Gifted children, stupid parents

Jan. 27, 2006, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 18 years, 1 month ago

Parent e-mail group clutters inboxes, rankles columnist

German poet Johann Goethe's quip that "there is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity" is remarkable not for its biting directness, but for its depth. It is an observation that blames the worst problems on thoughtful, premeditated stupidity — not the passive foolishness that makes you leave an assignment for the last minute, but sincere, deliberate ignorance.

It is the stupidity, in other words, of the Gifted and Talented Association (GTA) of Montgomery County's listserv.

Since August 2000, the e-mail group has conducted what it describes as a "frank" and "occasionally intense" discussion of GT issues — everything from "advocacy for appropriate instruction" to the ominously passive-aggressive goal of "understanding the opposition." It has produced a prolific outpouring of parental obnoxiousness and conceit and has been a bacchanalia of privilege, borderline child exploitation and good old-fashioned complaining. And while most of the group's 988 members are likely possessed of rational minds and moderate characters, you'd never know it from their e-mails.

On the listserv, complaints range from the inane (one parent ripped on her sixth-grade daughter's science teacher for showing "Babe" and "Mulan" during class), to the very inane (one e-mail invited parents to an event on "gifted, underachieving students" — "don't worry about the Cs and Ds, mom! I'm gifted!"), to the extremely inane (the thread entitled "Highly Gifted Toddler" takes the proverbial cake on this one) — and this was during a single two-day span last November.

It's easy to dismiss e-mails about genius two-year-olds and Disney films as the griping of well-intentioned, if overzealous, parents. But that same zeal fuels the listserv's more logically reasoned and subsequently more horrifying messages. Take, for instance, a Dec. 18 e-mail about "what the state legislators could do in support of gifted education." The author suggested that Maryland "require teachers to take a course in gifted education in order to be certified" and "require school systems to create some kind of annual report showing what happened to the students identified as gifted."

The e-mail reveals a troubling mainstay of the listserv: a fundamentally self-centered worldview in which anything not directly related to gifted and talented education, specifically the education of the e-mailers' disenfranchised and allegedly "gifted" children, conveniently sinks into irrelevance.

It's a worldview that motivates parents to argue for more of the bureaucratic tedium that currently plagues public education — reporting individually on every "gifted" student in the state certainly qualifies — that makes them carry on lengthy threads about grade-skipping and gifted toddlers and that made one parent accuse MCPS of "playing a mean trick on kids" by having higher math standards in high school than in middle school.

"PS," her e-mail concluded, "it is NOT parental joy to teach matrices to a 14-year-old. Someone at mcps [sic] should have to pay me back for the favor I did them."

Maybe teaching matrices was wearing away at her common sense as well as her patience — or at least at whatever instincts tell you that small inadequacies aren't evidence of some far-reaching conspiracy against gifted youth.

But the listserv functions under the truism that anything is possible on the Internet. It is possible for advantaged children to be victims, for schools to make every accommodation that could ever possibly be made and for all children to get the flawless education that they undeniably deserve (perhaps this perception of entitlement explains the e-mailers' tendencies to preface their letters with short lists of their children's achievements).

In a listserv of like-minded stakeholders, it's possible for group founder John Hoven to state unequivocally that MCPS has violated a policy ordering that "accelerated and enriched curricula will be provided to all students who have the capability or motivation to accept the challenge of such a program." But subjective and barely substantiated declarations of this sort are hardly surprising in a place where second-grade GT tests and math camps for gifted eight-year-olds are normal topics of conversation.

Realizing the complete menace of the GTA listserv requires looking past these more blatant outrages. It's the nuances that make clear just how corrupted this listserv is: the tone of conversation, the way in which the parents bandy about acronyms and abbreviations, analyze previous e-mails line-by-line, use obscure statistics and facts and freely apply misleadingly objective-sounding terms like "evenly gifted," "highly gifted," "gifted" and "normal."

It is the tone of people who know what they're talking about and who place importance in what they're talking about. It is the tone of people absorbed in a needlessly confrontational blood sport — the obsessive struggle for the education they feel their children deserve. Whether they deserve it or not is never really questioned. A listserv is, after all, a cyber-linking of kindred spirits — in this case, a linking of people who feel that their undeniably gifted kids are undeniably entitled to more than they're getting.

The kids themselves are always in the background. They're alluded to from time to time, but the listserv is completely the domain of parents, parents engrossed enough in their children's education to carry on for pages at a time about middle-school science and write over 15,000 e-mails in less than six years.

Even at 10,000 e-mails, the group would be traveling a thin line between parental concern and child exploitation. It's not exploitation in the physical sense, but in some ways, it's just as troubling: egotistical parents living vicariously through their kids and using them as reason to attack convenient targets like MCPS out of boredom, arrogance or both. The group has taken the smug exuberance that makes sports parents embarrass themselves on the sidelines and applied it to something that actually has the potential to impact people's lives — education advocacy. That potential is disquieting, and there remains the unsettling possibility that somebody will take the GTA listserv seriously.

But luckily, the prattling is reserved for cyberspace, and the aggressive stupidity can be tamed at the click of a button.

Join the madness! The GTA listserv can be accessed here.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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