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Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Krulwich at the 92nd Street Y

copyright © 2008. Revised Edition © 2011 Betsy L. Angert.  Empathy And Education; BeThink or  BeThink.org

As educators, parents, and persons who were once young and now thought to be elder, and thus, wiser, and more wondrous, and accomplished, within our own being we might feel we are less than we appear to be.  Tis true; our parents, Teachers, Professors, and friends had such high hopes for us.  Our own dreams were even more impressive.  Most of us envisioned that we would reach the pinnacle as we progressed until ...

we failed an examination, received a lower grade in a class, or “disappointed” our family when we did less well than they hoped we might?

Frequently, the adage “we are our own worse critic,” filters through the air.  The alternative is also abundantly apparent, especially in recent times.  More than a decade ago, headlines heralded a concern; Down From the Self-Esteem High.  While the caution was heard and applauded, Overpraised Children Can Find They Have Problems Fitting In , the practice continued.  Some stress it was expanded exponentially.  Thus, in more contemporary times, we hear once more, Are we raising a nation of little egomaniacs?

Perhaps, blinded by our fear of criticism, from others or ourselves, society and individuals struggle to find balance.  Belittle or build self esteem, these seem to be our only options.  

Traditionally, in practice, each and either truism is pooh-poohed.  Individuals prefer to present a profound image.  Society honors such facades.  Before the birth of a child, Moms and Dads plan for their offspring’s future.  Corporations, Credit Unions, and Colleges bank on what, as a nation, we commend.  Parents extol and encourage the excitement a tot exhibits when he or she calculates college or career choices.  After all, a solid standing begins in the womb.

Collectively, in this country we have reason to believe, poverty plays a role in the success of our progeny.  We also affirm that parents are powerful, and therefore, need to apply “appropriate pressure on their brood.  Moms and Dads of a certain strata are aware of the  Early Warning! A Kids Count Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Even those guardians of lesser means grasp what they see, whether or not they act on it.  "There is no substitute for the parent’s or primary caregiver’s role as a child’s first teacher, best coach, and most concerned advocate. This role begins early and covers a lot of ground. "  Thus, the consensus is mothers and fathers must do what they can to push, push, push little John or Jane, Jamal or Janika, Juan or Juanita, and they do.

Parents and Professors observe aloud, Heads of State seek and secure their status for all understand that they are strong.  Corporate Executives, too, are esteemed for their strength.  Tycoons have the courage to challenge the circumstances and crush the competition.  Policymakers are elected to office for their credentials are perceived as profound.  Even Firefighters and Police travel where no man or woman would.  Teachers also are tough.  Educators endure a rigorous academic training.  All those children look up to persons who surely have achieved great success.  Yet, in their heart of hearts, people know, they are not necessarily as they appear to be, or at least most do not think themselves quite so secure.

It is for this reason we each might relate to a tale the author of Blink and The Tipping Point tells.  As a teenager, raised in rural Ontario, Malcolm Gladwell was set apart from the more mundane students.  One might assume from his appearance, or more aptly, from his infinite inquisitiveness, as a lad, he must have been bright.  Persons who hear the author speak, or read his prose, trust a littler Malcolm must have been a prodigy, surely a genius.  Certainly, if as a child, he was sent to special training camps, and he was, it must have been because the young Gladwell was being groomed for greatness.

Indeed, the young Gladwell was made ready for distinction.  His skills, his talent, and his aptitude were impressive to all.  Adults understood this adolescent had fame in his future.  However, as extraordinary as Malcolm Gladwell's brain is to those who are aware of him today, back in the day, his legs were all the rage.

Malcolm Gladwell was a champion sprinter.  He was the best Canadian runner for his age.  The adolescent was mentored to aspire for an Olympic gold medal.  He traveled to elite encampments, and raced his peers in preparation for a professional career as a world-class athlete.  What seemed to be the young man's nature was nurtured.

As you or I might have been, Malcolm Gladwell was recognized for his gift.  He spoke of his adventures and the adversity of being spotlighted as superior at the Association for Psychological Science Conference in August 2006.  He titled his lecture, “Bring the Family Address.”  Eric Wargo, who writes for The Observer, the APS Journal shared an account of the lecture in an essay The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters..

Mister Wargo tells of how Malcolm stood before a rapt audience and recounted his early athletic successes..  In sports the young man could move.  The story served as a catalyst for the discussion on precocity.  “I was a running prodigy,” Malcolm said without hesitation.  

But — and this “but” sounded the theme of his talk to the rapt audience filling the Marquis Marriott’s Broadway Ballroom — being a prodigy didn’t forecast future success in running.  After losing a major race at age 15, then enduring other setbacks and loss of interest, Gladwell said, he gave up running for a few years.  Taking it up again in college — with the same dedication as before — he faced a disappointing truth: “I realized I wasn’t one of the best in the country … I was simply okay.”

