curve.  The term, with or without added descriptors, has long been criticized by a great many people and is being challenged with special vehemence at the moment.  We are told that we need to change it.

Here’s what I think now and what I’ve always said:  it isn’t the word we choose, the name we give it, that creates the problem.  It’s the phenomenon of unusual intelligence itself.  As Linda Silverman has said, there’s a threat standard in science fiction novels—that there might be a more intelligent life form out there somewhere heading our way.  The trouble is, of course, a more intelligent life form  is already here—the people we call gifted.  When faced with this idea there may be some fear, but there’s also a sense of injustice.  It just doesn’t seem fair that some people should be more intelligent than others.

What other names might we give this phenomenon? 

The word genius used to be used for both children and adults who exhibited extreme intelligence.  (Think Genetic Studies of Genius, Terman’s classic longitudinal study of children who scored highly on IQ tests.) The term was discarded because it was argued that genius is a word that signifies great achievement, only appropriate for someone like Newton, Sheakespeare, Einstein or—among the few women it was used for—Madame Curie. 

Smart is another term that, like gifted, is so general as to need descriptors for differentiation. The excellent blog Wicked Smart gives us one with a Maine twang.  But smart is used so casually that it doesn’t seem to capture everything we’re trying to convey.  And now that phones are called smart, it seems unlikely that we’d want to go back to using the word for extremely intelligent people. 

Talented makes me, at least, think of the ability to tap dance or play the cello—a narrow, inborn knack for accomplishing something specific.  It just doesn’t equate with unusually intelligent.

I’m rather fond of bright, myself, and I actually use it quite a lot.  Super bright works nicely to suggest somebody pretty far out on the tail of the curve. 

Some people like high IQ.  That seems to me to focus entirely on a test—and in this era where changes to the tests have left us unable to distinguish clearly at both the left and right sides of the curve, a test score is hard to count on.  Just as thermometers that only register temperature up to 103 degrees couldn’t alert us to life-threatening high fevers, new IQ tests don’t allow the possibility of the sorts of children Leta Hollingworth wrote about in her book about children “Over 180 IQ.”

High potential suggests that the difference in the person’s ability to learn and process information is only potential rather than here-and-now actual (think baby cheetah as potential cheetah).  For an unusually intelligent person achievement might be potential, but intelligence isn’t!  (Have a conversation with a profoundly gifted six year old, and you’ll know what you’re hearing is not a matter of mere potential.) 

High ability doesn’t work for me because ability, like talent, is an undifferentiated term with no particular connection to intelligence.  A high ability to knit, a high ability to steer a speeding ATV, a high ability to walk a tight rope—none of these assumes a high ability to think critically, conceptualize, make connections, or come up with new and useful ideas (all of which are aspects of high level intelligence), though of course they wouldn’t rule out such intelligence.  

XIP (extra intelligent/intense person) is a term invented byWillem Kuipers in his excellent book, Enjoying The Gift of Being Uncommon.  I rather like that, because at least it’s clear and specific.  Also, it has no previously established connotations or emotional baggage.

Can it go unnamed?

When and where I grew up the term gifted wasn’t in use.  But that doesn’t mean that adults had no names for me.  Annoying was one.  Quick was another.  Loud was another (related to my intensities)—and (because I was a girl) bossy. There were no gifted programs in my school.  My pull-out program was being sent out of class to run the ditto machine, to carry notes to the office, to help another student with our spelling list, or to do any other small task that would get me out of the teacher’s way for a while.  It seemed that nobody was interested in allowing me, much less encouraging me, to learn more!  Not being labeled gifted didn’t mean that I wasn’t recognized as “brighter than the average bear” even without an IQ test.  It did mean that I was not given any sort of explanation for my differences.

A few teachers liked my unusual intelligence; most very obviously did not!  But I myself was only being who I was and never could quite understand why the majority of my teachers (and a few kids) seemed to automatically dislike me.  (The truth is, where those anti-Stephanie teachers were concerned, I pretty much automatically disliked them!  It could be a chicken-egg question, but I think their dislike came first.) 

I had no real understanding of how different my mind was until long after my son (who had obvious difficulty fitting in school) was tested and termed exceptionally gifted, leading me to study everything I could find about human intelligence.  In my generation not understanding our extraordinary intelligence wasn’t unusual.  As a dear (and incredibly successful) friend of mine said when I told her she had been a gifted child, “Oh, no—I wasn’t gifted, I was just weird.”

Of course, whatever you call them, kids do now and always did exist whose developmental trajectory is far outside the norms and who don’t, therefore, fit the world constructed for children in a culture based on those norms.  If they were not required to live in that world and expected to fit, there would be less need to categorize and label them.  But it would still be important to understand their ways of learning in order to provide them with the challenging education they need.  It seems to me it is also important to give them a way to understand the reasons they feel and are treated as different.

