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How America Turned Against Smart Kids

Parents of gifted children face egalitarian dogmas and an anti-intellectual culture.
smart kid

Most high-IQ children do not win Fields Medals or become billionaire tech entrepreneurs. Even the most banal achievements often elude intellectually precocious children when they become adults. But among those who do make profound intellectual contributions to the world, several decades of research suggest that their potential can be discerned in childhood. The odds that any one gifted child will achieve eminence may be small, but a wise gambler searching for the next great scholar, physician, or titan of industry would bet on the precocious over the average child.

Rather than investing in high-IQ children, however, American society has moved in the opposite direction. An educational establishment seduced by egalitarian zeal, and an anti-intellectual American culture more generally, has turned the very idea of investing in our most intelligent kids into a sort of heresy, an uncouth departure from a conventional wisdom that has hardened since the 1930s.

Those who believe that intellectually talented children are owed something special, or, in any case, that it’s prudent to cultivate their abilities, are losing the political and cultural debate. Parents of gifted children, as a consequence, are pursuing enrichment outside of mainstream institutions.

The History of Gifted Education Research

It was largely the work of Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, beginning in the 1910s, that kicked off America’s debate over intellectually talented children. Terman suspected that the prevailing stereotype of highly intelligent children as being feeble misfits was off base, and that these children were, in fact, healthy and brimming with potential. IQ tests at the time were generally untested among American academics. But Terman maintained that IQ was “one of the most important facts that can be learned about any child.” He identified over a thousand children with an average IQ of around 150 and recruited them for an ongoing longitudinal study. The “Termites,” as his high-IQ subjects were endearingly called, steadily attained academic and financial achievements at rates considerably higher than the national average.

More generally, the emerging “gifted child movement” was advanced by the work of Terman’s contemporary, Columbia University psychologist Leta Hollingworth. Hollingworth’s groundbreaking research, which pioneered above-age and grade-level testing, focused initially on 133+ IQ children and later turned toward children above 180 IQ. (To put these numbers in perspective, the average IQ of a white or Asian student at MIT, by one estimate, is 138.) Hollingworth, like Terman, found unique promise in gifted children, provided they were raised and educated under particular conditions that accounted for both their intellectual precocity and unique emotional sensitivities.

A major breakthrough in the field came in 1968 with the development of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. Interested in identifying the most promising STEM students, professor Julian Stanley began to administer the SAT to middle-school aged children. Those who scored at the very top were enrolled in enrichment programs and, like the Termites, observed into adulthood. The program’s success led Stanley to launch Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY) in the 1980s. Among its alumni are Google co-founder Sergey Brin, mathematicians Terrence Tao and Lenhard Ng, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The ongoing longitudinal survey is providing insights into intellectually talented children.

Characteristics of Gifted Children

Research on intellectually-talented children is still, in many ways, in its infancy. The definition of giftedness itself is a matter of debate. Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, for instance, has proposed theories of multiple types of intelligence that deemphasize IQ. New research and, perhaps more significantly, technological breakthroughs in areas like gene therapy and nootropics (cognitive enhancers), are likely to upend the field.

Still, the literature to date supports a number of generalizations on intellectually talented children. As measured by IQ and other measures of general intelligence, America’s gifted children:

  • Inherit at least some of their cognitive edge. The vast majority of experts now acknowledge that intelligence is partly hereditary. There is no consensus, however, on the precise extent to which intelligence is inherited or how much intellectual ability can be manipulated at different ages.
  • May lose IQ points through various environmental inputs. The following have been linked to reductions in IQ among children: corporal punishment, disease, formula feeding, scheduled rather than on-demand breastfeeding, and secondhand smoke.
  • Have IQs that can be cultivated and channeled through environmental nourishment. The two most important factors, according to psychologist Joan Freeman, are material provision and parental involvement.
  • Are overrepresented in certain ethnic and racial groups. Indian-Americans, Jews (particularly Ashkenazi Jews), and northeast Asians are consistently overrepresented in U.S. samples of gifted children.
  • Are predominantly male in mathematical reasoning ability. At the high end of the distribution, boys, by age 13, outnumber girls by a margin of 13 to 1.
  • Exhibit outlier behavior in such areas as their high capacity to feel empathy and their tendency toward sexual conservatism.
  • Have limited ability to engage with peers due to their unique combination of emotional immaturity and superior intelligence. Hollingworth, for example, found that ordinary leadership patterns hardly develop when gifted children are in the presence of peers with IQs of more than 30 points below theirs.
  • Have unique emotional vulnerabilities, including alienation, intensive sensitivity and perfectionism.
  • Are significantly more likely to achieve professional success later in life. In a longitudinal study, children who were identified with 160+ IQs at age twelve were more likely by age forty to earn doctorates, academic tenure, patents, and high-level leadership positions at major organizations.
  • Do not necessarily face an “ability threshold” beyond a certain point of intelligence. Judging by their achievements in middle age, the extent to which children in the top .01 percent of intellectual ability outperform their peers in the top 1 percent (the typical cut-off in talent searches) suggests that the two groups are on a “different developmental trajectory.” Longitudinal studies show that the top .01 percent are more likely to be vice presidents of major corporations, lawyers at prestigious firms, financiers, tenured faculty at research-intensive universities, and STEM leaders.