To be admired, appreciated, and placed in a position of awe when we are very young can be wondrous.  It can culminate in a glorious self-fulfilling prophecy.  However, expectations can cause a child to falter.  Unwanted, or excessive, attention might lessen a desire to achieve.  For some, focus on a supposed skill can feel as painful pressure.  A tot can grow to fear failure more than he or she might enjoy a feat.

This was true in my own life.  While words that spoke to my potential were not verbalized, at least not in front of me, when I was eight months old, I gave my parents reason to believe I could achieve.  I walked well and talked incessantly.   As an eighteen month old, enrolled in school, I was admired for my ability to stride fluidly and chatter fluently.  I learned a second language, none of which do I recall.  Even in my infancy, I believed I could not keep up the pace.  By the age of nine, in truth, on my birth date I cried endlessly.  I felt, at this late stage in my life what might be next?  I could not bear one more ounce of responsibility.  From then on, I worked consciously to be less visible, much less collegiately viable. I sacrificed the dream I had for myself since the age of two. I felt a need to hide from view.

I may have been in error.  I cannot know with certainty.  Nonetheless, as I contemplate the question of how we might best educate our progeny and consider the answers, I think it is vital that we discuss as Malcolm Gladwell does.

“I think we take it as an article of faith in our society that great ability in any given field is invariably manifested early on, that to be precocious at something is important because it’s a predictor of future success,” Gladwell posits.  “But is that really true?  And what is the evidence for it?  And what exactly is the meaning and value of mastering a particular skill very early on in your life?”

Might we, as a culture consider our individual history before we impose expectations on an offspring who is still in a state of flux?  Would it not be wise to look at our children as a whole, as an individual with hopes, dreams, successes and what we might characterize as failures?  Could it be that a student flunks a test and is, none-the-less, no less brilliant than the pupil who received a much higher score?  What if society did not tell us we are a “disappointment” if we do or do not do . . .

Malcolm Gladwell muses of "Late Bloomers."  Perhaps, each of us, erudite elders that we are might ponder the same.  Before we ask our children to choose a career, to complete tasks as though there is an end to education, might we, the adults wonder of our own ability and accomplishments.  Could policymakers, parents, Principals, and everyday people consider a precocious child may not be a prodigy or will be if pressure is not applied?  Genuine genius grows.

References for reflection . . .

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Originally posted to Bcgntn; BeThink on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:58 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (9+ / 0-)

    It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
    Betsy L. Angert BeThink

    by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 06:58:22 AM PST

  •  Please muse. Share memories if you chose. (4+ / 0-)

    Dearest All . . .

    My morning and afternoon are consumed with Peace work.  I will read and reply this evening.  I thank you for your thoughts, truly!!

    businesscard.aspx

    It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
    Betsy L. Angert BeThink

    by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 07:02:56 AM PST

  •  The Genius in each! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SherwoodB, Bcgntn

    Malcolm Gladwell says:
    "Let us strive to raise the potential of all equally".

    Our schools need to be less selective, striving to identify and segregate the best potential readers, runners or writers. Instead as a society we need to dedicate ourselves to the full human capacity of each person.

    As the author of this essay points out, artificial expectations of accomplishment for the gifted often lead to a fear of failure rather than a pursuit of inherent talent and interests. Let us strive to enhance the natural will to grow in each soul!

    •  “Edification for Dummies.” (0+ / 0-)

      Dearest Berenice Bobby  . . .

      Malcolm Gladwell says:
      "Let us strive to raise the potential of all equally".
      Our schools need to be less selective, striving to identify and segregate the best potential readers, runners or writers. Instead as a society we need to dedicate ourselves to the full human capacity of each person.

      Amen!!!!!!!!!!  In our desire to encourage all, I believe we discourage most.  We expect too much or not enough, possibly each.

      Curriculums are standardized as though equal equates to we are all the same.  My Mom often mused in respect to the issue of Equal Rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, that while she wants to be paid and treated in parity with a man, she does not wish to be a man!  Indeed, she does not even wish to be thought of as a woman.  She is a unique individual.  

      I think the choice is not separate or equal as standardized and homogeneous tracked students are, or are thought to be.  I believe the Whole Child seen as only he or she might be, become, experience, observe allows us to be different, while not necessarily divided.  

      I can love many. Yet, I can never love a being in exactly the same way or for the same reasons as I love another.  

      I think humans error when they think there is an answer, one point that can be characterized as the potential to, or the talent.  A child is not solely this or that.  Nor can the essence be easily recognized.  Life is an evolution.

      We each are complex.  Even the manner in which I might express or embrace fear or friendship differs.

      Sadly, education, just as every other subject in Western culture seems to have been reduced to “Edification for Dummies.”  We no longer take the time to see the development or depth.

      businesscard.aspx

      It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
      Betsy L. Angert BeThink

      by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:07:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I recognize a lot in this diary. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bcgntn, ebohlman, Berenice Bobby

    Friends of mine growing up became what I used to call "prisoners of potential." While very bright and perhaps exceptionally gifted, incessant praise and attention showered on them made them extremely fearful of any failure.

    They became afraid to aspire to much of anything and at best were content to be "big fish in a small pond," rarely leaving a certain comfort zone.

