Today’s post returns to the intersection of vision, politics, and that thing often called giftedness. For those just joining us, you may want to review why I hesitantly use the word “gifted” for what I also often refer to as “having a weird brain.” It’s basically because I need to use the words people type into search engines, but unfortunately, the elitist connotation obscures important facets of the subject.
Consider this example: in Your Rainforest Mind, Paula Prober’s book on the struggles inherent in the gifted experience, we meet Maggie, a teenager who rejected the label “gifted” because her desire for equality and justice for all led her to feel offended by people who did identify as such—even as she often felt overwhelmed by her intense empathy and lonely for lack of people with whom she could discuss Spanish literature. Maggie’s definitely a rainforest mind—Paula’s wonderfully neutral but descriptive term to use in place of the G-word.
Then there’s something I read in Miraca U. M. Gross’s book, Exceptionally Gifted Children. In the 1980s and 90s, Gross conducted a longitudinal study of a group of exceptionally and profoundly gifted youth in Australia, a land that prizes egalitarianism because of its history as a destination for transported criminals:
The extreme egalitarianism that characterizes Australian society owes much of its origin to the country’s settlement, in the late eighteenth century, as a British penal colony established to hold convicts sentenced to transportation. Society was split into two distinct and antithetic classes, the aristocracy and landed gentry whose role was to govern and administer the new colony, and the convicts who were leased to the gentry as bond servants, were forbidden to own property, and whose lot, in many cases, was little better than that of slaves. From this immediate separation of interests there developed an intense class hatred, coupled with an extreme resentment against any privilege inherited rather than acquired by ‘honest labor’ (Ward, 1958). This resentment of inherited wealth and inherited power has carried over into a very real hostility towards high intellectual ability, which is covertly viewed by many Australians as an inherited, and therefore unmerited, passport to wealth and status through success in school and access to higher-level employment. (p. 31)
Gross goes on to discuss “left wing” teachers unions that strongly resisted the idea that there was such a thing as intellectual giftedness at all, or (if there were) that those students deserved any special programs—programs that would, no doubt, set up those who already won the genetic lottery to get even further ahead. That struck me, as I’ve seen this echoed in blog comments by people claiming that the Left is the enemy of gifted people, and that the natural home for those advocating for Ayn Rand’s men [sic] of the mind is the political Right.
So I feel compelled to respond. This meme is misleading to the point that we can safely call it wrong. There are, of course, highly gifted people on the Right. And there are, of course, millions of people who identify as part of the Left. Just like any political movement, we are not a monolithic block of perfect agreement. But as a declared leftist, my understanding that some people are indeed “gifted” is not merely compatible with, but indeed a stone in the foundation of my socialist perspective.
Mind you, I understand why people fear that gifted programs just exacerbate class-based inequity. To some extent, they do, but that’s exacerbated by flawed understandings of giftedness. (See, for instance, this distinction between “high achievers” and “gifted”/”creative” learners.) There are absolutely gifted kids in poverty and the working class, and they are too often unidentified, and this is unacceptable. Moreover, if we helped rainforest-minded kids of all classes to flourish—to manage and direct their intensities—I bet we’d be in a better place politically, with more leaders who have the sensitivity and complexity needed to truly address the needs of all.
And this has long been at the heart of the Left. There’s a fundamental ideal of the socialist movement that, it occurs to me, could easily be adopted by gifted advocates as well:
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Our rainforest-minded comrade Karl Marx never claimed that everyone was equal in number and magnitude of abilities. And you know, in this respect, I actually kind of like the term gifted. If you do indeed view your particular batch of talents as a gift—i.e., something valuable and unearned—that’s likely to affect your view of your place in society. Most of those I know who have been dubbed gifted have have a deep humility, sometimes marbled with pride, sometimes not at all, but almost always driving them to use their gifts in service to humanity. From each according to his or her ability.
To dodge the implication of elitism and get help with their challenges, some parents are now calling to identify “gifted” children as “special needs children.” And there’s something to this.
As it happens, I recently finished two seemingly unrelated books in a single weekend, and a young man named Aaron Swartz appeared in both of them. One was Peter Frase’s Four Futures, which explores possible paths for our society ranging from communist utopia to hierarchical exterminism. Swartz came up in Frase’s discussion of the future dubbed rentism (i.e., hierarchy + abundance) because he killed himself at age 26 after powerful holders of intellectual property made him a symbol to target. He is a real world example of the victims we’d see in a rentist future, in which there’s abundance, but it’s controlled by an economic elite.
He was also mentioned in Your Rainforest Mind. See, Aaron didn’t see himself as particularly smart or talented; just endlessly curious. His deep sensitivity and concern for justice were classic rainforest mind traits that, tragically, also contributed to a fatal depression.
That a single individual would appear both in one of my lefty books and one of my gifted books was rewarding but not surprising. I developed an interest in adult giftedness after realizing that a lot of my personal struggles—essentially the same sensitivities that Maggie and Aaron faced—are common among gifted people. And if they don’t have a good understanding of the origin of their struggles, they can suffer intensely. Those without sufficient means to contribute with their talents will suffer still more. (See, for instance, this wonderful piece from the Mega Society on the “Too Many Aptitudes” problem.)
To each according to his or her need.
What I’m arguing contrasts with the common perception of “gifted” adults as those who already made it to leadership roles; while some of the people we deem “successful” are surely alumni of gifted programs, others are not. (Returning to that helpful chart, those people may be high achievers rather than gifted or creative learners.) Meanwhile, plenty of rainforest-minded adults struggle like Maggie and Aaron, unable to use their gifts and tend to their needs (and these are often the same thing) under a system that uses people as a means to profit, rather than profit in the service of people. Some gifted people’s talents may indeed enable them to succeed on Wall Street, but what of those who want to be teachers, scientists doing blue sky research, and others working in areas where profit doesn’t work its magic?
Look at the life of Karl Marx himself. I recently had the chance to see a play called Marx in Soho; the young woman who played Karl gave a striking depiction a man who was indisputably overexcitable and living on the good will of his pal Engels, another gifted person whose particular gifts empowered him to help poor Karl. Some certainly wish that Marx in particular never had an opportunity to use his gifts, but no one can deny he made an impact. Would he meet our society’s definition of “successful?” His life sure wasn’t comfortable. (And remember also how tough it was for Einstein to get into academia?)
Now imagine: free (or at least affordable) education, so you’re not bound to the boss’s agenda for the most productive years of your life until you pay back your ticket into having a living wage job at all. National health care, so that you don’t have to spend all your time and energy in that job even after your loans are paid off just for the health care when part-time work would otherwise meet your financial needs, freeing you to pursue your multipotentialities. Universal basic income to help you in your effort to get your ideas off the ground—or at least make sure you don’t starve if you never do. Gifted people’s deep desire to meaningfully contribute to the best of their capacity would become increasingly feasible as we implemented reforms espoused by the Left.
Here’s what our overexcitable friend Karl scribbled one day, when he was moved to critique the Gotha Program:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
If that’s not calling for empowering the gifted—and all people, with all of their gifts—then I don’t know what is.
It’s true that even Marx saw this as the distant future—the higher phase of communist society, long after basic transitional reforms were passed through. You may or may not think that we can ever get any closer to that utopia, and my aim in this post isn’t to convince you. I merely seek to bury the idea that the Left is anti-gifted. On the contrary: we’re working to remove the hurdles that prevent so many, regardless of their class and regardless of their innate talents, from developing as the unique human beings they are.
Image credits: Pexels, MrsBrown, tpsdave, f-fiedler, patrickatsgull