Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Gifted versus Pushy.

In the last few days, a news article has come out of Cambridge University. Now, in having done some poking around of my own since reading it, I've learned a thing or two, namely that not even
Cambridge is capable of writing an article about gifted children without slanting it into some fashion of attack on those children who are genuinely different from the norm.


On October 27, Cambridge University News posted an article interviewing Dr Clementine Beauvais under the headline "Behind Every 'Gifted' Child is a Pushy Parent." Oddly, the first thing to note about the article itself is that it does not tell what Dr Beauvais is a doctor of, nor does it tell what the thrust is of the research she's doing. Ordinarily, not a big issue - as the assumption is that she's a PhD in Psychology, researching where and how Giftedness happens to occur.  And that, I believe, is precisely why that information was left out.

The article goes on, and reads like a laundry list of stereotypical complaints about the gifted:
  • The child is not gifted. The parent is pushing them to be more than they are.
  • Homeschooling children, particularly young ones, is much the same as hothousing them, and that's why so many children who are homeschooled are "gifted."
  • A child doing what they love for 3,500 hours in three years (between 3 and 6 for Mozart) is unreasonable, even if it meant that child was focused on this one thing for approximately three hours and fifteen minutes per day.  
  • Giftedness is a recent construct, and (implied) therefore not anything that could be tied to genetics.
  • Gifted children are almost always middle class children.
  • Giftedness, particularly in the poor (whenever that happens) means you will succeed - no matter what.
  • Giftedness is due to parents who believe their children's successes are a direct reflection on them as parents.
  • Treating all children equally is the best way to ensure all children succeed, and asking for more for a more capable child is "cheating" the other children out of their success.
Find me a parent of a gifted child who hasn't heard every single one of these things applied to themselves or their children, and I will show you a gifted parent who is spectacularly lucky to have found their tribe before they needed it, and also intensely introverted, so as to not hear what the "other" parents have to say. This is the tale every single parent of a gifted child has heard, and will hear, likely throughout the child's entire life. It is the tale woven by society to explain why some people are just more capable than the statistical norm. They learn faster, they apply more easily, and they Get Shit Done, but that must be for some reason not inherent to the child, because otherwise it would mean that some people are better at things than other people.  Oddly, this tends to not apply to children gifted in the arena of sports.

Gifted bloggers the world over have written about these stereotypes time and time again.  In my own case, in blogs like The Gifted PoorInfographics Gone Amok, and It's Not All Sunshine And Roses, No Matter What You Think. And I'm not even the most prolific writer on these things.  The stereotypes hurt gifted children. They hurt them now, always have, and unless things change, they always will. The problem is in articles like that one from Cambridge - the ones that perpetuate those stereotypes indiscriminately and without even an iota of thought for the very real people they are denigrating with their words, which are backed up by a prestigious university.

But, you see, that article has a glaring problem. Cambridge left out some extremely vital information. Namely, just who Dr Beauvais is, and what she is studying.  You see, Dr Beauvais is not involved in psychology beyond the cursory classes needed to make a PhD at all.  She has her doctorate in Children's Literature. She is a Post-Doctorate Fellow working on a paper about how gifted children are represented in our popular children's stories. Knowing that, suddenly her opinions make sense, don't they?  It's not exactly surprising that in a society that espouses egalitarian ideals, that myths like those called out above are prevalent in our children's stories. After all, the point of children's fiction, like most fiction, is some measure of escapism, and that generally doesn't include things like "some people will just be better than you are at things." Children's fiction, in general, in addition to providing some measure of escape, also teaches the things we value in society - justice, kindness, that same egalitarianism. It is unsurprising in the extreme that the stories our society tells about gifted children are a direct reflection of the issues gifted real children (as opposed to the fictional ones!), their parents, and they themselves as adults face on a nigh-daily basis. There is little surprise to be seen when a society that turns up its collective nose at one segment of itself also does the same in its literature. And yet, that is not what Cambridge chose to report.

What Cambridge chose to do, in allowing this article to go forward under their name, was to drop one more instance about how gifted children really aren't gifted, it's something forced on them. How if parents wanted a gifted child, all they had to do was push. That parents who have children who are somehow outside the norm are bad and pushy, and force their children to achieve - thus allowing the parents of "normal" children to feel superior. They have allowed this sort of harmful misrepresentation to continue to be portrayed, using their name to advance an agenda the university heads may not even be aware actually is still ongoing.

Unfortunately, I have also been perusing Dr Beauvais's blog, in which she muses on her research - and insists this is common practice among academics. That, however, is a broad generalization that is inherently untrue. It may be true of Post Doctorate Fellows in Children's Literature, but it is certainly not the case across all academia. Further, her blog presents her research with exactly no context. She vacillates rapidly between real gifted children and their fictional counterparts, making little to no distinction between the two. Reading her commentary when that issue is addressed leads me to fear what sort of research she is hoping to present, and to whom - there is little to no excuse for a PhD to be presenting on such a subject, particularly in the form of a paper, when she has such a spectacular inability to streamline her writing into anything remotely resembling coherence to her topic.

Depressingly, this leads straight into her seeming backpedaling in her comments section. It wouldn't be too terribly bad, honestly, if it were simply a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication. But we've run into something else going on here - "academic-splaining." Dr Beauvais is taking time out of her day to graciously explain to us how "academics" works, and what is valid practice - as though many of the very people she's replying to don't have PhDs or equivalent education themselves. It is incredibly distressing to note that condescension, particularly toward the very community she seems to be addressing, is rampant, and that despite the lack of clarity in the post she has made, she insists that this is all perfectly clear and of course she's not referring to real children, despite statements like "[T]he notion that giftedness is ‘inborn’ is hugely problematic. It is quite fruitless to quibble over whether children are ‘naturally’ gifted if giftedness is mostly a social construction."  This is not at all a clear statement on the nature of giftedness in children's literature, and seems, particularly in the context of the remainder of her post, to instead be directly referencing actual, live gifted children who will be actively harmed by her conflating literary device with valid psychological research.

Dr Beauvais has a chat coming up, centering on her research. I would hope that if nothing else, the profound misrepresentation of her research would warn her to be extremely clear as to what she is talking about. She is being represented as a PhD with a degree relevant to Gifted issues, and this is not the case. She is being touted as a speaker on the state of Gifted education - which she is not. She is a speaker, researcher, on the myth surrounding giftedness in children's literature, and this is not at all the same sort of qualification. I would hope that in the time leading up to her talk on Thursday, she makes an effort to learn something about the difference between the gifted child portrayed in common media and the gifted child trying to lead his or her life in our education systems today. Perhaps learn a little about WHY those parents of gifted children who quit their jobs to school their children felt they had to make that choice, and maybe, just maybe, use her research to look into the effect these prevalent tropes in children's literature have on our real, live gifted children. Then, at least, perhaps some good could come of the profound mess that she, Cambridge University, and specifically Emma Higgenbotham, have made of her research to date.