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




Sleeter, Nathan

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While the origins of the “gifted child” are firmly rooted in the early twentieth century, the person imagined– that a youth from any background may rise 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 original station. I argue that the idea of the “gifted child” that emerged in the early twentieth century was a continuation of this Algeresque project of identifying and developing children – replacing the discerning wealthy benefactor with a systematic, “scientific” process that could claim to identify these innately intelligent children in an objective and efficient manner for the good of the nation. This new model mirrored in many aspects Frederick Taylor’s scientific management. While scholars have traditionally depicted the IQ test as a means to give scientific authority to racial and class hierarchies, 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.” At the same time, advocates frequently looked for ways to temper the cold Taylorite logic inherent in giftedness through sentimental, even Algeresque gestures toward their subjects – while at the same time proclaiming the necessity of efficiently developing the gifted for the national good.



American history, Cold War, Gifted children, Intelligence, Lewis Terman