It was the fact that my differences were never explained to me that led me to explain to my son that his differences had to do with unusual intelligence.  The psychologist who tested him suggested I use a magnifying glass/microscope/electron microscope analogy to explain why he saw things differently from his classmates.  That explanation worked well when he was five because it didn’t suggest that either his perspective or theirs was wrong.  Different instruments provide different views.  Later, it was important to talk with him about why, in order to give him something to actually learn in school, we were offering him the opportunity to skip two grades. 

Here’s the tricky and surprising thing:  the very fact that my son’s differences were explained to him has led him to back away from explaining these same issues to his own sons. It would seem that my son suspects that knowing he was different all his life is a big part of what made him feel different. 

I, of course, wanted him to know that his differences could be seen in a positive light because I’d interpreted my own as negative—as was true of my husband, his father—who always assumed that his one (wonderful) year in a pilot program for unusually intelligent children (he had to get there by himself on a trolley) was really a special class for bad kids.  (my husband corrects me:  unruly kids.)  He had gotten the highest IQ score of any child in his school district’s history and his parents had been warned not to tell him he was unusually bright.

Whatever our personal experiences have been we have no way to compare them to what we did not experience.  The same range and intensity of pain may therefore be blamed on fully opposite causes—as in being told or not being told.  Parents who really want to keep their children from pain (often the pain they experienced themselves) tend to purposely make different choices than their own parents did—only to have their children blame those choices later for causing pain.  Seriously frustrating! 

As I said in my article, “You Can’t Do it Wrong,” even when we parents are trying our very best to do it right, we can’t guarantee that our decisions won’t harm our kids in some way.  So we might as well give ourselves a break, do the best we can, and act as if we can’t do it wrong.

So—back to gifted.  What are the objections to this term?

It suggests, many people complain, that these children have an extra something that they didn’t earn.  But of course the fundamental truth is that they do.  When I was a child I had done nothing whatsoever to earn my prodigious memory, my ability to grasp concepts on first hearing, my emotional intensity, my powerful imagination, or my ability to learn to read on my own—any more than I earned my green eyes and blond hair.  They just were.

When I do an author visit to a school and children ask me when I started writing, I tell them I was born a writer.  Everything necessary to doing this thing I do was there from the start.  Of course, many things (internally and externally) came together after that to turn those innate qualities into a career. 

Giftedness, contrary to a current argument being made by many in the gifted ed field, is not synonymous with achievement.  It may or may not lead a kid to do well on school tasks or an adult to fame, fortune or culturally recognized success.  Many factors affect its expression!

Then there is the sense of injustice around some folks getting more gifts than others. I know of some families with two children who give an unbirthday present to the one who is chafing at a sister’s or brother’s cake and pile of presents, in an effort to reduce that sense of unfairness.  Using the terms gifts and gifted for differences that already make people uncomfortable does hook into some extra emotional baggage.  But it doesn’t seem likely to me that changing the word would make much difference, given the underlying discomfort with unusual intelligence itself.

Most of the objections to the term are actually objections to the way gifted education has been implemented (failing to find, identify and serve minority children for instance, or failing to differentiate programs to meet the needs of children with different abilities) or to the ongoing conflicts about how to define intelligence itself.  

There’s also the suggestion that identifying and labeling kids creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it would be better just to give every child a sense that his or her mind is extremely capable and not separate out some kids whose minds are said to be more capable.  It makes enormous sense to tell every child that his or her mind is extremely capable—because it is pretty much true.  Humans are learning animals capable of amazing feats of mind.  I do believe that the stories we tell are the stories we live, so I’m aware there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

But this argument has the unfortunate side-effect in a one-size-fits-all version of education, of holding the brightest kids back so the others won’t feel bad.  I’m told there’s a tee-shirt with a quote of mine that says that no one has the moral right to do that.  But until we fully differentiate, that’s what happens.

Mary St. George wrote a blog post recently  about this whole subject of terminology and named her post “The Gifted Label.”  It’s well worth reading, and suggests that terms teachers (and others, presumably) are comfortable with are better than terms that bring negative baggage.  But the word label is another conflict-ridden term.  People complain about labeling children because they assume that labels are external tags that have little to do with the individual realities of the children themselves. 

I like the idea of diagnosing unusual intelligence, just as a doctor needs to make a diagnosis in order to determine a treatment regimen.  Equal treatment of unequals is easily understood as a violation of individual rights when it comes to medicine.  If fifty people are treated for the common cold when one of them actually has pneumonia, it’s clear that the one with pneumonia is not receiving proper care. 

But diagnosis still involves naming or labeling.  Cold.  Pneumonia. We use language both to help us understand and to communicate with each other. Sometimes the words we choose can get in the way of both purposes.  But whatever the limits of language, we’re pretty much stuck with it, so we do the best we can.

The biggest problem?

