What educators can learn from gifted adults
Kaufman, F.
Talent for the Future, Van Gorcum

This article by Felice Kaufman is about a study that was done on adults who were Presidential Scholars as high school students. It gives many statistics on what the adults did after graduating from high school. It explores colleges attended, degrees attained and career choices as well as some social issues.

Presidential scholars

Longitudinal and retrospective studies have always been an important part of gifted child education (Bloom, 1985; Oden, 1968; Sears and Barbee, 1977; Subotnik, Karp & Morgan, 1989; Terman, 1926; White & Renzulli, 1987). Rich information has been harvested from such investigations--not only quantitative data that inform educational planning but also qualitative investigations that reveal much about the nature of giftedness.

The purpose of this study was to contribute to the existent body of literature by focusing on the development of gifted students during their post-secondary school years. A more quantitative approach to these data has been taken in prior reports (Kaufmann, 1981; Kaufmann, Harrel, Milam, Woolverton & Miller, 1986; Simpson & Kaufmann, 1981). The central theme of this chapter is the ways in which these students dealt with the challenges and pressures of recognition and the extent to which they developed their potential after high school.

Description of the sample
The subjects of this study were the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars who were chosen as part of a national effort begun by United States President Lyndon Johnson to honor academic excellence in high school seniors. This group of Presidential Scholars was selected from a pool of 14,000 candidates who scored in the top 0.5% on the 1963-1967 National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (a measure of verbal and mathematical abilities). Final eligibility for the award was determined by a commission of 10 eminent citizens who considered additional criteria such as high scores on other available standardized tests, recommendations from school officials and an autobiographical statement. Approximately 120 Presidential Scholars (one boy and one girl from each state) plus 15 scholars at large (special cases such as Americans living abroad, individuals attending private school outside their states of residence) were selected annually. The reward for such achievement was a trip to Washington D.C. to attend a special White House ceremony where the winners were personally presented with bronze medallions by the President A total of 604 individuals comprised the population for the present study. The research was mainly carried out in 1979 (see Kaufman, 1980).

The 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars were located with the assistance of the Office of Gifted and Talented and the Educational Testing Service which at that time jointly administered the Presidential Scholars program. A letter requesting a current mailing address was sent to the parents of each of the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars to the residence reported in the scholars' National Merit file. Of the 604 requests for participation, 327 were completed and returned. An additional 179 subjects were located with the assistance of university alumni offices, through professional and Who's Who indexes and through serendipitous means such as informal personal contacts with respondents and others. A total of 506 (83%) of the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars were thus contacted.

Two questionnaires were designed to collect descriptive data about the current status of the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars. The first instrument consisted of 41 questions which elicited information about marital and family status, ethnic background, religious and political preferences, educational history and honors, career development and avocational pursuits. This questionnaire was answered by 322 respondents (58% of the subjects who had been located). A second questionnaire was later sent to the total sample group and was answered by 139 respondents (43%). This instrument elicited information about the nature, role and influence of mentors. Most data were categorized and reported as percentages. Chi-square analyses were also calculated to compare men and women, with an alpha level of .05 used to determine statistical significance.

Limitations of the study
This investigation was inherently limited by its design as a descriptive study rather than being hypothesis driven. Since there were no hypotheses to be tested, a control or comparison group was not obtained. Also, due to the mobility of subjects, location of the entire population of 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars was not possible. Likewise, there was inconsistency in the amount of information available on each subject. Nevertheless, it should be noted that based on the information provided on the face sheet of the National Merit file, a Chi-square analysis revealed that the sample of respondents (N=322) was not statistically different from non-respondents (N=282) on any background variables (Kaufman, 1980).

Description of the sample
Of the respondents, 53% were male and 47% were female. When classified by state of origin, all areas of the United States were represented. Approximately 51% of the sample came from towns with a population of 50,000 or less.

The United States 1960 Census Socioeconomic Status Index (Miller, 1964), was used to rank the occupation, education and income of the subjects' family of origin into categories and status ratings. Fathers of the subjects were found to be primarily engaged in occupations classified as professional (49%). Approximately 65% of the mothers were homemakers. Of those who worked, a majority (61%) held positions such as teachers, secretaries, or sales clerks. Slightly over 20% of the working mothers held professional positions.

A total of 80% of the subjects' fathers attended college and, of these, 44% earned advanced degrees. Of the mothers, 73% attended college and, of these, 15% received advanced degrees.

The majority of subjects (71%) planned to pursue careers in the professions. The most frequently noted professional aspirations, in order of preference, were scientist, teacher, college professor, physician, lawyer, mathematician, and engineer. More males (83%) than females (50%) planned to enter fields which ranked 90-99 on the socioeconomic status index (physician, lawyer, university professor) while more females (43%) than males (13%) intended to pursue careers which were ranked between 80-89 (teacher, secretary, sales) (Chi-square = 33.9; p<.001).

