Friday, July 31, 2009

A note for those who oppose changing the "Gifted" label

I have come across several, many :), people who oppose any attempt to move away from the use of "gifted" as a categorical descriptive, or who oppose the institution of any label at all. I would like to address both of these objections here:

1) For those of us who oppose labeling people as "gifted," OR anything else, who believe we should all just accept that people are people and we are all different from each other... I agree. I agree that we should, ideally, arrive at a place where we are each individually considered and accepted, in all of our similarities and differences. BUT, we must also realize that this place is an arrival point, a destination, not where we can, or should, depart from or begin at.

We must consider and understand the developmental needs of people, children and adults, and exersize compassion and empathy with the needs and developmental stages of each of us.

We must understand, and accept as normal, that we each begin as infants who lack internal/intellectual structures for understanding ourselves and our worlds, it is this lack of preimposed structure that allows us such incredible ability to adapt to whatever world we are born into, it is this that has allowed us to, as a species, flourish and thrive in spite of vastly differing experiences, environments, and cultures. And, perhaps, it s this internal malleability that truly separates us from other species of animals-- As far as we can tell, we are the only animals who are born without an instinctiive drive to be "x."

From, at least, the day of our birth (and likely in our prenatal experence) we observe and take in the environment and stimulus we encounter. First we become aware of the existence of things, then we catagorize them, then we refine our understanding of catagories, then we make connections within and between catagories of our knowledge. This process starts simply and becomes exponentially more complex as we accrue knowledge and form more and more connections. This is the way we learn, simply put, and is universal in our experience (though differently organized between each of us).

Thus, while we can eventually reject catagorization of things or attributes, we MUST first understand them in terms of catagories of things t be able to do so. For example, I must first understand that a cow is a thing, then I will understand that it is a different sort of thing than I am-- something we call an animal, then I will come to understand that a dog is also an animal, even though it is different from a cow, and both are different from me, I might then understand that the cow is an animal we keep for milk or "food." At the begining I am likely to not understand that the cow is ACTUALLY the same kind of being as the steak on my plate, though I "know" we call them both cow. Eventually I come to realize that the cow is, indeed, the same thing as that steak, and that in order to get that steak from the cow we must kill it. I then have to determine how I feel about that-- it's a big issue, death, pain, value, rights etc..-- and my conclusions on the issue may lead me to any number of ultimate beliefs about cows. Including, but not limited to, the idea that I no longer feel comfortable catagorizing cows as animals we use for food; I may in fact decide that I do not want to accept that there should be any "animals we use for food." The point is, though, that I cannot go from not knowing that a cow exists to believing we should not eat them. I also cannot leap from not knowing that anyone believes in something called "God" to hating people who don't believe in that thing called "God;" I must first understand the concepts and differences between believing or not believing in that "God."

So it is that we cannot ask a person, or science, to understand or process any idea, including "giftedness," without first labeling the phenomenon and categrizing it as a concept for consideration. Further, we, as intelligent adults, may ask why we should mention or investigate things like "race" or "giftedness. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we never had these concepts? Sure, it would. Along with concepts like religion, strength, power, masculine, feminine, ability, hate, country, and difference; the human drive to categorize and assign value to some things over others is, ultimately, the ONLY cause of war, hate, envy, murder, torture, xenophobia, ownership, nationality and so on. But, it is also, perhaps, one of the single largest defining characteristics of the human being. It is a natural, unstoppable, feature of each of us-- whether or not we like to believe ourselves to be so.

Babies catagorize things as "me" or "not me" (in terms of alikeness), in order to develop catagories of things like alive/not alive, human/animal, safe/not safe, good/bad etc... Small children refine their groupings of things and as they explore themselves and their nature they use comparison and contrast to understand themselves and others: Joe has a penis/is a boy, I have a vagina/am a girl. I wear glasses/ Seth does not, Mike is white/I am black. As small children they begin with these simple information, without assignment of value, to understand and construct their ever-expanding understanding of reality. The assignment of value comes a bit later when they collect information about the meaning of these differences: I have to wear glasses because my eyes are ""bad"/ Seth does not have to wear glasses because his eyes are not "bad"/ Seth has better eyes than I do. Until understanding the meaning of having or not having glasses, that they are tools for correcting vision, I cannot assign value. Until I assign value to that attribute I am not equipped to re-evaluate the assigned value it has. I must understand that my eyes are "bad" before I can think about what it means to have "bad" eyes, which I must be able to think about before I consider if "bad" is really the right word to describe my difference from Seth, and ultimately come to the logical conclusion that my eyes are not REALLY "bad", they're just different.