When it comes right down to it, the biggest problem we face handling the issue of people with unusual to extreme intelligence may be that we value intelligence (and ourselves) so very highly.  Many people automatically consider greater intelligence to be what separates us from the “lesser animals” with whom we share the planet. Though the more we learn about the intelligence of other species, the less we can depend on that line of separation, it is still a big part of the cultural story that is accepted in our society. 

If greater intelligence makes us “better” than other animals, then it would follow that greater intelligence would make one person better than another.  That betterness is  given an extra dimension when we add the idea that gifted people have great potential for moral development.  It was partly to counter the sense of giftedness meaning specifically kinder, gentler, more loving and moral sorts of better that I did a talk at the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted once about the Unabomber, whose unusual intelligence and thought processes led him to the conclusion that it was okay to murder or maim some people as part of his plan to save the planet.  My point at the time was that head without heart is dangerous.  But there was little doubt that the Unabomber was gifted.

Much of the resentment people feel about this whole issue comes from a sense that recognizing unusual intelligence means affirming that those who have it have more value in the world.  That’s the reason I came up with the cheetah metaphor—to take this whole issue out of the human realm for a moment so we could get away from the idea that gifted means better.  People readily understand that cheetahs and lions have different needs and a different place to fill in the web of life.  There is no automatic assumption that one species is better than the other.

Often when I tell people that in addition to writing novels for kids and young adults, I’m a consultant on the needs of highly to profoundly gifted children, I can read their discomfort on their faces.  Elitist that discomfort says.  As if they think that caring about that particular population means I don’t care about anyone else.  Jane Goodall, on the other hand, is generally given the right to focus her whole life’s attention on chimpanzees without being accused of not caring about other animals. 

We could certainly change the word we use, but we can’t change the underlying stories and beliefs of a whole culture or alleviate the strains and pains of human experience.  My own personal belief is that every single person on the planet has a right to be here and a place in the story.  But I don’t have the time, the energy or the capacity to focus my attention on all of them at once!  So I focus on the needs of mermaids or cheetahs, aka the highly to profoundly gifted.

11 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Julie Cortez April 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Bravo! I always like to think that I am using the word gifted as a noun, not an adjective. I do not have a gifted daughter, or a short daughter, or a lazy daughter. (all those adjectives are used to describe a being) Gifted is her, it is who she is….if anything….daughter is the adjective to the gifted being.

  2. Barbara Mitchell Hutton April 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Stef, have you been in my brain? I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times with parents. Call it “cabbage” if you want. It doesn’t matter. They are who they are, how they are hardwired and the foundation from which they will live their lives.

  3. Wendy Wakefield Ferrin April 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    This compelling post reminds me of a quote whose authorship I know not: “Gifted Education is not about saving the world. It is about the world saving the gifted.” Are those in power thinking?

  4. Shulamit Widawsky May 1, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    So long…and yet, I kept picturing the annotated version I was writing in my head while I read. Lots of important concepts here, Stephanie. Thank you for putting it out there. I’ve shared it on LinkedIn, with the hopes that more people will take a look.

  5. Stef May 1, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    Yes, so long…and yet today my husband pointed out that I’d left out one of the words used alternatively with gifted (other than brilliant, which is, after all, a variation of bright or super bright). The word is the one Julian Stanley used all those years ago when he started what is now CTY. Precocious. My problem with that, of course (though hp-pg kids are for sure that and it does fit the way math whizzes do math pretty well) is that it suggests the kids just “get there early” rather than going somewhere nobody else goes.

  6. Willem Kuipers May 4, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    The specific inaptitude of names and labels to describe extremely intelligent people has to do with the convergent way of thinking that is used to define a concept. In science, you want to be as clear and certain as possible on who belongs to a ‘group’ and who does not.

    But the essence of extreme intelligence is its extreme rarity, combined with an extreme diversity. The more intelligent you are, the less you resemble someone else. And, another twist, the more intelligent you are, the more you combine characteristics that other people consider mutually exclusive: You can be generalist and specialist at the same time. You can be both a strong verbal and a strong imaginal thinker, etc. But all in your own specific way.

    Therefore every description or extrapolation of usual descriptions leads in this ‘group’ immediately to numerous exceptions, or, more likely, to wrongly held expectations at both sides. The only safe way to know who you are interacting with, is to trust the data of all your senses, to allow yourself to think divergently and associative, and to be aware of your own assumptions on ‘what these people look like’.
    Using names like mermaids and cheetahs (or Formula 1 cars for the technically inclined) encourages divergent, imaginal thinking, stimulates wonder and offers some lightness in the conversation. After all, there is so much to enjoy if you know where and how to look.

    • Stef May 4, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

      Thanks, Willem. I’m glad you mentioned the issue of combining characteristics that might be thought mutually exclusive. I know that there is also, often, such a strong ability to see both sides of any issue that it can be hard to take a firm stand. As the world is full of paradox, this ability or tendency can be really helpful!

  7. Becky May 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    I think it was Draper Kaufman who said, “Some degree of labeling is essential if gifted children are to understand how and why they experience the world differently.”


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