Results and discussion

Demographic information
At the time of the survey, the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars, whose ages then ranged between 26 and 32, were living in all regions of the United States, with several living in Europe and Asia. The greatest proportion (32%) lived in metropolitan areas with populations of 1,000,000 or more. Of the respondents, 92% were Caucasian. Approximately 41% identified their religious affiliation as Protestant while 35% claimed "none." In response to a question concerning political orientation, slightly over half (52%) claimed they were liberal. Some identified their political leaning atypically such as "skeptical," "orthogonal," "neo-platonic humanist," and "critical realist with romantic longings."

Over half of the subjects (56%) were married at the time they responded to the study. Of these, 51% had married when they were between 22 and 25 years of age. Approximately 10% of the group were divorced and 33% were never married.

An unexpected demographic finding was that 73% of the respondents had no children. Many subjects claimed their pursuit of educational or career opportunities as the reason for their childlessness; several attributed their decision to political ideology. A few poignantly stated that since their own childhood had been so troubled they had serious reservations about bringing a child of their own into the world.

Post-secondary education
Since Presidential Scholars were selected on the basis of exceptional high school achievement the most obvious place to look for evidence of later success was in their post-secondary school education. Certain findings of the study indeed indicated a high degree of achievement. Nearly all of the subjects (97%) received college degrees. The greatest percentage of respondents (64%) attended undergraduate institutions rated as highly selective at the time of the study (Astin, 1961). Other indications of sustained interest in academic attainment were the fact that 81% of the subjects earned degrees beyond the bachelors.

Since all of the subjects had earned multiple awards and honors in high school, it was not surprising that 89% continued to earn honors in college. These awards included membership in honorary societies, dean's list, scholarships, fellowships, prizes, leadership awards and election to student offices.

Nearly all (92%) of the subjects reported receiving some type of special education based on their special ability. These provisions included: grade skipping, accelerated courses, special gifted classes, after school or summer experiences, mentorships or special national programs such as those organized by the National Science Foundation or Telluride Association. Of the 296 subjects who participated in these programs, 79% regarded them as intrinsically worthwhile.

Regarding their most significant educational experiences, 40% felt that a particular in-depth academic course or training program had the most impact. Approximately 22% cited exposure to diverse topics and opportunities for independent study as the most significant. Special teachers were mentioned by 21% of the subjects, while instances of intense personal problem solving and growth were identified as most crucial by 8% of the group.

Career development
The data concerning occupational achievement also indicated outstanding accomplishment. At the time of the study, 76% of all subjects were employed in positions that scored in the top decile range of the socioeconomic status scale (Miller, 1964). The most frequently mentioned occupations were college professor (20%) physician (13%) and lawyer (9%).

Although there were no statistically significant gender differences on most gross measures of success, one notable discrepancy was found. Despite comparable job status and other related measures of achievement (e.g. awards, honors), female Presidential Scholars earned significantly less than their male counterparts, even when unemployed respondents, part-time employees and full-time homemakers were not included in the analysis (Chi-square 27.90; p<.001). While such disparities are commonplace, this finding confirmed that even among highly gifted individuals, inequity in compensation exists. To the extent that prestigious occupational fields alone reflect success, however, it can be stated that the promise of this gifted group, males and females alike, was fulfilled.

It might be expected that a great number of honors and awards would continue to accrue in a group that accomplished as much in high school and college as did the Presidential Scholars. Only 23% of the subjects, however, reported receiving such recognition in the workplace. One explanation is that the subjects were still young at the time of the study and just beginning to reach the age of peak achievement (Lehman, 1953).

Another explanation is the lack of opportunity for young persons to receive special recognition in the early stages of their careers. Many subjects stated that the anti-establishment movement of the 1960's influenced their attitudes toward achievement, causing them to devalue the legitimacy of awards for intellectual and educational attainment. Further, many expressed negative feelings about awards based on the pressures and problems that resulted from being in the national limelight in their youth.

Theories of adult development suggest that leisure is a significant component of maturity (Leclair, 1982; Levinson et al., 1978). A total of 67% of the subjects of this study, however, reported, no participation organized activities outside of work. "Lack of time" and "no interest in being a joiner" were the most common explanations given. A few subjects indicated that in their leisure time they participated only in activities that were related to their occupational fields, for example, professional organizations.

Nature, role and influence of mentors
Approximately 42% of the total sample responded to questions concerning significant events and milestones in their post-secondary school experiences. Of this group, 139 individuals (68 men and 71 women) discussed the nature, role and influence of mentors in their lives. A majority (66%) of the group reported that their most significant mentors had been teachers. Of these, most were encountered in graduate (47%) and secondary (29%) school. Approximately 55% of the "group reported having mentors of the same sex; 75% of the female sample reported opposite sex mentors. This was not surprising considering that during the period in which this study was conducted women were not usually in positions to assume mentorship roles (Torrance, 1984).

The data concerning mentorships revealed that the nature, role and influence in the lives of the Presidential Scholars were similar to that reported in other investigations (Levinson, 1978; Torrance, 1984). One way in which the data differed, however, was in the types of functions that mentors served; The subjects of this study perceived that role modeling, support and encouragement were the most important functions their mentor served. The need for professional socialization, on the other hand, seemed to be far less evident This finding was particularly interesting because of the assumption that networking and other professional tasks are the most important functions of a mentorship (Collins & Scott, 1978; Sheehy, 1976). The preference for a more qualitative, skill-oriented mentorship to one that specifically emphasizes climbing the organizational ladder might be attributed to the fact that many of the subjects were employed in the academic arena where career advancement typically takes a long time.

