The Ghosts of Giftedness


Who are the ghosts of giftedness? Why are they invisible? What are the problems caused by the under-representation of certain groups in our society? Why are they disadvantaged? Could their disadvantages work to benefit them? What are the factors that relate to their success in spite of their many disadvantages? What is the cause of their under-representation in the field of giftedness? These are among the questions that will be addressed in the following essay.

Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey and Jimi Hendrix – they were great leaders, inspirational people and artists. They are the people that bring growth and development to our society and make life more enjoyable. Where would we be today without these people? As Emerson says, “…The search after great men is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood.” However, these people do not just appear out of thin air. Their talent has to be identified, developed and nurtured. Unfortunately, the shared traits of the people mentioned above leaves them at a high-risk of not being identified. They all come from culturally diverse and low socioeconomic backgrounds. They are the invisible gifted as called by Frasier and Passow (2000, p.248).  Culturally different and economically disadvantaged children are rarely identified or described as being gifted and are grossly underrepresented in programs for the gifted. (Frasier & Passow, 2000, p.248). According to Borland and Wright, “in the United States, under-representation has been primarily associated with economic disadvantage and racial and ethnic minority status”(2000, p. 587).  The under-representation of minority students in gifted programs is estimated to vary between 30 and 70 percent (Richert cited in Frasier& Passow, 2000, p. 251). If we do not strive to identify and develop the potentials of invisible gifted children, our society could be deprived of potential leaders and creators. Even worse is the probability that our society may even actually be degraded due to the fact that now every one in three Americans are non-Caucasian. In fact the percentage of minorities is increasing progressively all over the world due to globalization and increased migration and if we fail to take them into consideration, we are only going to go backwards instead of forwards.

The under-representation of economically disadvantaged and minority students also has a detrimental effect on social class. It actually widens the gap of the ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’ in our society (Borland & Wright, 2000, p. 588). Research in the United States concerning these under-represented groups show that the economically disadvantaged usually come from ethnic minorities such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans.  Therefore leaving this group out of the gifted programs also leads to inequity in terms of race which may cause further social problems as you can imagine. By developing only one group, we are also creating power differences. As the upper class whites become more powerful, the lower class ethnic minorities become more oppressed. Since what society observes is an obvious distinction in intelligence between these two groups, it doesn’t take much persuasion from people like Murray to “prove” that ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged are detrimental to our society as they did in “The Bell Curve.” Our present education system may actually cultivate dangerous ideas like these. These were the kind of ideas that led to the Holocaust through Hitler’s idea of the Aryan race.

Social and cultural factors such as poverty, racism and class bias are malevolent and menacing forces that can cause hurt to people, especially children. Borland states that the chances of entering kindergarten at a disadvantage educationally is highly likely for a child who is born into poverty and experiences the consequences of racism for the first five years of his or her life (Borland & Wright, 2000, p.588). According to Frasier and Passow, the invisible gifted are a highly disadvantaged group because of their cultural and language differences. In addition to that, “their lack of exposure to mainstream U.S. culture” is also a drawback (2000, p. 248). The work of Ogbu and Fordham stated by Borland and Wright makes a distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ minorities. ‘Voluntary’ minorities are described as those that migrated voluntarily in search of a better life. ‘Involuntary’ minorities on the other hand are minorities are such as the African-Americans who were brought to the United States by force and were ill-treated. It was observed that ‘voluntary’ minorities did better in school than ‘involuntary’ minorities. The reason for this as suggested by Ogbu is that ‘voluntary’ minorities see language and cultural differences as barriers to assimilation that must be conquered, whereas, ‘involuntary’ minorities use language and cultural differences to protect their identity as a coping mechanism for the oppression faced by them (2000, p. 588) “Learning to follow the standard academic practices of the school is often equated with… “acting white” while simultaneously giving up acting like a minority person” ( Fordham & Ogbu’s study as cited in Borland, Wright, 2000, p.589). Therefore, for ‘involuntary’ minorities, the choice of taking the effort to achieve something in school and be alienated from peers or to maintain loyalty to one’s friends and culture can be a very painful one.

