I was visiting Carnegie Mellon University yesterday with my son, a high school junior. I grabbed a piece of paper titled “Science” from the wall of information in the Admissions Office as he signed in. On the back, there was a series of questions followed by answers. One question was “Can I create a degree that combines science and the fine arts?” This was followed by an answer beginning, “Carnegie Mellon recognizes that there are students who are naturally gifted in both fine arts and the sciences.” My current understanding is that studies designed to find evidence of “natural giftedness” have come up empty-handed.
Absolutely nothing else on that double-sided information sheet indicated that the view that some are just “gifted” is widely accepted at Carnegie Mellon. In fact, the words and phrases “work,” “doing what it takes,” and “providing you with the skills, knowledge and training” occur. Perhaps it is only biologists that paint or physicists who play the violin who are considered by Carnegie Mellon to be “naturally gifted,” but I think instead that a typical mistake was being made. Even people who are trying very hard to readjust their mindset to de-emphasize the assumption of the primacy of innate “talent” make occasional references to innate talent. I have been talking to colleagues about the lack of evidence for inborn talent recently. I have read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” and am working on “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin. The messages of these very different books resonates with something I think I learned in the swimming pool as a youth. I’ll write about that later, but what I want to say here is that even my colleagues who believe that hard work is the most important determinant to success still sometimes slip up and use the language of innate, inborn talent (I include myself in that group as well!). The assumption that certain skill sets are hardwired into us at birth is so prevalent in our culture that it is very hard to keep it from popping into your conversations.
This is not a matter of policing our speech for political correctness. It is not that I want to avoid writing student comments that praise a student as “bright,” “talented,” or “smart” for fear of offending the student not labelled so. No, it is nothing like that. Instead, I fear for the student so labelled. First because it ignores the hard work the student has done previously, and, second, it sets them up for failure as soon as they hit a concept with which they must struggle for awhile. The assumption of innate talent also denies the possibility that other students starting out behind the frontrunners can catch up. Finally, such language simply doesn’t appear to be supported by evidence.
Even students who have worked hard sometimes still attribute their success to innate talent. I have one student, who told me she was “just good at Spanish.” Upon questioning her about her background in Spanish, she told me that she had a very rigorous middle school Spanish class. She had worked “very hard.” In fact, she said she worked harder on Spanish than “any other subject in middle school.” Then she noted that only now, a year and a half after arriving at high school, was she finally learning anything new in Spanish. Then I asked her whether it was any surprise, after she had worked very hard for three years and then had spent the last year and a half in relaxed review of Spanish, that she only now felt like her peers were catching up to her in Spanish? She gave me a very far-away look and a long “huuuhh.” This girl had essentially ignored her own hard work (and the pleasant circumstance of having a year and a half review), because society has told her repeatedly that stuff like this just happens… at some point you just find out what you’re good at. The fact that in seventh and eighth grade she was labelled “gifted” in Spanish may, in fact, have led her to deny the reality or the importance of her own hard work.