Posted September 29, 2013 by Jim Barteck in Gifted

There’s Nothing Wrong With the Word Gifted

Gifted is the proper word
Gifted is the proper word

I was just perusing a blog I found called “Gifted Challenges.” It is written by Dr. Gail Post, and it seems to be a generally well-researched and well-thought out blog. I do, however, take exception to her objection to using the word “gifted” to describe gifted kids and their abilities.

One of her rationales for the name change is:

Just as the term for mental retardation was changed to intellectual disability, in part, to create a more respectful public perception, the term “gifted” also warrants revision.

First, it bears pointing out here that there were two primary motivators in changing the terminology for mental retardation. One, is because the phrase “intellectual disability” is a more accurate and more encompassing term. It also took place concurrently with the change to using the term “physical disability” rather than the more nebulous and generic “handicapped.” So to keep nomenclature more consistent, it made some sense to refer to a person with a disability by connecting with it being either intellectual or physical in nature. It wasn’t an independent move in and of itself.

Second, and probably more importantly, the reason both of those terms had fallen into disfavor is that they were being used less and less diagnostically and more and more perjoratively in wider society. Dr. Post touches briefly on this when she says it was to “create a more respectful public perception,” but that doesn’t do adequate justice to the extent to which “retardation,” or terms like “retard” and “retarded,” were far more commonly hurled as insults toward people of average intellectual capacity rather than used as accurate descriptors of the intellectually disabled at the time.

That clearly doesn’t apply to the term “gifted” or any of its derivatives. How many people would even think of using the term “gifted” perjoratively? It wouldn’t even make sense to use it as an insult. The realms in which the words “retarded” and “gifted” exist are quite simply worlds apart and attempting to draw a comparison between the two is a stretch too far. So that leg of her argument simply falls away upon closer examination.

But I believe her larger point is encapsulated in the following quote:

The term “gifted” incites conflict, engenders unrealistic expectations, and rouses feelings of envy among parents. It fuels debate, results in time wasted defending the merits of the classification, and fosters endless battles in school districts where even the most incremental increase in services can be denied. It leads to a false debate over superiority, resulting in bitterness and anger, or apology when none is due.

Here is where my biggest disagreement lies: simply because it completely discounts basic human nature. It doesn’t matter what name is used, any designation which can be perceived or interpreted as setting apart a minority of the population as quicker, smarter, faster, or better in any way will engender all of those things she hopes that a name change will solve. The name isn’t the problem: it’s identifying children in any way which excludes others that is at the root of the problems she names. So unless she would argue that we shouldn’t endeavor to identify and provide services to gifted children at all (and she surely would not), then there’s no point in changing the name whatsoever.

You could call children with IQs two standard deviations above the norm “gepartified” (or any other nonsensical, completely made-up word), and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the essential argument whatsoever. That new word would simply gain the same noteriety and engender the same feelings over time that “gifted” has today. So why engage in an ultimately futile fight with the gods of Political Correctness? All that will be accomplished is wasting the time and effort spent coercing people to use the new nomenclature without ever actually addressing a single argument, responding to a single concern, or convincing a single person that gifted kids are deserving of special education services. The realistic prospect for any meaningful movement in the debate as a result of changing the name is somewhere between nil and none.

There will always be those who: 1) are jealous, angry and/or disappointed that their child hasn’t been included in the “special” group no matter what that group is or for whatever reason that group is regarded as “special;” 2) will argue that children of extraordinary ability are already naturally advantaged enough and are therefore undeserving of additional funding or attention, 3) are ignorant of the special needs of gifted kids or the possibility of coexisting exceptionalities, and/or 4) believe that children who are so far beyond their age-group peers don’t even belong in the public eduation system at all lest they negatively affect the self-esteem of children who are of more average ability.

A variety of terms could be considered, such as “accelerated learner,” “high ability learner,” “accelerated learning ability,” or “high aptitude ability.” Any term that is descriptive, and emphasizes learning and aptitude rather than a presumed “gift,” might engender less of an emotional reaction among educators, parents, and the public in general.
Changing Words Won't Help

Changing Words Won’t Help

Any of these terms is just as likely to engender conflict, envy, etc., as the term “gifted.” But they also illustrate one of the major problems with the majority of “politically correct” speech: they are so nebulous as to lose specific meaning. How would one adequately differentiate the highly-motivated student who works hard but doesn’t have the requisite high IQ from the underachieving learner with a significantly higher IQ? Isn’t the student who has worked to acquire the necessary study and learning skills to perform above grade level more accurately termed an “accelerated learner” than the student who is bored, inattentive and perhaps even disruptive in the classroom? It is simply impossible to select any phrase which isn’t going to cause conflict with some subset of parents and/or educators who feel that a particular student or group of students is being left out unfairly or who could be imagined to feel somehow demeaned if other students were so designated. It’s just human nature.

There’s nothing wrong with the word “gifted.” In a future article we’ll even cover how it is, in fact, the most appropriate and descriptive word of all the possible choices. It works just fine, and it doesn’t move the ball down the field to contemplate changing it. If we’re ever to cross the goal line of achieving parity for those as far above the intellectual mean with those who are the same distance below it, then our time and effort is more productively spent engaging opponents and making arguments rather than contemplating changing terminology. While I applaud Dr. Post’s efforts to educate and generally inform through her fine blog on giftedness, she and I simply disagree on this fundamental point.

Jim Barteck