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Review: 'Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds'

A book of contradictions
Purfrock Press

Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds

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Dr. James R. Delisle's new book, "Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do To Fight Back)," is filled with contradictions (and not just because on page 74, a student is described as "Wandering Greg" and, on page 80, he turns into "Wandering Craig.").

Delisle belittles the work of Howard Gardner, whose book, "Frames of the Mind" led to follow-ups like "Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom" by asserting that it is only a theory that cannot be put into practice, and that with no control or comparison groups, the research performed in support of it is "more intuitive than empirical."

Yet he also has no use for the work of Joseph Renzulli, who did not believe in gifted children but, rather, in gifted behaviors. Renzulli determined giftedness based on what a child produced, and not on their IQ score or on nebulous qualities like, in the words of one quoted parent, "(My son's) giftedness is how he understands the world, how deeply he views things."

The latter would seem to be exactly the sort of non-empirical, non-science that Delisle has no patience with when it comes to Gardner. And yet, Delisle himself asserts on page 131 that he can identify a gifted child intuitively, by asking them their favorite joke or pun. Earlier, on page 23, he'd been grateful that following the implementation of the Iowa Assessment Scale, "people no longer had to make judgements about acceleration based on "gut feelings" or personal biases; they could actually use a validated research tool." (Guess that applies to other people only?)

For Renzulli, Delisle reserves the ultimate insult, comparing his theories to that of science's alleged mortal enemy, a bible verse, Matthew Chapter 7, Verse 16: "Ye shall know them by their fruits," and lumps him in with all teachers who are mere "talent developers." "Talent developers" are those who "focus almost entirely on performance, with just a passing nod given to inherent aptitude... (ignoring those) whose high abilities have not yet manifested themselves into anything concrete." They are, according to Delisle, no different than any generic educator, always looking to bring out the best in every student, rather than realizing the superiority (no matter how hidden) of one, select group. And, really, what kind of quality is that in a teacher?

In defining his own strict notion of a gifted child, Delisle writes on page 127, "These kids (and adults)... understand that although it's not always politically correct to tell people that the guy behind the curtain in Emerald City is not a wizard but merely a man, they feel compelled to make the obvious known." Then, on page 137, he relays the anecdote of a boy from Rumania who was left behind in school because he didn't speak English. Once little Vitale could make himself understood, he explained that he'd already done Algebra back in 4th grade in Rumania (not in itself a sign of giftedness, as that's standard curriculum in Eastern Europe). Delisle writes, "When asked why he hadn't mentioned that he had such advanced math skills, Vitale responded that he didn't want to appear rude and ask for something more challenging." So it would seem that politically incorrect, compelling rudeness is only a symptom of high intelligence in America?

Delisle also decries the research done by Malcolm Gladwell on the 10,000 hours necessary to master something and David Coyle's "The Talent Code," which proposes that effort is more important than genetics. This despite the results of people like Lazslo Polgar, father of Women's World Chess Champion Zsuzsa (Susan) Polgar and her equally high-achieving sisters, who demonstrated that "every child is potentially a genius from the age of three to six," as long as they are educated properly.

In addition, Delisle is against standardized testing, No Child Left Behind and Common Core, but he is absolutely for Honors courses, grade skipping, AP classes, early college entry and specialized exam schools, such as NYC's Stuyvesant High, Bronx Science and others.

Exam schools, by definition, require acing... exams. While all the other options demand that a child show mastery in a given subject before being allowed to move ahead. How is that not Renzulli in a nutshell, rather than a child who complains, "Teachers want (me) to get straight-As rather than engage in a dialog about how (I interpret) literature or an event in history."

Is it really too much to ask of a gifted child that he take a moment out of his very, very busy schedule to demonstrate a token understanding of the subject in which they'd like to be accelerated? Can the presumed gifted child not understand that to get what he wants, he first needs to give those in charge what they want? How is this a skill anyone going into the world possibly afford to be without? Or would teaching it be too much like "talent development?"

Finally, Delisle advocates testing children as early as possible, preferably even before the age four (comparing it to Early Intervention for developmental delays), ignoring empirical research showing that from the ages of 3 to 10, two-thirds of children will see their IQ scores either drop or go up by more than 15 points. Delisle insists that he would rather commit the sin of commission than omission, by offering gifted services to children who might not technically qualify for them. Something NYC, which, every year, has more children testing highly than they have seats in G&T programs, might well consider.

Of course, it does bring up the ultimate contradictory point from a book full of them: If it's better to provide services to those who might not need them than not to provide them to those who do, isn't the obvious solution to just treat all students as if they're gifted and watch what happens?

For more book reviews, see:

NYC gifted teen reviews 'The Gifted Teen Survival Guide'
I discovered that it's okay to do poorly on tests. I am still gifted! I can be unmotivated and yet I'm still gifted! By the end, I had come to the conclusion that there is nothing I can do that would make me un-gifted, so let’s all be gifted together!

Review: DK Books Non-Fiction for Teens and Tweens
I wished there was a lot more detail about everything. They summarized all of human society in one page! In fact, I'd say there was too much summary in general. Everything is simplified and it felt like they were talking down to the reader; patronizing without realizing they were being patronizing. I'm not an idiot. Who doesn't know who Thomas Aquinas is?"

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