Reflecting on the latest findings of longitudinal studies on gifted students, Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, concluded that children with early cognitive ability “control our society…The kids who test in the top one percent tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires.”

Whether or not they control our society, the preponderance of the evidence does suggest, at a minimum, that gifted children are endowed with unusual potential that manifests in adult eminence. Although gifted children do inherit certain genetic advantages, their overall life outcomes are contingent on the degree to which their capabilities are nourished and the extent to which they are protected from environmental hazards.

Ideological Resistance to Gifted and Talented Education

The intriguing literature on intellectually gifted children has not produced a corresponding interest in American society on how to cultivate their talent. In many ways, the opposite has occurred.

As eugenics fell out of fashion in the 1940s, the aspiration to help gifted children was increasingly likened to a concept that, in the name of improving the genetic fitness of the population, legitimated elitist and racist excesses against underprivileged groups. Whatever interest U.S.-Soviet rivalry rekindled in gifted and talented education was again quashed with the civil rights movement and its aftermath. The dream of racial and gender equality underscored to the political and educational establishment that opportunities for gifted students were distractions from the more pressing imperative of elevating lower performing children. As Peg Tyre of the Edwin Gould Foundation reports, programs for the intellectually-talented today are generally “spurned by equity-minded school administrators and policymakers who see them as means by which predominantly affluent white and Asian parents have funneled scarce public dollars toward additional enrichment for their already enriched children.”

The Rise of Gifted Homeschooling

Against this backdrop, parents began to seek enrichment for their gifted children outside mainstream institutions. In 1978 a district court issued an arrest warrant for Dr. Peter Perchemlides, a Massachusetts-based biochemistry Ph.D. from Duke University, along with his college-educated wife, for refusing to comply with Massachusetts’ compulsory schooling law. The national attention and the couples’ ensuing superior court victory drew attention to the fact that the profile of homeschooling families was changing. The Perchemlides were part of a new wave of homeschoolers—well-educated middle and upper class parents of diverse political persuasions who were removing their children from formal schools for educational rather than religious reasons.

Precise data is not available but reports since the 1980s indicate that the trend has continued. Last month, the National Society for the Gifted and Talented (NSGT) observed that homeschooling was becoming more popular among gifted children, an impression consistent with the latest data on American homeschoolers. In 2010 about 30 percent of homeschooled students have fathers with at least a master’s degree and almost 9 percent are in families with a household income of over $150,000.

The Role of American Culture

Should any of this come as a surprise? Are democratic societies inherently incapable of acting in the interest of the brightest children—an upper echelon who relate to the world in ways unfathomable to the average citizen?

If there’s a common theme that recurs in the memoirs of gifted children and their parents, it’s the lack of empathy with which they’re greeted in mainstream society—a misunderstanding that too often veers into shaming and contempt.

It’s noteworthy as well that successful ventures like the Reno-based Davidson Academy, which accepts only the top .01 percent of scorers on achievements tests, are not being replicated to any significant extent—not even in highly educated corridors of the country. Specialized schools that do exist for gifted students are battling legislation and lawsuits aimed at eliminating intelligence testing.

The reason, according to professor Linda Gottfredson, is that gifted children “epitomize our ambivalence over talent”; they are “the natively gifted who remind us starkly that we are not all equally capable, no matter how many hours we study or practice.”

