As an occasional journalist, I love covering topics I know nothing about–although editors understandably want to pigeonhole writers so they have a go-to guy for music, another for sports, a third for coal-mining, or whatever. Part of it is that I place a high value on getting to learn new stuff, which is why my job path has been an eccentric line rather than a rise and rise. Part of it is that the people I imagine to be my audience, my “common readers,” need to have a proxy who’s sufficiently naive that he can ask stupid questions or, if it comes to that, point out that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes. Having recently completed an assignment to write an article on the problems of giftedness and gifted education, while I’m happy to say I learned a lot, I still feel dissatisfied and have been thinking about loose threads.

I accept the argument of the “gifted industry” that academic elitism is good, or at least no worse than elitism in, say, sports. (I admit I think elitism in sports does more harm than good, certainly on the amateur level of soccer leagues for five-year-olds, little league for the eight-to-twelve set, and Division I intercollegiate athletics for big kids, each of which I’ve had the opportunity to observe behind the scrim, in passing. But that’s another story.) What I mostly remain troubled about is how narrowly we’re able to define and measure giftedness in the first place.

My friend Mark, who has a rich history in working with gifted children, is writing a book about this. He worries that society too often associates intelligence with traditional nonvocational realms, what I think of as pencil-and-paper fill-in-the-bubble tests, leaving no room for those whose gifts manifest below the neck–with, say, their hands. Take surgeons, or the kind of people who are going to turn into surgeons. If they ace achievement tests and/or have a booming IQ, are they destined to become great surgeons or is something else required, something beyond their care and feeding in accelerated classes, something beyond a stable home life, something beyond their enrichment activities in museums and concert halls and laboratories, something even beyond (or before) their desire–something upon which desire itself is predicated?

Disney lets you cultivate your wee geniuses.

The message: start early or else.

To be sure, there are those pesky “multiple intelligences” posited by Howard Gardner some three decades ago; those have entered the popular lexicon–indeed, in public schools they’re all the rage, though interestingly I’ve noticed that some folks in what I called the gifted industry (I’m not talking about anybody who’s mentioned in my forthcoming article) downplay his theory impatiently. If a thirteen-year-old can’t score five years ahead of his peers on the SAT, by God, she just doesn’t have what it takes.

Many gifted educators (I’m never sure how to parse that adjective) get particularly irritated when people say things like “Everybody’s gifted in their own way.” “Having gifts, in the social sense, does not make you gifted, in an educational sense” says a fellow named Michael C. Thompson in a speech he gave at the Indiana Association for the Gifted Annual Conference a few years back. He goes on to dismiss the multiple intelligences theory as a kind of sidebar fad that has run its useful course. Point taken.

And yet, to take a single example, having a son who seems to have a surprising habit of compassion at an early age, am I a complete ninny for wondering whether the “educational sense of gifted” is good enough–good enough, I mean, to serve the wider society at whose pleasure all educational institutions are chartered and suffered to exist? I think no one would disagree that society has a compelling interest in developing all its children to their fullest. It’s just that–well, you know, that scarce resource thing. We’ve been pretty busy managing teachers’ behaviors to try to bring up the bottom half of academic underachievers; if we have anything left for the right-hand tail of the bell curve as currently defined, that’s miracle enough, so stop your nagging.

I don’t have the answer. Am I a doting parent? Sure. Do I project? Sometimes. How the heck would a school system develop compassion anyway, and should public money be put against something that ought to be common to everybody, that furthermore ought properly to be the province of parents or their religious institutions, or that could safely be ignored and left to develop on its own? (Hmm, that’s exactly what they used to say about the academically gifted.)

The gnat won’t leave me alone. If it just would go ahead and sting, maybe I could finally rest.

Maybe I’m grasping at a straw to convince myself that my boy is special. Maybe, since the local public schools I’ve visited make me shudder, I need to explain myself to myself. Maybe it means nothing that I’ve witnessed startling behaviors and competencies among my son’s little friends–passing wisdom, passing acuity, passing ability. Yeah, some were talking at ten months and reading at two years, but the rest interest me as much.

Because the cool thing about giftedness is that those who have it are obliged to re-gift.

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