Human Rights: The Mission of Giftedness

Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D.
One hundred years ago, June 4, 1920, women in America won the right to vote. Few remember the role our Foremother of gifted education and psychology, Dr. Leta Stetter Hollingworth, played in that victory. Leta was called the “scientific bulwark” of the suffragette movement. An ardent, unapologetic feminist, Leta challenged the predominant scientists in her era who asserted that women were intellectually inferior to men. If they weren’t inferior, why did so few of them attain eminence? Charles Darwin proposed that males were among the most and least capable because they were more variable than females, whereas females were all pretty much alike. His variability hypothesis became the theoretical basis for the rhetoric that it was a waste of money to send women to college, and it was sheer madness to give them the right to vote.
In her 20s, in 1913, Leta launched her campaign to dismantle Darwin’s variability hypothesis. Her original research demonstrated that female infants were as variable as male infants and that a vast number of intellectually disabled females were not recognized because they were used as slave labor outside institutions. In 1916, when IQ tests became available, Leta showed that there were as many gifted girls as boys, with the highest IQ scores often being earned by girls. She denounced eminence as the prime evidence of giftedness, as it is a function of opportunity rather than ability. In the first textbook on giftedness, she wrote “…nearly all of the great men have been born in comfortable homes, of parents in superior circumstances” (Hollingworth, 1926, p. 11). Leta’s research, courage and determination won women the right to vote in our country. It is ironic that 100 years later, we are still fighting for the right to vote safely from our homes.
In 1922 and 1936, Leta set up programs for gifted students in New York City demanding, despite a great deal of opposition, that they accurately represent the diverse racial and ethnic distribution of the city. She created the first multicultural classes for the gifted. Her pioneering classes incorporated “emotional education”: basic respect for humanity, awareness of our global interdependence, and commitment to service. Nearly 70 years later, when these students were asked what constitutes success in life, they responded: societal connection, awareness, compassion for others. These are values for today’s world.
From its inception, the person-centered study of giftedness has been built on the mission of protecting human rights. While some still profess that the purpose of gifted education is to foster eminence, there is a more profound need for identifying and supporting the gifted. Throughout history, it has been the gifted who have stood up against injustice and spoken for those who could not defend themselves. Instead of personal glory, the goal of gifted education should be respect for humanity; otherwise, society becomes a breeding ground for bigotry. Intelligence is a threat to self-serving authority. Intelligence is risky. It needs protection. My passion, like Leta Hollingworth’s, is to develop the potential of every gifted child to become a caring human being devoted to the greater good.