Searching for Genius

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In my head, Horatio Alger stories are, of course, the quintessential rags-to-riches stories. You know the formula: through grit and talent, the poor boy pulls himself up.

I got to talk with Nathan Sleeter a while back and he complicated that picture a bit. Sleeter’s a professor at George Mason University whose dissertation had an awesome title: “Fortunate Deviates: A Cultural History of Gifted Children, 1916-1965.”

And he explained to me that those Alger stories always had an element that we don’t focus so much on: a benefactor. The person who spots the hidden talent and gives the protagonist a chance to shine. A little nudge.

I was talking with Sleeter for the latest episode of our audio collaboration with EdSurge — Bootstraps. It’s a series where we’re looking at question of merit and how they shape our education systems. We delved into the story of Lewis Terman, a giant of early 20th century psychology, and his landmark study of gifted children.

This year, it turns out, marks the 100-year anniversary of the study, in which Terman — one of the inventors of the modern IQ test — used a version of it to select more than a thousand very bright children in California. He then measured and weighed and recorded nearly everything he could think of: where their grandparents had been born, what health problems their parents suffered from, the size of their heads, and the grip strength of their hands.

He asked them what subjects they preferred in school, what collections they kept (stamps? plants?). And what games they liked to play.

Gifted boys, he found, showed a greater preference for hiking, dancing, swimming, croquet, dominoes, and parcheesi than the control group. But they had less interest in basketball, walking on stilts, flying kites, and playing farmer in the dell.

The result is a remarkable, exhaustive volume called the Genetic Studies of Genius. But Terman didn’t stop there. He went on to study those children for decades, creating the longest-running longitudinal study in psychology. Later volumes have excellent titles as well like “The Gifted Group at Mid-Life.”

It’s hard not to see a little Horatio Alger in Terman’s own life story. He was born in rural Indiana and desperately wanted to escape the farming life. He eventually did, all the way to a professorship at Stanford. He saw himself in these bright children and believed they weren’t misfits, as they were often perceived at the time, but a natural resource that needed to be mined, like literal diamonds.

Here’s the twist, though, Terman would go on to also become the other feature in those Algerian stories: the benefactor. Because after these children were tested, and found to be super-smart, he kept finding ways to meddle in their lives, putting a finger on the scale. He wrote letters of recommendation, gave advice to participants, and helped others to get into college.

All of it provides another reminder of the absurdity of the phrase “self-made man.”

I’m only scratching the surface of the episode Jeff Young at EdSurge put together. Listen to the whole thing to hear how the field of gifted education is wrestling with Terman’s legacy of racism.

+ Catch up on the earlier episodes:

Fighting for TJ: What a debate about the admissions process at one of the best public high schools in the country says about who should get what in education.

“Pull Yourself Up”: We explore the phrase’s origins and how it went from ludicrous joke to national aspiration.

—Scott Smallwood

Meet With Us in San Diego

Sara and Alice Myerhoff, our revenue strategy consultant, will be in San Diego for the ASU+GSV Summit from Aug. 9-11. We’d love to see you! Please reach out if you’d like to find time to get together.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In El Paso, a group of UTEP professors and students have been working for two years to craft a statement acknowledging that the campus sits on indigenous lands. It’s now waiting for the university president’s signature.

In Work Shift, Lisa Lewin, the CEO of General Assembly, argues that education and training are today’s “roads and bridges.”

In Northeast Ohio, Amy Morona examined what colleges are doing with their third round of emergency money from the federal government.

In latitude(s), Karin Fischer follows up on the Biden administration’s new commitment to international education. How does it become concrete policy?

In Colorado, a new partnership hopes to create an easier path for community-college students to transfer to the Colorado School of Mines — the state’s most selective public university.

A Programming Note

This newsletter will take a two-week break this August. (Can a newsletter recharge?) We’ll be back later in the month. In the meantime, sign up for other Open Campus newsletters here.

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