Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 2%: Giftedness and exceptionality

After two decades of wondering, I finally have my answer: I qualify for MENSA, the high IQ society. I took the test in October after years of procrastinating, and I finally got my results yesterday. I scored a 37 on the Wonderlic test, which placed me at the 98th percentile and officially allows me to be considered "gifted". It's not a surprise - after all, I spent my entire career in school in programs for gifted students, but I had never actually had it confirmed until now. My score places my IQ somewhere in the mid-130s, which is at least what I expected; of course, one of the fallacies of the test is that IQ can fluctuate depending on a number of factors (including training for the test), so it is possible that my IQ is slightly different than what I tested at. I recognize the fallacy inherent in measuring IQ (or any other measure of intelligence): it's an arbitrary, limited, culturally-dependent test that measures only certain types of traditionally valued areas of intelligence (verbal-linguistic and logico-mathematical). IQ tests do not account for disabilities, nor do they allow for multiple intelligences. Every discussion of IQ needs to recognize that it is inherently flawed, and not worthwhile as a measurement in and of itself, much like any assessment - and yes, I recognize the irony in an educator making this observation.
I've been trying to figure out why this is significant for me, and why I'm so happy about it, in spite of my recognition of the flaws in measurement and the misconceptions of giftedness. In light of those, I know that my excitement about this "achievement" is irrational, particularly considering how little I have actually had to do to reach it. I suppose that I have continued to train my brain through activities like mindfully watching movies and television that encourage me to think, reading books to push my boundaries, playing board games, and doing word puzzles in Games Magazine, but it's not something that I have been working toward. There is some value in having an external confirmation of what I knew about myself, but it's not as if I am any different than I was before. My circumstances have not changed, my character is no different, and I did not accomplish anything, yet I was strangely heartened for my parents to tell me that they were proud of me. I think that there is some kind of accomplishment there, but that I'm also excited about the new opportunities that may come as a result, particularly the possibility of community. Sure, it's essentially an entirely synthetic (in the truest sense of the word) construction, but I hope that there may be something that I can further in myself as a result of these new connections. I realize that many of my friendships already sharpen me that way, as I do have a remarkable contingent of intellectually advantaged or gifted friends (including an extraordinary number on their way to a PhD), but I think it's actually the idea of connection, rather than exclusion (the stereotypical view of Mensans) that has made me value this new step.
This entire development has made me consider the idea of exceptionality, and the nature of the term "gifted". I began to rethink the use of the term and treatment of "gifted" students when I was in university. When I was on my pre-internship, my co-operating teacher instructed me that students in the "gifted" class were just "modified" in a different way, by which he meant that students who are in classes outside of the neurotypical average need to be treated in the same manner: they need changes to the average to make the material work. At the same time, I took a class on exceptional learners that included studies of all kinds of emotional, intellectual, and social aberrations, including - you guessed it - "gifted" students. The term "gifted" implies some kind of inherent bonus from nature that makes life easier, and we often as a society give an unearned status to those of us who legitimately identify ourselves in that category (unlike many who are above average but not necessarily "gifted"). I think we need to be careful how we use language about gifted students so that it does not reflect unearned (and unnecessary) privilege or entitlement, or preclude a sense of responsibility on the part of the student. On one end of the spectrum, it can become easy for "giftedness" to become part of a child's identity and for that identity to be oriented toward exclusion and superiority, as it did for me when I was younger. On the other end, it happens often that students who are gifted (or even above average) learn to take their abilities for granted and coast through their schooling, while others have to scratch and claw for every point they can get on their grade - all because of the whimsy of a system that favours the kinds of intelligences for which most gifted students are recognized. It's a harsh reality, and one that I wish to be able to help change someday from the inside of the system. In fact, "giftedness" is one of the areas in which I have considered pursuing further studies, particularly in regard to the adaptation and delivery of curriculum.
I was one of those students for whom high school (particularly) was easy. I took every math and science course, easily scoring in the mid to high 90s consistently; I had to be diligent in doing the work well, but it was not challenging for me to complete. But I remember realizing this fact and resolving to use my skills to help others by tutoring them or helping them through; I also remember how odd people thought it was that I would take the time to help others study, but I just thought it made sense. The only courses in high school in which I scored below 90 were English and Social Studies/History, a fact which ironically attracted me to those disciplines; I could do math and science easily, but these other areas presented challenges and hard questions without easy answers, so I gravitated toward them in my university years. Perhaps if I had really wanted to challenge and stretch myself, I would have taken the subject I hated the most - Art - but I was thinking about university, and I needed all of those maths and sciences (or so I reasoned at the time). At any rate, I would say that there were few times even throughout my high school and undergraduate years in which I felt legitimately challenged intellectually or academically - emotionally and socially, yes, but in terms of grasping theory or content, no. And I had to learn not to take it for granted along the way. One moment stands out for me in particular the beginning of Grade 12, when I was awarded for having had the highest grade percentage in my class (of 200) in the previous year. Ironically, I realized that it was not the grade that I valued - in fact, I had not set out with achieving the top grade as a goal - but everything else I was able to do as part of the community: being a part of classes and helping others and running the Christian club and editing the newspaper and doing drama productions and just being me. So I made a conscious decision for that Grade 12 year not to sacrifice other opportunities for my grades, and I was glad I did. I think I ended up third in the class in grades, but I had a great year, and I was rewarded with great opportunities along the way, as well as the major award for males for school spirit and participation at graduation. Now, I could still take it for granted that I would be a top student - my university entrance average was 94% - but I had to work for it and keep things in perspective with all of my other commitments. I knew, even then, that to sequester myself and not challenge myself socially was for me to stagnate intellectually, and that to not engage my community would have been to squander some part of my "giftedness." (By the way, if some of this sounds familiar, it's because I've foreshadowed some of these thoughts and stories in this post from two years ago and this post from four years ago - an echo I realized as I was writing this post.)
So here I am, twenty years later, finally a member of MENSA. I'm irrationally happy about it (considering all of this discussion), but the fact is that I'm still happy. I get to engage in a new way with a new community, and I get to keep firing up those brain cells in a fresh and exciting way as I do it. But there's one more piece of this puzzle that I find interesting, which I discovered when I looked up Mensa's motto: "Mens sana in corpore sano", which translates to "a sound mind in a healthy body". I don't get to ride my brain's coattails through this one - I need to work on the healthy body part too. And so the adventure begins.


