Julian Stanley and bright children

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Aug 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Bright children and their parents have lost a much-needed friend with the recent death of Professor Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University. For decades he not only researched and ran programs for intellectually gifted students, he became their leading advocate in books and articles.

 His efforts were very much needed. Unusually bright children are too often treated like stepchildren by the American educational system.

 While all sorts of special classes and special schools are created for various categories of students, there is resistance and even hostility to the idea of creating special classes or schools for intellectually gifted students.

 Not only are such elite public schools as New York's Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science rare, they are under political pressure to admit students on other bases besides pure academic achievement. So is San Francisco's Lowell High School, where ethnic "balance" affects admissions decisions.

 While it is well known that the average American student does poorly on international tests, what is not so well known is that gifted American students lag particularly far behind their foreign counterparts.

 Professor Julian Stanley pointed out that the performance level of gifted American students "is well below both the level of their own potential and the achievement levels of previous U.S. generations." In other words, our brightest kids have been going downhill even faster than our average kids.

 Part of the reason is undoubtedly the general dumbing down of American education since the 1960s but what has also been happening since the 1960s has been a preoccupation with the "self-esteem" of mediocre students and a general hostility to anything that might be construed as intellectual elitism.

 Even classes in so-called "gifted and talented" programs are too often just more of the same level of work as other students do, or trendy projects, but not work at a greater intellectual depth.

 Sometimes, as Professor Stanley has pointed out, it is just busy work, in order to keep bright students from being bored and restless when classes are being taught at a pace far too slow for very intelligent youngsters.

 It is not at all uncommon for the brightest students to become problem students in their boredom and frustration, to develop negative attitudes towards education and society -- and to fail to develop their inborn talents. 

 Julian Stanley did not just criticize existing practices. He created special programs for unusually bright high school students on weekends and during the summer at Johns Hopkins University. The success of these programs has inspired similar programs at Purdue University and elsewhere.

 Such programs have not only produced academic benefits, the gifted students in such programs have expressed an almost pathetic gratitude for finally being in a setting where they are comfortable with their peers and are viewed positively by their teachers.

 In regular public school classrooms, these gifted students have been too often resented by their classmates and their teachers alike. Some teachers have seemed glad to be able to catch them in occasional mistakes.

 Given the low academic records of most public school teachers, it is hard to imagine their being enthusiastic about kids so obviously brighter than they were -- and often brighter than they are. No small part of the gross neglect of gifted students in our public schools is the old story of the dog in the manger.

 Julian Stanley made a unique contribution to the development of gifted children, both directly through his program at Johns Hopkins and indirectly through his research and advocacy. Fortunately, he is survived by collaborators in these efforts, such as Professors Camilla Persson Benbow and David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University.

 The effort must go on, both to stop the great waste of gifted students, whose talents are much needed in the larger society, and for the humane purpose of relieving the frustration and alienation of youngsters whose only crime is being born with more intellectual potential than most of those around them.