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Philosophy of Education

Are There Philosophical Reasons To Promote Gifted Education In The Context Of A Democratic And Egalitarian Society?

Santos Carrasco
American Logos Foundation

ABSTRACT: Despite the historical recognition of the importance of the development of individual human potentialities for the group, gifted individuals have not been treated equally. Three reasons are analyzed: (a) the primacy given to institutions over the individual, except those particular cases in which the individual is identified with the institution itself, or invested with the power of one institution; (b) the lack of recognition of the particular needs of gifted individuals; and (c) the assumption of egalitarian ideals inside specific societies. Despite arguments to the contrary, gifted education will be defended. Gifted individuals have special needs. I assume that Hope and Good Will provide enough justification for this public human task.

Traditionally defined, education is the social enterprise that preserves the cultural gains of human groups, and transmits them to future generations. As a social tool, education is used to reach collective and individual objectives; it is a common tool that helps to satisfy the needs of both the society as a whole, and each individual in particular. It is also broadly acknowledged that educational endeavors are human efforts to trim, polish, and "improve" our human nature.

From a historical perspective, we notice that human societies have provided unequal educational attention to their constituencies. Individuals coming from different socio-economical strata have had access to correspondingly different levels of attention. Usually, those individuals pertaining to a higher strata in the power structure have received the benefits of a major social investment, mainly for the sake of status, regardless of their real capabilities.

At this point we need to make explicit the implicit assumption that individual capabilities --wit, talents, genius, temper, neuromusculoskeletal structure, and diverse chemical byproducts-are the historical result of randomly combined factors, including date and place of birth.

There is another assumption that should be considered for a mixture of pragmatic and ideological reasons without ignoring that some of its implications convey some internal logical contradictions and, potentially, undesirable effects. Nevertheless, if we assume --for the sake of the argument-- that all human beings are equal, and all have the right to develop their potential to its maximum, then we have to say that fair and systematic attention is not found in the treatment given to the whole class of individuals genetically endowed with special needs --including the gifted ones. Some of them have been neglected in the frame of our highly socio-economical and politically stratified societies. We don't know how many.

Different reasons can explain this social pattern. From a communitarian perspective the survival of the group can be perceived as the highest priority over that of the individual. If the existence of social institutions transcends the existence of its particular carriers, struggle for survival inside particular groups may become a self-centered private business promoting indifferent attitudes towards special individual needs of other persons. A derivative reasoning may be conducive to ignore or deny that gifted individuals may have special educational needs. The underlying assumption and sometimes resentful feelings towards the gifted is that "they" don't need special help, they are better equipped to survive, and to take care of themselves.

Is it true that gifted individuals undoubtedly, effortless, and unchallenged make their way to the top?

I believe that this assumption is doubtful. The creation of institutions, including the educational ones, primarily attempts to serve and warrant the survival of the group except In those particular cases in which the individual,

  1. is invested with the power of one institution,
  2. is identified with the institution itself, or
  3. is "hired" by the power-holders of the dominant institutions.

We can see that even under (i) - (iii) the individual is only instrumental to the group's interests.

What is ignored under those circumstances is that if there are gifted individuals, and they deviate from the standard, they may have special needs, and need special support. The important consequence is that recognition or lack of recognition of the special needs of the gifted will exert a powerful force in favor or against special gifted education programs.

It is acritically accepted that the institutional system is able to provide all means required for individuals to excel at the maximum level of their capabilities. Of course, an individual can find those means only if she/he accepts the rules of the institutional game inside of one of its multiple groups; once accepted this position, the individual --gifted or not-- shall assume a subsidiary and indebted role in the institutional system. It follows, from this point of view, that regardless of gender, economic status, or any other characteristic, the individual should be grateful for the services provided by the group, and should pay back for those services. Loyalty is the price; loyalty to preserve the hierarchy of established institutions. In some societies, the dominant institution is the family; in others it can be the state.

Under this last scenario, common wealth over the well being of the few can be considered much more desirable, or even a "must." As a consequence, enforcement mechanisms will be specifically designed to accomplish that goal, parading the flags of nationalist or populist ideologies.

From those pre-suppositional attitudes and practices, an implicit and accepted alienation in the group is expected from each one of its members, and the educational providers -a wide range of individuals or educational institutions- will play an active role in the successful achievement of this educational goal. Regardless of their individual differences and capabilities, each individual should be loyal and grateful for the shelter provided by the community or specific group. It also has to be acknowledged that despite appearances and ideological debates, human societies in their struggle for survival have to enforce social controls, and educational conditioning is the lightest one.

Similar presuppositions and attitudes --indifferent or challenging-- towards the special education of the gifted can be found on the opposite extreme of more individualistic ideologies, resulting in no special favor to gifted educational policies and programs.

On the other hand, assuming an individualistic approach, it can be said that the society is nothing without a loyal membership; that without individual cooperativeness to weave the social fabric, the group would perish. Thus, from this perspective, it can be said that it is in the best interest of the group, to provide all means to fully develop the capabilities of its members, at least, for utilitarian reasons: to obtain the best from them.

Shouldn't society carefully invest in policies oriented to achieve the betterment of both the society as a whole and their constituencies in particular? Acknowledgement of individual differences, including giftedness as one of them, should allow justification, especially in the context of open, individualistic, and democratic societies, for specific policies to advocate and to encourage the maximum development of gifted individuals through special programs.

However, even in democratic societies new questions and concerns have to be addressed, due to the fact, that in democratic societies budgetary decisions very rarely are unanimously reached. From an economic point of view, the most frequent attack against supportive policies of special programs for the gifted comes from interpreting the attempted policies and programs as unfairly favoring the few, the gifted. It is said that these "elitists" policies promote an unfair distribution of public wealth; that unfair distribution by the privileged class betrays the principles of a democratic society where everyone should enjoy equal rights and opportunities based on granted principles of equal human nature, and equal opportunity. A counter argument could be a laughing one: if all democratic societies would have already granted those principles, those societies and their principles would have reached a near-to-perfect-human-society-state, which seems not to be the case in our post-modern world.

