“Gifted” Is a Theological Word

Quite the juicy convo on Twitter:

Hard not to reply with every thought I have, but I want to keep the scope limited. One idea at a time.

In some sense, I work in “gifted education.” Big ups to BEAM, my favorite place to teach. This is a program that is addressing the intellectual hunger of students who are ready to go far beyond what they are doing in school. I have profound conviction that we are doing something worthwhile and important. (NB: to my knowledge, BEAM does not use the word “gifted” in any official materials, and most BEAM personnel do not use it with our kids out of growth mindset concerns.)

It is also true that I myself had a very different profile of needs from my peers at school as a young student of math. I taught myself basic calculus in 5th grade from an old textbook. I read math books voraciously through middle school, and in class just worked self-directedly on my own projects because I already knew what we were supposed to be learning. I am not mad that I didn’t have more mathematical mentorship back then — my teachers did their best to find challenges for me, I appreciated them both for that and for the latitude to follow my own interests, and in any case things have worked out perfectly — but looking back, at least from a strictly mathematical point of view, I definitely could have benefited from more tailored guidance in navigating my interests.

In this context I want to open an inquiry into the word “gifted” as it is used in education.

I hope the above makes clear that this inquiry is not about whether different students have different needs. That is a settled matter; a plain fact.

The subject of my inquiry is how we conceive of those differences. What images, narratives, stories, assumptions, etc., are implicit in how we describe them. In particular, what images, narratives, stories, and assumptions are carried by the word “gifted”?

This question is too big a topic for today. Today, I just want to make one mild offer to that inquiry, intended only to bring out that there is a real question here — that “gifted” is not a bare, aseptic descriptor of a material state of affairs, but something much more pregnant — containing multitudes. It is this:

“Gifted” is a theological word.

What do I mean?

A gift is something that is given; bestowed. My nephews recently bestowed on me a set of Hogwarts pajamas, fine, ok, but when we speak of “giftedness,” you know we are not discussing anything that was bestowed by any human.

By whom, then, is it supposed to have been bestowed?

You know the answer — by God. Or if not God, then by “Nature,” the Enlightenment’s way of saying God without saying God.

When we say a child is “gifted,” we are declaring them to have been selected as the recipient of a divine endowment. Each of these words carries a whole lot of meaning extrinsic to scientific description of the situation — selected; recipient; divine; endowment.

When we use this word in contemporary educational discourse, we usually aren’t consciously evoking any of this. Nothing stops a committed atheist from saying a kid is gifted. Nonetheless, I don’t think it can really be avoided.

Why I say this is how easily and quickly the full story — selected, recipient, divine endowment — becomes part of the logic of how people reason about what to do with a student so labeled. To illustrate with a contemporary slice of pop culture, the 2017 film Gifted, starring McKenna Grace, Chris Evans, Lindsay Duncan and Jenny Slate, hinges on the question of what is a family’s obligation to its child’s gift? How can a bare material state of affairs create a moral obligation? — but being chosen as the custodian of a divine spark on the other hand, it’s easy to see how to get from that to something somebody owes.

So, this is my initial offer. I’m not saying anything about what to do with this. For example, I am not evaluating Michael’s assertion that “giftedness is true.” I’m just trying to flesh out what that assertion means — to call attention to the sea of cultural worldview supporting the vessel of that little word.


6 thoughts on ““Gifted” Is a Theological Word

  1. So, first, this is great, and the more I think about it the more interesting it is.

    George Lakoff wrote Metaphors We Live By to uncover the possibility that language can do precisely what you say “gifted” is doing. Metaphors aren’t just colorful language — metaphor is baked into our language.

    As an example, Lakoff points out that in our language DEBATE IS WAR. Arguments are wielded, and sometimes countered. Debates can be won or lost. You can attack someone else’s position. Our entire language for argument is structured around this metaphor, and our thought is delimited by this metaphor; we can’t help but think of debate as a kind of war.