With all the oppression, disadvantages and painful choices faced by the under-represented group because of their cultural diversity and low socioeconomic backgrounds, we may assume that these barriers would prevent them from becoming high achievers. However, in spite of these great barriers, some disadvantaged but resilient individuals have actually made it to the top. Perhaps as suggested by Simonton, “trials and tribulations in the early years have a beneficial impact on talent development” (2000, p.116). Life hardships, traumatic events and challenges in the early years may help to develop skills that are essential to the development of giftedness. Traumatic events may cause children not to be able to socialize normally and hence be less likely not to conform to societal norms and expectations. Anti-conformity also happens to be one of the traits of creators. They may also feel a greater need to attain a high level of distinction (e.g. fame and fortune) in order to escape the emotional scars of childhood. Due to the hardships faced, they may also become tougher emotionally and be able better to cope with disappointments and frustrations that are sure to appear on their road to success. In comparison, talents that grow up in an environment with few hardships may not be as well equipped to face the challenges that await them later in life (Simonton). Generally motivation and in particular intrinsic motivation are central determinants of creativity, high abilities and high achievement (Lens & Rand, 2000, p.198). Dramatic or tragic life events may create strong personal convictions that could possibly serve as a sturdy motivator. From everyday observations one may notice that many achievers seem to have strong personal convictions as a result of their life experiences in spite of the harsh environment surrounding them. “A Werner Von Braun could develop his considerable talents even in a police state under Hitler because his own Nazi convictions may have given him access to opportunities for cultivating and dedicating desperately needed talents in rocketry to help the German war effort” (Tannenbaum, 2000, p. 27).

The environment as we know plays a big role in the development of a child. An environment with access to resources needed for talent development, support and encouragement from educated parents, teachers and peers and proper guidance all help to nurture the potential and talent of a child. However, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds lack the nurturing qualities of this kind of environment and are therefore left behind. On the other hand, their environment may have certain beneficial qualities that may compensate for the lack of nurturing qualities that are found in upper and middle class environments. For example the hardships and challenges faced by these children in their environment may be beneficial in developing and enhancing problem solving skills which are important in the development of giftedness. The problem solving skills developed by these children differ from those of upper class children as obviously the problems faced by the two are very different. For a child growing up in Harlem, choosing which streets should be taken to walk home may be a matter of life and death. Whereas, this is hardly the case with upper and middle class children. The impact that the failure may have would in my opinion greatly sharpen and enhance problem solving skills.

The critical factor that relates to the success of disadvantaged youth according to Frasier and Passow is their informal support networks (2000, p. 251). Even though they may usually lack support from family members and friends, even one teacher who shows sensitivity and support can have a great impact on these youth. Role models do not also necessarily have to be alive or at a close distance to be effective. Indirect modelling, suggests Simonton “can frequently be every bit as potent as personalized instruction” (2000, p. 118). Einstein had the pictures of three deceased predecessors hanging on his wall – those of Newton, Maxwell and Faraday, and these three luminaries probably had a greater impact on Einstein than any of his teachers did (Simonton, 2000, p. 118). Internal locus of control, a positive sense of self, and feelings of empowerment were also found to be characteristics of resilient, disadvantaged high achievers (Frasier & Wright, 2000, p. 252).

The Problem of Identification.

The root of the identification problem in minority and culturally different children lies in the definition of giftedness as the identification methods used depend on how giftedness is defined. The way in which we define giftedness is a reflection of the ideas of excellence in the society that we live in. (Borland & Wright, 2000, p. 589). For example, Vincent Van Gogh was not considered to be a gifted artist at his time, however, now he is. In multicultural societies, the ideas of excellence are usually shaped by the dominant culture. In America, the dominant culture would refer to White middle and upper-class. The point is that the conception of giftedness is likely to reflect the values of the dominant culture and be blind to those of other cultures. Some believe that social institutions such as the educational system work to maintain and increase the power of those already in power and suppress the inferiors. Whether this may or may not be the true intention, these are in fact the consequences of the system. Therefore, we first need to redefine the concept of giftedness to be more sensitive to the values of the minorities. Borland and Wright argue that a revolution is needed in the field of gifted education. They challenge us to “accomplish the goals that gave rise to the field of gifted education without identifying children as gifted or even having recourse to the construct of giftedness at all” (2000, p. 591). In an ideal educational world, gifted or special education would not be necessary because curricula would be adequate enough to be receptive to the needs of individual differences.

