Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Fortunate Deviates: A Cultural History of Gifted Children, 1916-1965

Nathan Sleeter

Major Professor: Michael Hugh O'Malley, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Sharon Leon, Sam Lebovic

Merten Hall (formerly University Hall), #1202
November 30, 2017, 10:00 AM to 01:00 PM

Abstract:

While the origins of the “gifted child” are firmly rooted in the early twentieth century, the underlying premise – a youth from any background who rises through innate ability – echoes a longer history. This history of “self-made men” and the popular stories of Horatio Alger were similarly premised on the notion that an exceptional few exist among the many and through timely personal assistance and their own hard work could achieve far above their station. What makes the gifted child different was the process of identification and development. Instead of relying on informal personal networks, the gifted child was meant to be systematically identified and developed through “objective” and “scientific” means via the IQ test – thereby incorporating many aspects of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. While scholars have traditionally depicted the IQ test as a means to give scientific authority to racial and class hierarches, I maintain that the aura of objectivity – its criteria initially a neutral number on a test developed by scientific experts – had the effect of opening the door for gender- and race-blind claims to giftedness.  The idea of the gifted child, then, promised to reconcile notions of democracy and hierarchy by developing the rare talented individual using an efficient and systematic method promoted by psychologist-experts. At the same time, the creation of a “gifted” group at the top of a mental hierarchy necessitated that individuals exist at the bottom – variously and historically classified as the “intellectually disabled,” “mentally retarded,” or the “feeble-minded.” Thus, while the notion of giftedness has opened possibilities of achievement and status as to individuals regardless of their race, gender, or class, it also necessarily limits who might be considered to possess potential worth developing.

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