Should any of those assumptions, the individualistic or the communitarian approaches be taken as correct?

The fact is that from a logical point of view, none of them is inconsistent with the logical and historical possibilities of human existence, as all the nuances between the extremes are functional in the frame of their own assumptions, and historical contexts. Logical and historical peculiarities of human reasoning allow for philosophical questions in general and those specifically related with gifted education, remain indefinitely open and indefinitely unsolved, always available for deconstruction and reconstruction; in other words, full of meta-meaning. So, the third excluded doesn't apply here. Critically analyzed, individualistic or communitarian approaches are both logically acceptable.

Logical coherence, and economical concerns, however, are not the only ones to be addressed when addressing the logistics of special gifted education programs, and I am aware of that fact. Even if special programs for the gifted were indisputably granted based on the utilitarian potential benefit for the individual and the society as a whole, some other technical and theoretical questions still remain to be answered.

  • How much critical, independent, unconventional thinking should be allowed and promoted by the curriculum especially designed to fit the needs of these individuals?
  • How much effort should be invested in the promotion of research on gifted education?
  • As the awareness for women's education grows with global concerns in mind, how should the gifted female be educated?

Leaving aside gender differences, other concerns marked with cultural implications should also be considered when addressing the "axiological " orientation of gifted educational programs. For example:

  • What cross-cultural aspects should be considered?
  • What should be the 'values' in which the gifted should be educated?
  • In order to choose and define those values where should we look? Should we look into the past or the future?
  • Should we look back to some of the roots of our anthropocentric axiological thinking?
  • If we look to the past, in what spring shall we stop to fill out our cup with wisdom?
  • Shall we choose Northwestern or eastern sources?
  • Why should we choose between this dichotomy? Isn't it a shallow simplification?
  • What specific sources and branches shall we choose? What sprouts shall be discarded?
  • Haven't they been historically deconstructed more than once?
  • Aren't those historically deconstructed semantic fields multilayered and fuzzy cognitive regions?

For the sake of our western historical perspective, let's consider for example, the Platonic source and its values of 'good,' 'beauty,' and 'fairness.'

  • Do we understand how those values become concrete in our contemporary world?
  • Should the concept of 'good' be defined in anthropocentric utilitarian terms?
  • Should the concept of 'beauty' be defined in terms of 'symmetric beauty'?
  • Should the concept of 'fairness' be defined mainly in individualistic terms?
  • Should asymmetric ugliness, spread all over the world, justify cleansing or segregation?
  • Should disagreement on the assumption, or interpretation of those 'values' be considered politically incorrect?
  • Does political incorrecteness justify wars?
  • If war is an option, what role should the gifted play in it?
  • How would be preserved their minds from arrogance or hate?

Despite the problematic nature of these questions, and some regrettable historic answers, I believe that we as a global society can do better in the future.

We need to believe that education is still a powerful and noble tool for human groups, even if sometimes we forget that institutions make sense only when related to individuals. After all, institutions owe their existence to the interplay of creative-caring-and-cooperative forces, zillions of hands and variegated gifted minds. Both, individuals and institutions are intertwined in an endless knot.

We consider and defend that attention to the special needs of the gifted should be addressed inside human societies, and its issues discussed in the public arena. Given the highly stratified structure of our human societies, the access to the means of education is not fairly distributed among the lower strata. Resources should be allocated as a social investment, in such a way that they reach the economically and politically disadvantaged. It is important to defend that the attention to the special needs of the gifted has to be a communitarian enterprise, and distributive justice the criteria used in the apportionment of the fruits harvested from their cultivated talents.


Perhaps a benevolent and uncorrected Hope is the only answer. Perhaps, in this way we as a global society will do better in the future.

Naturally, objections can be raised: With the belief and hope in the power of gifted education programs, aren't we taking a Messianic approach?

The answer is no. There is no need to defend or attack messianic expectations. Independently of that attempt, gifted education can be supported based only in the short term that corresponds to individual lives. Gifted individuals have a short expand of terrestrial life to try to develop their human capabilities, and to exercise their altruism and good will, if any.

But, --somebody could ask-- isn't it naïve to assume that human beings will be able to accomplish utopian dreams quite incompatible with human nature, and within a limited and perishable environment?

Well, perhaps because human nature belongs to the natural environment -at least to some observable extent-and because the natural environment does not belong to humans, it seems important to better educate human beings in general, and better educate the gifted in particular. Perhaps, this policy should represent a small contribution to the betterment of a sustainable global development in a limited and perishable natural environment.

Thus, let's accept that future is the domain of human hopes, and let's assume that Hope and Good Will provide enough justification for a human task such as gifted education programs, even if they may reasonably be considered weak premises.

We have no difficulty to accept that human arguments used to be feeble ones as much as they are constructed in a wide logical space, open to mere possibilities --even if we add them functors of necessity.

Thus, even if the vital endowment interspersed in the darkness of the universe will pursue its uncertain path without the need of human effort, and even if our perception of the universe possesses a farsightedness that we still don't fully understand, I still consider that the attention to the special needs of the gifted should be addressed inside human societies by the public domain.

in the still unorchestrated and disconcerted international context of planet Earth.

Nevertheless, let Hope be the only base in which the main argument in defense of gifted education is grounded. Let's acknowledge that Hope is particularly important in those contexts where for centuries, gifted education programs have not received primary consideration. Let Hope helps us to find the educational means to build all over the planet more egalitarian societies.


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