In the same way that we cannot prevent our children from seeing and taking note of who wears glasses and who does not, or who's skin is pale and who's is dark, of who has a penis and who has a vagina, we also cannot prevent them from noticing who learns faster or slower, who can read and cannot, who thinks about dinosaurs and who thinks about chess, or who can draw a picture that is "realistic" and who can only draw scribbles or stick people. It's their job, you see, to notice these things. It is how they learn and grow into themselves and society.

And, it seems, we are naturally predisposed to view "differences" as negative things. As social beings, who have largely adapted to surviving through forming social groups of "sameness," we are naturally suspicious of foriegn objects and attributes. To simplify the reason for that, let's say you are in the forest and you are hungry; you see a plant that you have never seen before and another plant that you have often eaten without harm, or have observed others "like you" eating without any ill-effects. Your natural/instinctual response would be to eat the plant that your experience tells you is safe, and also to be wary of that plant that you don't know. Our evolutionary (or experiential), if you will, trajectory has programmed us to be suspicious of eating things we cannot identify.

We have, no matter how illogically, as a species generalized this suspicion to all new or different stimulus. Until we understand, catagorize, an process a given thing, we are likely to be wary of it or assume it is "bad." We may not like this about ourselves, we may believe it to be a "bad" predisposition, we may try to overcome it, and we may try to deny it in ourselves, but like it or not, it is a natural and neutral/to positive trait that humans possess. It is what keeps us from eating poisonous things, jumping off of cliffs, or letting strangers into our houses.

And, luckily, children possess this trait (or else we'd have to watch them every second of the day-- no matter their age!) of discrimination. It is our job, as adults, to show them when and how to apply this trait (as they get old enough to do so), and help them understand and evaluate the stimulus they come in contact with.

Therefore, we must accept the necessity of labels to describe differences among, and between individuals, as a tool for our understanding and acceptances of such differences.

2) For those of us who object to changing the "gifted" label because you feel it to be an accurate descriptor of the phenomenon, because you have fought long and hard to accept it and have it accepted, or for any similar or related reason... I can understand your objection. I do not agree, for what it's worth, though.

As far as it being an accurate descriptor-- well, I, quite simply, disagree. First because the word "gifted" is a vague and loaded term. It is, in of itself, somewhat meaningless, because it does not describe any particular attribute(s) or experience(s). Also, it is not an objective term-- it's root and meaning are based upon positive phenomena.

Perhaps you, as a parent or "gifted" person, feel like it IS a positive thing, inherently. That's great, and I am glad for your experience as being a good one. The thing is, though, that we are not looking for a way to describe only you or your child; we need a term/label that we can comfortably apply to at least the majority of us--- not only you.

Maybe you feel like the problem is with our inability to "accept" ourselves as being "gifted" with this positive thing; maybe you're right. Or, maybe our feelings about the label are valid as well. Perhaps our inner pause on a term that implies "good," "advanced," "desireable," "superior," etc... is because our experience does not fit with these adjectives. Perhaps we don't feel, or want to feel, like we are any "better" than anyone else. Perhaps in our own minds we are normal; we are special-- just like everyone else. Perhaps we just object to the murky complications of a non-objective label... it clouds our ability to consider and understand the truth. Perhaps we are rebelling against the idea that anyone should tell us how to feel or think about ourselves/our children. Perhaps we are painfully aware of all of the negative consequences of that loaded label, and think of it as anything except a gift!

For whatever reasons we each have for our feelings on the issue, I think we can all rationally, if not emotionally, agree that the "gifted" label makes things more difficult for everyone who has to deal with it and all it means.

I'm voting for "Dabrowskian" or "Hypatian" as a new label-- two inspiring but semi-obscure people who can lend us their names without telling us how to feel about it :)

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