But fatalism is premature. Consider that America’s wariness is not the norm in other democracies. Rising democracies like South Korea—unencumbered by the same anti-intellectual, egalitarian dogmas—are investing heavily in giftedness programs.

Establishment resistance to gifted and talented education stems from a broader apathy in American culture toward intellectual enrichment. Insofar as there remains an identifiable culture that unifies the American nation, it is defined by the behavior of mainstream society. One is hard-pressed to think of anything more distinctly American than junk food, sedentariness, and televised cartoons—all correlates of IQ reduction and diminished executive function in children. American children watch more than 24 hours of television per week, a strong correlate of negative effects on children’s verbal IQ. One can presume that they are modeling their parents—the millions who squander their Sundays marveling at the brain-damaging athleticism of NFL linebackers, but rarely indulge even a fraction of that attention in admiring experts at chess and other activities linked to IQ improvements in children.

Nor do children, or at least their intellectual cultivation, rank particularly highly in the minds of American parents. In a joint 2011 survey from TODAY.com and Parenting.com, 45 percent of American mothers admitted that they would “choose to weigh 15 pounds less rather than add 15 points to their child’s IQ.” Many of these women undoubtedly comprise the growing ranks of America’s single mothers, whose out-of-wedlock births and no-fault divorces often deny children the cognitive benefits of educated, involved fathers. Yet in the face of these realities, public intellectuals like Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, continue to chide the United States for being “a society unusually obsessed with its children.”

Even if the more hereditarian theories of intelligence are true, and even if there are limitations on how much baseline IQs can be raised, the state of American culture is almost certainly harming the intelligence of children who might otherwise have the capacity for outlier intellectual performance.

A Welfare State that Hurts Gifted Children

America’s civic culture is in turn spawning a welfare state that undermines gifted children. Government intervention would perhaps serve the interests of gifted children were it aimed at combatting exposure to such neurotoxins as fluoride, lead, and indoor mold that are correlated with declines in children’s IQ.

What we have instead is a ballooning welfare state, financed by progressive taxation, that indulges crony capitalist pollution of neurotoxins, but feels little compunction about seizing property, liberty and discretionary income from the most talented, and handing it to those whose children, statistically, have little chance at outlier intellectual performance.

Indeed, wealth redistribution is increasingly justified under the pretense of high principle— “social justice” on the left, “economic nationalism” on the right. This is hardly a national ethos that celebrates the enrichment of gifted children as a noble end in itself. Nor does it foster an enlightened self-interest, guided by the recognition that investments in intellectually-talented children will ultimately redound to the benefit of society through innovation, scientific breakthroughs, and wealth creation.

Elites Going Their Own Way

If there is a case for optimism, it is that a growing number of parents are no longer allowing their gifted children’s talent to be stultified by mainstream America’s egalitarian sensibilities in the realm of education.

More so than their middle and lower class counterparts, couples in the “cognitive elite” are staying married and raising the type of “child-centered families” that produce gifted children. A case in point is the rise of stay-at-home motherhood among Ivy League graduates and other highly-educated wives, who, as The Economist puts it, “would rather spend their time hot-housing their toddlers so that they may one day get into Harvard.” Among college-educated Asian stay-at-home mothers, “the necessity and irreplaceable value of parental care” is among the most significant motivators.

Parents of gifted children are able today, with unprecedented ease, to pack up and pursue new opportunities. With remote offices and online businesses, they can move across state lines for less restrictive homeschooling regulations. Rather than bothering with the Sisyphean task of “education reform” one PTA meeting at a time, parents now have the liberty to opt for individualized regiments with private tutors and coaches. This is among the reasons why top American students, notwithstanding the United States’ middling standing overall, have started to prevail in international math competitions after two decades of Chinese, Russian, and South Korean dominance. The accelerated-math community is abandoning public schools and turning to private enrichment camps, creating, as a recent report in The Atlantic described it, “a new pedagogical ecosystem—almost entirely extracurricular—that has developed online and in the country’s rich coastal cities and tech meccas.”

Who can blame them? So long as American society pits its aspirations against its most gifted children, expect intellectual elites to go their own way.

Pratik Chougule is an executive editor at The American Conservative. Follow him on twitter @pjchougule. He can be reached via email at pchougule@theamericanconservative.com. Sign up for his email list here.