    Good, then! So too with gifted. Right?

    Except that Lakoff admits that some metaphorical language is “dead,” e.g. only of historical or etymological interest. It reflects some true connection, but doesn’t point to a thought-delimiting metaphor.

    One issue I had while reading Lakoff was that it seemed to me hard to tell when some potentially metaphorical language was live or dead. Take “giftedness,” and let’s accept your idea that the ABILITY IS A GIFT metaphor determines this bit of language, and that this metaphor implies that abilities are given from a giver, and that this giver must be God.

    How do we know if this metaphor is live or dead? And is it live or dead for everyone? How could we know if it’s actually structuring how we think of one’s abilities?

    I mean, we could imagine a world in the future where the word for “gift” is forgotten and drops out of the English language, but “gifted” persists. If nobody knew what a “gift” was, would “gifted” have the same meaning? Surely not. And what if there was someone who never understood the connection between “gift” and “gifted” and is totally surprised when you point out that the words are connected AT ALL? For such a person, are they taking their ideas about gifts into their understanding of giftedness?

    All of this is to say that whether “gifted” actually connotes “gifts” in the minds of people — if it’s actually a live metaphor rather than an inert one — shouldn’t be taken for granted, and can’t just be determined based on etymology or some a priori linguistic analysis. We need some way of telling whether people actually assign giftedness a theological meaning.

    (You say, on Twitter: “I’m contending, fwiw, that as soon as nature, evolution, etc., gets invoked *as a giver of gifts*, we have gotten a little theological.” I’m saying, there’s no way to know whether this is true or not just based on the words themselves. We have to look to see whether people mean this or not.)

    So, what would it mean to be guided by the metaphor that TALENT IS A GIFT? I love your suggestion that gifts create obligations, and that the fact that people think that talent produces obligations is a sign that this metaphor is live.

    What else is true about gifts? True: they produce feelings of gratitude. They are intended by the giver to be good things. And to see talent as a gift would mean that you should feel gratitude for your talent and that you should see it as a good thing. I think it’s true that people think of gifts in this way.

    I’m ending up, at the end of this very long comment, very close to your position. I think that there is a metaphor that is live that guides how we think about talent.

    The one thing I will say is that I don’t think that God is live in this metaphor; God is dead. Any connection to God is not necessary for the metaphor. I mean, maybe you think it’s logically necessary (how can you feel gratitude in the abstract? how can something be a gift without a giver?) but that’s the whole point of metaphorical language; you can’t actually hit someone over the head with an argument. So I think you’re picking up on something very important and interesting, but I think God doesn’t really play into this.

    1. Thanks for your (as-always) careful, thoughtful engagement.

      And thank you for bringing in Lakoff’s framework, I’m not familiar with it but it seems like a completely useful frame for the conversation.

      To begin with, let me say (in this more permanent format than Twitter) that my real goal here is to shift the terms of a conversation rather than to advance a specific claim. The statement “‘Gifted’ is a theological word” is intended as a provocation, to shake things up, to denaturalize what the (talent-related usage of the) word “gifted” usually takes as natural, and thereby to enable us to bring explicitly into conversation some parts of our cultural worldview that are usually hidden/invisible in the way that culture is always hidden/invisible to its inhabitants. In other words, my real goal here is to initiate a broad conversation about the assumptions behind the word “gifted,” in the first place by calling attention to the fact that these assumptions exist, and then to provoke the conversation that becomes possible once those assumptions have been exposed. Thus it’s more important to me that you, and anybody else reading, walk away with the sense that the question of what metaphors and assumptions “gifted” entails is worth probing — excavating — than that you are convinced of any particular metaphor or assumption I say might be in there. I think you are saying you’re sold on this point, so my main objective I guess is met.

