There have been several recent newspaper articles in the UK press about gifted adults and whether they achieved the potential they demonstrated as children. They were written as a result of the publication of Professor Joan Freeman’s latest book “Gifted Lives: What Happens When Gifted Children Grow Up”. I haven’t read this book, but I have read her previous one on the same subject. The media take was fairly predictable...the headlines on the articles read “Gifted Children Are Failures” and “From child prodigy to adult despair” (The Sunday Times), “Why gifted children are just as likely to fail in life” (The Mail online), “Why do gifted children fail?” (The Guardian online) and “Child geniuses ‘fail to meet expectations’ “ (The Telegraph online).
So many things about the headlines, the articles and the reporting of Professor Freeman’s research findings made me uncomfortable, but the one that kept surfacing relentlessly was the notion of “failure”. What is failure? My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines failure as “lack of success; unsuccessful person, thing or attempt” while online versions use “lack of success in doing or achieving something, a person or thing that is not successful”. So, if failure is a lack of success, what then, is success? Is the accountant who really wishes she were a farmer a success at being an accountant, or a failure at being a farmer? Is the student who dropped out of his law course to switch to microbiology a failed solicitor? Who judges the level of success of somebody? Themselves or others? When we speak of gifted children is their “potential” the important thing? Or their person? Is giftedness to be something or to become something?
One of the “gifted failures” referenced in the press is a young man called Andrew Halliburton who, after studying A-level maths at the age of 11, now works in McDonald’s. He is 23, and going back to university in September to study computer game technology having dropped out in his late teens. How is this young man a failure? He is 23 years old! He has his whole life ahead of him, with plenty of time to reach the goals he sets for himself. Why do the media set expectations for those for whom they have no right to set expectations? Why do parents, teachers or even psychology professors do so? We have seen it again and again when giftedness is covered by the media. Gifted children are set up to “fail”. Their “potential” is discussed as if they are a commodity in the future jobs market. They are spoken of as future doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, leaders. Then, when they don’t become what journalists, psychologists, teachers or parents imagined they would, they are labelled failures. We need to examine how we view our gifted young people’s futures and be careful about burdening them with our dreams without asking them first what theirs are. We gifted advocates debate endlessly the merits or otherwise of using the label of “gifted”. Do we then accept that the word “failure” is bandied about by psychologists and journalists when these children do not meet some artificial criterion of success that someone else has set for them? As an advocate for gifted learners, I don’t and I won’t.
In the Times article, Professor Freeman is quoted as saying that Jocelyn Lavin who gave up a promising career in music to pursue maths and science “made the wrong decision” because, after a recent career change from teacher to freelance music arranger, Ms Lavin finds herself struggling financially and in danger of losing her home. While most people would agree that not having a certain financial security in your forties is an uncomfortable place to be, who is to judge whether Ms. Lavin made the right career decision as a teenager except herself? Her decision to follow her love of science and mathematics rather than a career in music performance may or may not have led her to financial difficulties today. To many “what if's?” obscure the real reasons behind people's life decisions. Gifted children and adults are no different in this regard, and no more immune from making mistakes than anyone else. They should not be held to a different standard based on a measurement of their academic potential as a child.
The Concise Oxford definition of success is; “accomplishment of what was aimed at, attainment of wealth or fame or position” and online versions go with “the fact that you have achieved something that you want and have been trying to do or get; the fact of becoming rich or famous or of getting a high social position”. It cannot be just me who thinks that this definition is shallow and ill-suited to describe the many ways that people, gifted or not, can contribute as full and active citizens?