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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Giftedness: A Blessing and A Curse

Many parents want gifted children. The world at large sees giftedness as something highly desirable. I wonder aloud if anyone bothered to ask gifted people whether they were happy being them.

I am not talking about gifted children within Singapore's GEP. This is not a post about the GEP but simply some general thoughts about giftedness.

Let's look at a couple of truly gifted people (who had unfortunately, no GEP to provide them safe haven) and think about this a bit.

- Thomas Edison
- Srinivasan Ramanujan

Thomas Edison
In 1854, the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan, where Edison attended public school for a total of 12 weeks. A hyperactive child, prone to distraction, he was deemed "difficult" by his teacher. His mother quickly pulled him from school and taught him at home. At age 11, he showed a voracious appetite for knowledge, reading books on a wide range of subjects. In this wide-open curriculum Edison developed a process for self-education and learning independently that would serve him throughout his life.

Source HERE.

Let us expand on A hyperactive child, prone to distraction, he was deemed "difficult" by his teacher. What do Teachers do with difficult and dreamy children? They scold. They punish. They hurt them in the name of "education" and "teaching". A small child at the mercy of adults (sometimes its own parents) who do not see past "difficult", is on the receiving end of daily abuse. Such children, little oddballs that fit nowhere because God made them special, weave their way through their days lacerated painfully by societal norms that they are blind to. When such children reach curiously towards possibilities that others (adults and teachers supposedly older and wiser) are blind to, they get punished.

What is worse, is that such children as Edison, cannot be easily moulded into conventional shapes. It is almost as if their psyches were diamond hard and that shape which God gave them, is the shape that they stay in. No matter how much pain you inflict on them, they do not yield.

Try as you may, such children cannot be hammered into the shape parents/educators want. They can only be shaped by a divine hand.

Happily for Edison, his Mother decided to homeschool him. Even then, has anyone considered what she went through? Neighbours, peers and relatives would have fingered her to be the mother of a loser son or an uncontrollable son or the one with the crazy son. How many mothers have the strength of character to not feel bitter and continue to accept the child with love? Of course, we now look upon Nancy Edison with no small amount of envy. However, have we thought of how she felt in the years before Edison's genius exploded into view?

In addition, it is written of Edison, "An uninhibited egoist, he could be a tyrant to employees and ruthless to competitors. Though he was a publicity seeker, he didn’t socialize well and often neglected his family." Source HERE. Really? Which mother in her old age would want a son like that?

Srinivasa Ramanujan
You can read about him HERE.

Again, the same pattern emerges of hating school. He avoided attending school so much in Madras that his family had to get a policeman to make sure he went to school. Later, after he had received a scholarship to study in a college, he failed all his subjects except Mathematics and lost his scholarship. Then, he ran away. Later, he enrolled in another college where he only passed Mathematics because he only did the questions that appealed to him. He also failed every other subject. After this, he lived in extreme poverty and was often on the brink of starvation.

That you see, is the curse of true giftedness. The giftedness that is within, which struggles to surface, cannot even be thwarted nor moulded towards conventional norms by extreme poverty and starvation. The poor human being that is the unfortunate receptacle for the gifting suffers abuse, poverty and starvation, but that gift within will not be thwarted.

Again, with Srinivasa Ramanujan, the notion of a divine hand comes into salience, for Ramanujan credited his mathematical capabilities to God - "An equation, for me, has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God." Also, what else but divine intervention can explain how a confluence of events and people pushed Srinivasa Ramanujan upwards and onwards towards Cambridge. Today the Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, documents all mathematical research influenced by Ramanujan. He died early, at the age of 32, spent by his dedication to his gifting and his years of poor nutrition.

Do you want to be Srinivasa Ramanujan? If you had a choice, would you not choose to be just a normal person able to easily conform to societal norms, gain the respect and love of your peers, make a comfortable living and die at a ripe old age, unknown and unremembered?