  1. Welcome to the club. I'm not sure I ever appreciated the term "gifted", and would easily trade some of my intellect for having to work a little less on my social skills.

  2. I hope you don't mind if I share this, but there's almost never a public venue to talk about this and I have an axe to grind.
    Intelligence for me is such an insipid topic. I almost resent that it's even something we're aware of in our culture. It's funny how these little tests transfer something with this much weight to a person's self-identity and self-image. As you noted, there's a real elation at the idea that you have been deemed to be within the top 2% of people as regards your intellect, irrational though you say it is. I'm not sure why I resent this, but in my experience this does foster serious social differentiation--the bad kind. It's a matter of definition that a high-IQ society is an elite society. How is this going to affect the way that a mensa member treats other people? How does this change the way that a mensa member sees themselves in relation to other people? It's now been made explicit that they are literally superior to other people (Although I could make a long-winded case against the implications of IQ test scores in itself.) Perhaps some people really are endowed with more of this nebulous "intelligence" than other people. What does this mean in and of itself? What significance does this have? What is gained by joining a group of the greatest of the great? I'm sorry to rain on your parade, but if there is this thing called intelligence that someone has more of than most other people, then I think that rightly people should have humility and keep it to themselves. If ever someone is belittled or disrespected or demeaned because they aren't so well endowed as some lucky fellow with a high IQ, it's just so insideous, because there is absolutely nothing else that they can do about it. I just wish we could throw this whole issue under the rug and stick our heads in the sand. I find the whole issue so ugly. Maybe there isn't something necessarily wrong with the existence of mensa, or self-identifying oneself as being "gifted". But it can go so wrong and needs to be taken with humility. I'll get off of my soapbox now.



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