According to Frasier and Passow, minority and culturally different gifted children are difficult to identify because of cultural bias in test instruments and other identification methods (2000, p. 253). Currently, there is an ongoing debate pertaining cultural bias in mental testing. From one perspective, intelligence tests are said to be “nothing more than an Anglo yardstick designed to make whites look ingenious, and blacks and other minorities stupid” (Hoffman cited in Frasier, Passow, 2000, p. 254). On the other hand, Arthur Jensen argues that intelligence tests show no evidence of cultural bias and can be used to predict high ability in both minority and majority races (Jensen cited in Frasier, Passow, 2000, p. 254). Achievement tests also face the same dilemma as intelligence tests. However, open-ended tests of creative thinking have no racial and socioeconomic bias and can be very helpful in identifying minority and culturally different children for participation in gifted programs (Frasier & Wright, 2000, p. 256). Alternatively, matrix identification models and other different models such as Dynamic Testing have been designed specifically to identify minority and disadvantaged gifted children have been reported to be effective.

Teacher nominations have its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, there is still the stereotype that gifted children are not found in minority groups because of the tendency to characterize children from minority groups as those that perform the least well in school.  However, if teachers are aware of the characteristics of minority gifted children, then they may be an effective identifier of minority gifted children. According to Frasier and Passow, parents must be educated about the characteristics of giftedness and the advantages of gifted programming for their children before they can be effective nominators. Peer nominations are also suggested by Frasier and Passow as an effective way of identifying gifted minority children. They believe that peers are able to identify the “leader” in a clique and also other unusual intellectual or creative ability (2000, p. 257-259). Borland and Wright also strongly recommend identification that relies on human judgement instead of mechanical approaches (2000, p. 591).


            In my opinion education is a powerful tool that can and should be used as an instrument of positive social change. However, the education system currently which leaves the minority and culturally different children to sink or swim is doing the exact opposite and causing much damage to our society. “Research has not contradicted the belief that talent potential is actually equally distributed across lines of race, class and socioeconomic status” (Mönks, Heller & Passow, 2000, p.854). So why should we leave out potentially gifted individuals? The goals of gifted programs should not only be to achieve excellence but also equity. However, according to Tannenbaum, the goals of egalitarianism and excellence contradict each other because egalitarianism seems to weaken its commitment to excellence (2000, p.32). Perhaps it is impossible to have both goals realized in the real world, but as Borland and Wright suggest, maybe we should think the unthinkable (2000, p. 592-593).


Borland J.H. & Wright L. (2000). Identifying and Educating Poor and Under-Represented  Gifted Students. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg, & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nded.,pp.587-593). Oxford, England : Pergamon.

Feldhusen J.F. & Jarwan F.A. (2000). Identification of Gifted and Talented Youth for Educational Programs. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg, & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.). Oxford, England : Pergamon.

Frasier M.M. & Passow H.A. (2000). Cultural Diversity and Children From Low Socioeconomic Backgrounds. The Invisible Gifted. In R.J. Sternberg & J.E. Davidson. (Eds.), Conceptions of Giftedness (2nd ed.,pp. 248-260). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lens W. & Rand P. (2000). Motivation and Cognition: Their Role in the Development of Giftedness. International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nded., pp.193). Oxford, England : Pergamon.

Mönks F.J., Heller K.A. & Passow H.A. (2000). The Study of Giftedness : Reflections on Where We Are and Where We Are Going. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg, & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.,pp.854-855). Oxford, England : Pergamon.

Simonton D.K. (2000). Genius and Giftedness: Same or Different? In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg, & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.,pp.116-117). Oxford, England : Pergamon.

Tannenbaum A.J. (2000). A History of Giftedness in School and Society. In K.A. Heller, F.J. Mönks, R.J. Sternberg, & R.F. Subotnik (Eds.), International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.,pp. 31-32,37). Oxford, England : Pergamon.


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