      That said, I think it still serves my purpose in this conversation to continue to press this particular formula. It won’t surprise you that I disagree that the theological part of the “gifted” metaphor is “dead” in Lakoff’s sense. The word “God” means a lot of things, and different things to different people, so let me abandon this more provocative word choice for now, and get a little more specific. I claim that “giftedness” as understood in education is unavoidably a teleological concept. It’s not just that it was a gift from somebody or something, and an obligation arises from reciprocity; it’s that it was a gift from somebody or something who has some kind of pull on the way things are supposed to be. If there is an obligation, it arises not from ordinary reciprocity but from the fact that the gifted kid is supposed to do something with this gift s/he’s been given. You can see this because the obligation, if it exists, is not to the giver.

      In this way, “giftedness” implies the presence of an intention guiding the unfolding of reality. I think in our formally-mostly-secular public life, the idea that reality is unfolding according to some kind of an intention continues to have wide currency, even among secular folks. Maybe it’s not God’s plan, if God is not your thing, but still, for most people, there is a right order, a supposed-to-be-that-way order. Inside of this, the “gifted” kid is supposed to be gifted, and if there’s something they’re supposed to do because of having that gift, then this obligation springs from the same supposed-to-be order that the gift sprang from.

      Relatedly, the gifted kid is chosen. (S/he isn’t just the recipient of something but has been chosen as the recipient.) I really do hear this loud and clear whenever anybody describes a child with this language. Maybe I’m buggin, but I really don’t think so. “This child has been picked out among all the children for the possession of this gift.” Picked out by whom or what? Fine, not God, if God is not your thing, but then by that same right order, the supposed-to-be-that-way order.

      So, this is my contention: the teleology and chosenness are live parts of the metaphor. If you don’t want to call that theology, I won’t make you. But still – these go beyond just gift given (by equals or whatever). The excavation is just getting started!

      1. I think I totally agree. If there is a disagreement, it wouldn’t be about what “gifted” means metaphorically. I’m with you about which parts of it are live.

        *If* there were a disagreement, it would be about whether this metaphorical meaning and its implications for students who find themselves burdened with these gifts is problematic and needs to be railed against. I don’t know, though of course I agree that we shouldn’t slap this label on kids if we can avoid it (because of general issues surrounding label-slapping).

        When I receive a gift, it’s mine, and I get to choose what to do with it. Yes, there is some sort of obligation that comes with the gift, but the nature of that obligation changes a great deal depending on the particular giver.

        (The worst gift I ever got, by the way, was from my parents. I played in bands in high school, and sort of taught myself to be a very shitty keyboard improviser. For my birthday my mom got me a one-time lesson with a jazz teacher, and my takeaway was that I was shitty improviser. Which, by the way, was and is true, though with the caveat that rock isn’t jazz. Anyway, I reject that gift.)

        So if you’re right — I think you’re mostly right — that giftedness implies a sort of obligation to the giver, than I think it matters a great deal how we imagine our givers. And it’s not clear to me that we imagine our giftedness in a way that makes us feel stuck, but I really need more case studies of math students who are really ready for more.

        (Despite my summer at BEAM and my teaching at a fancy private school, I’ve spent far more time teaching and thinking about those who are not ready for more.)

        Maybe an interview would be fun, ala the conversation I hosted at my blog? Would you be into that? A convo about giftedness? Let me know!

  2. Michael – this is a quick reply even though WordPress is not letting me thread it. Only to say that I don’t believe anything I’m arguing here compels one to rail against the giftedness label. I’ve railed against it before, and perhaps I will again, although I’m in a less polemical mood these days than I often was back in 2010-2012 🙂 But here my main purpose is just to *create space* to evaluate it fully by dislodging its unearned appearance of “factness.” The only takehome message is “it is not a bare aseptic scientific description of the material situation but something intensely metaphor-laden.” We can’t ask if we like the metaphors if we don’t acknowledge they’re there, so yes, I’m pushing for the space to ask if we like them. But for now, that’s all I’m doing.

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