The emphasis in the epigraph above is mine; in my view, the time to trust America's best has come. Who are they? How do they appear in our midst? Do they arrive through a concatenation of random happy events, or is the process of renewal of our reservoir of America's best complex in structure and sensitive and responsive to wise (or sadly enough, to unwise) policies?
Creativity is one of the happy attributes of humans. In their maturity humans display this trait to varying degrees of fulfillment. We do not understand what in human nature assures its presence. We have conflicting ideas about whether nature or nurture is responsible for its flowering (Ross, 1990-1991). Yet the creativity of its citizens is vital to the well-being of every nation, and this is true more than ever in our contemporary technological society, where change and tradition are intertwined in a more dramatic and fluid manner than ever before.
A high measure of vitality seems to be a quality inescapably associated with creativity. Yet what are its first manifestations? The early acquisition of unusual competence in the traditionally taught basic skills is one such promising initial indicator. Unlike creativity, this competence can be measured by accepted standardized tests, taken by a large number of pupils early in their school careers. One example is the College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). This testing instrument has been adopted by national talent-search programs, which administer it to many youngsters long before it is usually given (as a preamble to college entrance). The use of the SAT in this manner allows the identification of those who exhibit an early acquisition of unusual competence in the traditionally taught basic skills, particularly in mathematics. It is significant that Julian Stanley's effort to identify the reservoir of mathematical talent at age thirteen and to gain concomitant statistical insights about the individuals included therein (Stanley, 1977) became only the first step in the subsequent process of sifting for significant talent and the work of nurturing this talent to its full fruition. Helping the "discovered" youngsters move rapidly through the traditionally stagnant middle school years was the next step. These youngsters were given an opportunity to acquire rapidly the basic skills typically imparted during the four years of high school. For some, this led to an early move to college. The goal of this work was to make optimal use of, and to conserve, the talents within our society.
When we focus our attention on the rich details of individual achievement that are possible among the talented when they are given the opportunity to bring their talents to fruition, we cannot help being impressed by their diversity of interests and differences of temperament. The talented are not a homogeneous group. Individual differences are as vast among them as among students with abilities that are in the more typical range. We often tend to overlook this point. Let me illustrate by giving a few examples drawn from my pure-math program for talented high school students.
This youngster did extremely well in the accelerated summer program at Johns Hopkins. His teacher's recommendation added to high praise a warning that he was habitually distracting in the classroom. He came to us as one of the youngest participants in our summer program. When his performance rather quickly placed him in the top third of our able participant group, he began to live up to his teacher's warning. We had to provide a special challenge, after which he had to work intensively to maintain his standing as one of the top five performers. He came to the program every summer until his early admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His thirst for knowledge was unusual. He was graduated from MIT at age twenty with four degrees and is doing graduate work in engineering there.
This young man was a junior at fourteen in a fine liberal arts college, and came with high recommendations. He performed extraordinarily well in his studies in our program. He was unusually mature and thoughtful, and returned as a counselor the following summer. At sixteen he went to graduate school at a great state university to study particle physics. In 1992 he received his Ph.D. degree at age twenty.
This girl came to us at fourteen. Quiet and thoughtful and with a deep interest in ideas, she excelled in her studies. She returned to us for a number of summers, first as an advanced participant and then as a counselor. At sixteen she went to Harvard. She was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa her second year there and went on to win the Fay Prize, the highest academic award at graduation. Five years later she received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley.
This youngster came to us right after he earned a score of 800 on the SAT-M at the age of twelve. In the program, for the first time in his life, he had to compete with other very able youngsters. This shook his confidence in himself. Fortunately, his father, a schoolteacher, was studying the same range of mathematical ideas and through thoughtful and tactful collaboration restored his son's confidence. The youngster continued to work in the program, first as an advanced participant and then as a counselor for a number of years in spite of a trying interlude in which he had a kidney transplant. At MIT he majored in mathematics and computer science. MIT's mathematics department gave him its special award for excellence upon his graduation. He is doing graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley.
The above is only a small sample of young people. Yet these case histories amply illustrate the uniqueness of the talented, as well as an aspect shared by all—how the quality of their lives was enriched by the search for and nurturing of America's best. Does this preoccupation with the nurturing of human talent, as heartwarming as it is, serve only to satisfy our aesthetic sensibilities? It does that, but I believe it does much more.
The increasing complexity of most occupations forming the infrastructure of our technological society compels us to look closely at the way we bring up our youth (Ross, 1992). On the one hand, we need to upgrade the quality of experience of our whole work force. If we do not act promptly and if we do not bring the needed resourcefulness and imagination to bear on this task, we shall find that the demands of society's growing complexity will make a large number of our fellow citizens not only unemployed but unemployable. The tragic consequences of the continuing neglect of issues vital to our competitiveness, and hence essential to our economic well-being, have been stressed dramatically in recent years. To date, in spite of the expenditure of public and private treasure, we have not faced up to this problem effectively.
At its best, the upgrading of our work force aims to develop only the supporting staff for our laboratories and our industry. In addition to this, however, the pressures of competitiveness demand that we should have cadres of able people capable of imaginative innovation who can provide the needed leadership. These people make up our critically needed scientific and professional elite. Neglecting either the task of developing the needed cadres of the creative elite or the task of upgrading the quality of our general work force would spell disaster for our society.
At present our nation's material resources are used almost exclusively for the work of upgrading the basic competence of our work force. The importance of the discovery and development of our native talent is downgraded by the use of the term "the elite" as an aspersion. It is, therefore, critically important to display individual initiative in the work that can be described as paying imaginative attention to our young talent.
Ross, A. E. (1990-1991). Creativity: Nature or nurture. Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences Issues in Mathematics Education 2:39-84.
Ross, A. E. (1992). Talent search and development: A clinical approach. In N. Colangelo, S. G. Assouline, & D. L. Ambroson (Eds.), Talent development: Proceedings from the 1991 Henry B. and Jocelyn Wallace National Research Symposium on Talent Development (pp. 348-352). Unionville, N.Y.: Trillium Press.
Stanley, J. C. (1977). Rationale of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) during its first five years of promoting educational acceleration. In J. C. Stanley, W. C. George, & C. H. Solano (Eds.), The gifted and the creative: A fifty-year perspective. (pp. 75-112). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Benbow, Camilla Persson, and David Lubinski, eds. Intellectual Talent: Psychometric and Social Issues. pp. 221-224. © 1996 [Copyright Holder]. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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