Do you want a child like Srinivasa Ramanujan?

Not A Choice 
At the end of the day, it really is not our choice whether we want to be gifted or not. God does as He wills. It is also not our choice whether we have gifted children or not. Again, God does as He wills.

Again, I am not referencing the MOE definition of giftedness (i.e., an IQ test in Primary 3). I believe that true giftedness transcends a mere IQ test. How silly we humans are to think that we can identify the gifted with an instrument tested on the bell curve? Is there an IQ test to identify Steve Jobs' incredible capacity to define products that the market did not know it lusted for? Is there an IQ test that defines the contours of Srinivasa's genius? Why was the first person in Singapore to disrupt technology a polytechnic graduate - Sim Wong Hoo? How did we even miss Amos Yee?

Does it even matter that we missed Sim Wong Hoo and Amos Yee, knowing that God meant them to not be found? God wanted to groom them in the way He intended and perhaps, He did not think our GEP suitable for that intent? God's ways are not our ways and who is to say that John Nash's genius was not in some way powered by his schizophrenia? Did Steve Jobs' OCD underlie some part of his genius at developing products perfect in every way?

Despite spending their whole lives attempting to publish in peer-reviewed journals, researchers know from the bottom of their hearts that Genius Has No Peers capable of properly appreciating what will go down in history as seminal works. Again and again, in every domain, one can find stories of researchers who started off being rejected and reviled by the establishment - Edward Taub... Michael Merzenich... Charles Darwin... John Rock... Galileo. If your life's purpose is to break the mould of current thinking, excruciating emotional pain comes with the territory.

I would imagine that in every instance where true giftedness exists, God forged that human tool for a purpose that He alone knew. God's wisdom is not ours and in many instances, such children's purposes (and the immense pain they went through) were not seen, not known and not understood. Indeed, some of God's intended gifted individuals may even have been thought slow-witted in childhood (e.g., Einstein).

Only after they died and left behind their gifting in the form of a single unique legacy does the rest of slow and plodding humanity understand the scintillating purpose of that single and unique life.

For parents who yearn for a gifted child, it helps to understand that when God forges a human tool (with which he intends to bless humanity), he must inflict pain on that human. You cannot forge a sword without plunging it into fire and hammering it into shape. For that reason, many truly gifted people go through great trials and tribulations. Perhaps, if you asked them, they would tell you, "I did not ask for this. I would rather be un-gifted and spared the pain. Why me?"

Sometimes, I think we try too hard and we think too much. Does it really matter whether a child is gifted? What is wrong with simply observing the child and noting his/her contours...
- good here
- poor there
- passionate about
... and then adjusting the child's environment (in the same way I adjusted my own children's environment HERE) so that we can turn a passion into a gifting, praise a child for what he is good at and devise activities to strengthen weaknesses? When you frame a child's gifting within the context of school, it becomes work and an obligation. When you frame a child's gifting within the context of UNschool, it becomes a passion. Along with that passion, comes drive.

Passion and Drive gives you giftedness even in kids who are not labelled "gifted".


Jackeline said...

Dr Lee, you hit the nail on the head with your observations. I have been teaching communication skills to both GEP and non-GEP students and the ones who manage the TOP awards in public speaking are the Hi-Performers not the GEP students. They leave things to the last minute and do the bear minimal to get by. Some would even pull out of the international exams at the last minute just because they don't think they will get a Distinction. I have always felt that the GEP Programme has been a big mistake. I did not opt for it for my own Daughter and she managed straight A's for A'level and today she is a medical doctor specialising in Emergency medicine. She was offered the specialisation upon graduation which is uncommon as most had to do one year of residency before they can apply for specialisation.

The sad thing is that many parents of GEP students support their children's attitude of 'giving up' when they too think their child is not going to hit the high score. What a waste of good potential. 😞

Petunia Lee said...

Many thanks for sharing your own experience.