Why Aren't More People of Color Labeled 'Gifted'? Unlocking the Genius in All of Us

03/03/2015 11:47 am ET | Updated May 03, 2015

They say genius is a solitary endeavor. That could be more the exception than the rule.

We think of inventor Thomas Edison, alone in his laboratory, discovering the light bulb; Mozart composing in isolation; or Albert Einstein developing the theory of relativity in a vacuum. Yet each had support. Edison had a staff that included African-American scientist Lewis Howard Latimer. Mozart's father nurtured his musical talent from the time Mozart was a boy, serving as his mentor. And Einstein's theory may have been his own, but he bounced ideas off colleagues -- first wife Mileva Maric, who had an advanced degree in medicine, was one -- and shared patents with others.

It turns out that genius may be a social pursuit. A Columbia University neuroscientist and three MacArthur Foundation Genius awardees recently told MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry that most discovery emerges through collective action -- a group effort. Creative processing occurs in the associative cortex region of the brain, above the ears -- more or less where the hippocampus resides to direct the brain's traffic between language and thought. When people collaborate, evaluate and synthesize over extended periods, discovery can emerge. The intellect of the team trumps the individual's capacity.

Do we belittle our own genius when we borrow from those who preceded us? Given the relationship between collaboration and genius, and the examples of Mozart, Edison, Einstein and many others, the answer is no. Yet we have been far too hesitant to acknowledge the gifts of Black and brown people and those living in poverty -- to the point where all too many believe the nonsense told to them. All too often the nation's education systems fail to give them the tools -- that collaboration and pieces of genius -- they can use to build extraordinary futures.

The brain's capacity is staggering. Each person's brain has anywhere from 86 billion to 100 billion neurons, with an astounding 100 trillion possible neural connections that can be made in a lifetime -- more connections, perhaps, than stars in our universe. That is as true for the brain of a person of color as it is for a white person, for those living in poverty as those dripping in wealth.

So why are we not producing more people who are considered "gifted," beyond the so-called "talented tenth" of Black Americans we are told exist, or the 15 percent of American children identified for "gifted and talented" school programs not because of anything these children do but because of their parents' activism?

The answer lies in how we educate and prepare our students to fit into pernicious categories ("disabled," "average," "slow," "gifted," "disturbed").

Dr. P. David Pearson, a renowned literacy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote me the following:

The cruelest hoax of America's schools is not just unequal access to the tools (linguistic, cognitive, and dispositional) of academic and economic advancement. [It is] unequal access in the presence of a rhetoric of equal access. For many, indeed most, marginalized students, we make promises we don't keep....

In "The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time" (2002), Pulitzer Prize and Medal of Freedom winner Will Durant speaks to the power of the collaborative nature of creativity and "synthesis," defined as the blending of ideas, concepts and thoughts toward a new product or system:

[Didn't] the philosopher Santayana [see] ... that truth, in its outlines is as old as Aristotle, and that all we need do today is to inform and vary the design with our transient needs. Did not Spinoza, profoundest of modern thinkers, take the essentials of his thought from Bruno, Maimonides and Descartes? Did not Ramus defend, as his thesis for the doctorate, the modest proposition that everything in Aristotle is false except that which he pilfered from Plato? And did not Plato, like Shakespeare, borrow lavishly from every store, making these stolen goods his own by transforming them with beauty?

Durant goes on to write that Voltaire "lighted his candle at every man's torch ... and he made them radiant; things came to him obscure, and he cleansed and scored them with clarity; things came to him in useless scholastic dress, and he clothed them in such language that the whole world could understand and profit from them."

Learning, discovery, creativity and innovation require a synthesis of knowledge and wisdom, gleaned from the irresistible artistry of many. By this standard, one of America's great geniuses arguably was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His courage, perseverance and words of genius did not occur in isolation. These talents didn't languish either. Dr. King did not march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma alone; he lifted others up with his words, and the marchers followed.

"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Dr. King is associated with those words. Yet upon further research, one learns that the phrase sprang from the writings of Theodore Parker, a 19th-century Unitarian abolitionist preacher, according to The Moral Arc, a new book by Michael Shermer. The original:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Dr. King "borrowed" from Parker, genius building on genius -- and because of it we are all better off today.

Imagine what would happen if we treated all students, from the earliest years through their post-secondary studies, as if there were geniuses inside, simply waiting for recognition.

Students (young and older) respond to instruction in the way that is expected of them. If taught as if they are slow, students will conform to that perception, even if they have been relegated to an inappropriate response pattern and group or academic track. All too often these groupings are rooted in scores on reading and math tests we believe can "predict" a child's ability to learn and perform and, later in college, used (despite questionable construct validity and reliability) to sort those who will make it from those who may not. Stereotypical myths are cemented in minds and become universally held beliefs.

It is time to break this deficit cycle and recognize each student for the strengths or "gifts" he or she brings to the world. By developing a national mindset of high expectations for each child, and through sustained applications of student-centered and gifted education pedagogies, we may unlock the "genius" in an increasing number of Americans.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets @ECooper4556.