Summary and conclusions

What was learned from the study of the 1964-1968 Presidential Scholars? From the mass of descriptive statistics generated by the project, one could certainly conclude that these individuals, as a group, continued to achieve. They attended, for the most part, selective colleges and universities, pursued post-baccalaureate degrees and entered high status professions. Some continued on the course set during their high school years by winning other public awards and honors.

Beyond the statistics, however, there were other thought-provoking lessons to be learned from this study. These were gleaned from the individual comments that were volunteered by the subjects in the open-ended sections of the questionnaires. It was this body of unquantifiable data that rendered the most meaningful insights into the impact of giftedness recognition and achievement on exceptionally able students.

Interwoven in many of the responses to questions on personal matters was a tinge of sadness and disappointment which apparently stemmed from some of the subjects' history of over-reliance on academic skills to provide them with an identity. When the time came to leave the formal education system, these subjects were at a loss. This theme can be discerned in the following examples:

    I live not on income but on lack of expense–nomadic hunter-gatherer. Have found a fair modus-vivendi balancing cerebral with affective, urban rat-race with wilderness-unwinding activities, but it took 10 years to do so. Am finally making time to catch up with human relationships having not had time to get properly socialized.

Another wrote:

    Much of my difficulty in the job-career area comes from (1) school, school, school--when I was little what I wanted to be when I grew up, was to go to college and (2) my great diversity of interests. It's a hard thing for those of us who were crammed with so many expectations to even know where we stand after ten years. Now it's time to try new ways.

Another related theme was the subjects' continued search for understanding and meaning in their identification as "children of promise." Many were unsure about what, if anything, they did to deserve such a prestigious award. This question clearly haunted some of them, causing them to question the authenticity of the abilities, even into adulthood. Others expected that their success in high school and President's expectations of them as America's future would necessarily presage continued, almost effortless achievement. Consequently, many equated mistakes an disappointments with failure. As one remarked:

    I have become very cynical about the meaning of life. I don't think it's possible to be happy without drugging oneself in one way or another. To live intensely in pleasure and pain seems the best possible goal. I bring this up because I think the depths of my cynicism is directly related to my happy, successful childhood symbolized by being a Presidential Scholar. If my childhood hadn't been so idyllic, I wouldn't be so cynical now. I feel I was misled by the nature of life by my parents and teachers–it's much more grim than I imagined.

For most however, life has not necessarily been grim, although maturity has brought with it increasing insight and has textured what was once shining, though naive idealism as reflected in the following comment:

    I do not wish to leave the impression that I am regretful over the way my life has gone. If I could go back to age 18 with everything I know now, of course I'd lived differently, but I wouldn't know what I know if I hadn't lived it... The hardest thing for me to learn is to accept that I am limited and I cannot turn the whole world around singlehandedly. In the '60's many of us had a grossly exalted view of our own impotence. Today I see an exaggerated sense of importance among the youth which is just as harmful. Whatever happens to me, I doubt that I will succumb to the latter illusion.

From these and similar comments it is apparent that gifted students need to experience many facets of themselves, not just their academic abilities. Over-emphasis on intellectual prowess and competition for awards can have serious long term consequences, not only for extraordinarily gifted students like the Presidential Scholars but for students of all ability levels. To this end, the following recommendations are offered:

1. Programs for the gifted should emphasize social and emotional as well as academic development. Students should be taught skills related to problem solving, risk-taking, interpersonal relations and self esteem.

2. Programs for the gifted should include opportunities for discussions on. the nature, role and meaning of giftedness--for individuals, families, communities arid society. Students should be encouraged to explore these issues through self-assessment and evaluation, keeping journals, reading biographies and interviewing family members and community leaders.

3. Programs for the gifted should provide opportunities for students to become deeply immersed in topics of their choice in ways that are personally meaningful. Students should be allowed to take as much time as they need to actively pursue their interests and also understand that changing or redirecting their passion for a topic is part of the process of exploration.

4. Programs for the gifted should assist students in finding great teachers or mentors. Students should be encouraged to seek mentors who cannot only teach them about content in which they have a special interest but also support them in the style in which they learn best.

5. Programs for the gifted should equip students to enjoy learning as well as excel in it. Students should be invited to recognize both their achievements and mistakes as part of the same process of development and maturation.

Future investigations

Plans are currently underway for the next phase of the Presidential Scholars study. Since the subjects are now in their mid-forties, the focus of the investigation will be on mid-life issues such as values, commitments, relationships, psychological health, reappraisal of the past and building of the future (Levinson, 1978) as well as the subjects' perceptions of the nature, role and influence of achievement and success. The methodology will be similar to past investigations, consisting of questionnaires with ample room for open ended comments. Unlike previous, phases, the study will be supplemented by in-depth interviews of representative cases. This data will no doubt generate new information about the development of giftedness across the life span and further enhance the dimensions of what educators can learn from gifted adults.


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