This project studies how parents, educators, and experts mobilized ideas about race and intelligence in the postwar era to separate students on the basis of "ability," re-inscribing racial segregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Using previously unexplored archives, I argue that despite the breadth of the definition of giftedness—which emphasized exceptional ability in a variety of subjects including music, athletics, and leadership—giftedness ultimately came to be defined by differences in degrees of academic ability rather than kinds of ability. Experts chose to measure giftedness through an IQ exam. Giftedness appealed to a wide variety of actors because of the flexibility of the term; it could be used to promote the expansion of educational opportunities to disadvantaged groups including the working class, women, and minorities. But at the same time, giftedness could also be used to maintain the status quo by legitimizing the existing social order as natural and fair, based on the results of unbiased tests. The Cold War initially enabled the implementation of policies to group gifted students in separate classrooms and schools amidst concerns about whether "segregation" of ability was undemocratic. Instead, experts found that segregation was indeed fair and democratic because it promoted equality of opportunity as opposed to equality. Experts and educators argued this practice was more likely to promote academic achievement for gifted students over other alternatives. Thus, I make an interdisciplinary intervention in the literature on academic tracking in the social sciences and education policy by exploring how and why this practice became widespread.
Separate and Unequal: Giftedness in the United States 1900 – 2000
Mar 5, 2020