    I'm not paranoid, I'm just well informed--SherwoodB

    by SherwoodB on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 08:27:47 AM PST

    •  "we unconsciously give other people permission" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SherwoodB

      Dearest SherwoodB . . .

      I thank you for the thought!  Oh how I relate and observe as you do.  I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote.

      Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be?

      You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

      businesscard.aspx

      It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
      Betsy L. Angert BeThink

      by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:18:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think the obsession with "one" is an issue. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, SherwoodB, ebohlman

    Looking at a child and thinking of that child in isolation of surroundings, events, other children, etc. can lead to a certain myopia.

    One of the great changes in my lifetime in the lives of young people has been the rise of team activities for young women, from sports to debate club and everything in between.

    There is no better teacher for kids who have been deemed "exceptional" than to be part of team. That could be the science team, a sports team or part of a theater group.

    Understanding that helping one another collectively in order to succeed is one of life's greatest learning experiences. Hopefully, even doted-upon "geniuses" should learn this lesson at a young age: your gift -- whatever it may be -- is more valuable when it is shared and helps a group achieve success.

    Not sure if this observation is exactly on-topic for your diary, but I have been really pleased watching my own daughters grow up with opportunities to discover this sense of community.

    Follow Rex on Twitter as he follows Sarah Palin, conservatives and loony pundits!

    by Bob Johnson on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 08:36:26 AM PST

    •  A unified social and solitary being (0+ / 0-)

      Dearest Bob Johnson  . . .

      I have read much research that speaks in contrast with your contention.  For the past hour I have searched for all that I recall.  I suspect the hour is too late.  Nonetheless, I will look further in the morning.  I think too often when we work in teams, we lose the creativity that comes when groupthink influences us.

      I believe in balance.  A unified social and solitary being, I believe, is far better adjusted. Hopefully, when more awake, I will unearth essays that I recall.  Sigh!

      businesscard.aspx

      It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
      Betsy L. Angert BeThink

      by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:56:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I used to say that on my gravestone (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SherwoodB, Bcgntn, Berenice Bobby

    They should just put

    She never
    lived up to
    her potential.

    I hated being told I was not living up to my potential.

    So I never did.

    Now, I just don't want a grave stone, or a grave. Waste of space.

    I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... I'm asking you to believe in yours. Barack Obama

    by samddobermann on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:34:26 AM PST

    •  Stopped before we start. (0+ / 0-)

      Dearest samddobermann  . . .

      I thank you!  I love your openness and wisdom.

      Stopped before we start.  Sigh!
      I smile. .

      Now, I just don't want a grave stone, or a grave. Waste of space.

      businesscard.aspx

      It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
      Betsy L. Angert BeThink

      by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:38:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I tested off the charts (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Bcgntn
    All through childhood and into high school. I was even tested once (along with a few other high testers) to find out why I tested so well.

    It was meaningless. It's true that I'm very smart in some things, but I'm almost entirely ignorant in others.

    And it's odd that, as an adult, I test as being highly kinesthetic, visual and intuitive, but almost entirely lacking in logical or similar intelligences.

    You wouldn't have known any of that by all the tests they gave me as a child, tests that really did me no good whatsoever.

    The tests that found how kinesthetic and visual and intuitive I am, however---now, those made a difference. The tests that showed my almost complete lack of auditory or logical intelligence---now, those made sense.

    And I am a true late bloomer. I don't know if I was trapped by the expectations of teachers or by my own quirkiness, but I didn't even begin to tap into my real potential and talents until I hit about 30.

    Now that I'm an educator, I see genius all around me in the kids I teach, but very few of them would have ever gotten the scores I got, which, now that I think about it, were likely all a result of an evil older brother who used to make me play word games for hours at a time and my predilection for doing very strange things with language (like singing songs backwards) as a child.

    Tilted, biased tests, meaningless in the long term.

    •  memory or the mind moved (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      indubitably

      Dearest indubitably  . . .

      Oh ho I love you and your depth!  Your insights speak to my heart, head, and soul!

      When given an audio tests, my scores are off the chart.  While Educators profess to teach to each modality, mostly tests are deigned specifically for visual learners.

      I think of your life experience and evaluation . .

      Now that I'm an educator, I see genius all around me in the kids I teach, but very few of them would have ever gotten the scores I got, which, now that I think about it, were likely all a result of an evil older brother who used to make me play word games for hours at a time and my predilection for doing very strange things with language (like singing songs backwards) as a child.

      In my search for a similar observation scribed recently, I stumbled on a another thought.  In my sleepy stupor, I offer this. . . Those that excel on multiple-choice tests tend to be visual learners.  Some excel in rote memorization.  The ability to guesstimate is also quite a craft.  Ample research demonstrates, there are multiple intelligences.  Test taking skills do not equate to intelligence.  Perhaps, empathy might be a course worth taking.

      businesscard.aspx

      It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. - Ian Anderson.
      Betsy L. Angert BeThink

      by Bcgntn on Sat Jan 22, 2011 at 09:34:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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