[FoRK] additional New Yorker discussion of JHU's CTY camps

Rohit Khare rohit at ics.uci.edu
Mon Aug 23 12:23:23 PDT 2004

The main article (not online) was quite good. Can't say what to make of 
the fact they *still* play American Pie every weekend :-) I found that 
song fairly depressing...


Kid Geniuses
Burkhard Bilger and The New Yorker’s Daniel Cappello discuss the 
social, educational, and recreational problems facing the very smartest 
Posted 2004-07-19

This week in the magazine, in “Nerd Camp,” Burkhard Bilger writes about 
a camp for gifted teen-agers. Here Bilger and The New Yorker’s Daniel 
Cappello discuss the social, educational, and recreational problems 
facing the very smartest students.

DANIEL CAPPELLO: Your article is about the Center for Talented Youth, a 
summer program for gifted children—“nerd camp,” as many participants 
called it—at Johns Hopkins University. What is nerd camp?

BURKHARD BILGER: Nerd camp is a lot like any other summer camp, only 
the kids spend most of their time studying instead of playing, and they 
have to be really, really smart to get in. There are nerd camps all 
over the country these days—about fifteen thousand students attend them 
every year, and thousands more attend day programs—in part because so 
many schools have dismantled their gifted programs. Only about two 
cents of every hundred dollars spent by the federal government is 
earmarked for the gifted, so a lot of these kids have been stranded. 
Most of them start the regular school year already knowing nearly half 
of the things they’re going to be taught. So these camps are places 
where they can stretch their legs, intellectually—which is a pretty 
astonishing thing to see. It’s not unusual for a student at one of 
these camps to cover a year of algebra in two weeks.

The program at Johns Hopkins is kind of the granddaddy of them all. It 
was founded in 1972 by the psychologist Julian Stanley—a 
psychometrician of the old school who’d grown frustrated by “bare 
bones” statistical analysis, as he put it. When a couple of local 
parents complained that their children were too bright for their 
schools, Stanley verified the kids’ abilities by giving them the 
S.A.T., then got them admitted to Johns Hopkins. Within a few years, he 
had enough students to fill an entire course, which then grew into a 
summer program. These days, about a quarter of a million students are 
tested every year to see if they qualify for a gifted camp. To get in, 
they have to score as well, at the age of thirteen or younger, as the 
average high-school senior.

Is it a good idea to separate out gifted children, especially at a 
young age?

This is one of the oldest, most bitter debates in education. The most 
influential critique of “tracking,” as it’s usually called, was written 
by Jeannie Oakes, a professor of urban schooling at the University of 
California at Los Angeles, in her 1985 book, “Keeping Track.” Oakes 
interviewed students and teachers at twenty-five junior highs and high 
schools across the country, then ran a statistical study of their 
performance. Students in the gifted programs did no better than they 
did in regular classrooms, she found, and the kids in the other tracks 
did much worse. Those in the lowest tracks were saddled with the 
poorest teachers, were taught largely by rote, and were demoralized by 
their inferior status. In other words, if they failed, it wasn’t a 
matter of lower intelligence; it was a matter of expectations.

Or maybe not. Educational studies are so fraught with variables—from 
student to student, teacher to teacher, and school to school—that a 
statistical case can be made to confirm almost any thesis, it sometimes 
seems. James Kulik, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, 
pooled together the results of nearly a hundred studies of tracking 
programs in the United States, and found almost the opposite of what 
Oakes found: on average, bright students did significantly better in 
schools with gifted programs—they gained several months a year on those 
in schools without gifted programs. As for low-achieving students, they 
did no worse when grouped together, and their self-esteem, if anything, 
seemed to rise: once they competed on a level playing field, they 
tasted success for the first time.

The debate over tracking is probably irreconcilable. Oakes says that 
Kulik’s work “isn’t very rigorous.” Kulik writes that Oakes’s work is 
“higher in rhetorical than scientific value.” Yet both sides agree that 
the effort to “detrack” schools has largely failed. In 1998, 
researchers surveyed two hundred and fifty schools that had been 
nominated as “the most restructured” in the country. Only a fraction 
had truly eliminated tracking, they found, and those which had 
sometimes seemed to suffer for it academically. Oakes attributes this 
failure to racial politics and fear of change: “Frankly, whiter and 
wealthier families felt threatened that this would jeopardize their 
kids’ opportunities.” Kulik blames the reforms themselves: “Detracking 
brings no guarantee of high-quality instruction for everyone, but may 
instead lead all to a common level of educational mediocrity.”

What about advancing or skipping grades?

Most schools practice grade acceleration in a fairly ham-fisted way. If 
a kid is bored in his class, and his parents complain enough, he might 
be allowed to move up a year. The problem is, if he’s as bright as many 
of the kids at the Johns Hopkins camp, he’ll soon be ready to move past 
those older kids as well. And, of course, being the smallest, brightest 
kid in a class has never been a recipe for popularity. When I talked to 
Camilla Benbow, the dean of education and human development at 
Vanderbilt University, she told me that schools simply use the wrong 
criterion—age—to divide students up. Rather than lumping all the 
seven-year-olds in one group and all the eight-year-olds in another, 
they should group all students by ability—regardless of their age. 
“When they’re ready to take Algebra I, let them take Algebra I,” she 
told me. “We don’t buy shoes or piano books for children based on how 
old they are. Why is reading or math any different?”

Since the nineteen-fifties, a number of schools have experimented with 
“cross-age grouping.” The most popular approach is to pool together 
fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, divide them up by reading ability, 
then teach the groups at anywhere from the second-grade to the 
ninth-grade level. The results have been almost uniformly positive (a 
remarkable thing in the world of school reform), but cross-age grouping 
has never quite caught on. Only a tiny fraction of schools do it, and 
their numbers haven’t grown much in fifty years. Benbow blames this on 
bureaucratic inertia, but age as an organizing principle has pretty 
deep psychological roots—any preschooler can tell you precisely how old 
she is, down to the month. Still, when Benbow interviewed the graduates 
of the Johns Hopkins camp, nearly all of them were glad that they’d 
gone to gifted programs, and some wished that their studies had 
accelerated even faster.

At the nerd camps you visited, what was the social life like? How do 
the kids deal with normal adolescent rites of passage?

I went to camps at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt, and both places were 
pretty lively. The kids went to movies and excursions and weekly 
dances, and the dorms were predictably raucous. Some psychologists have 
suggested that students who are intellectually gifted also tend to 
mature faster than average, but I didn’t see much evidence of that. 
They had the same boy-girl problems, the same hormonal jitters. But 
there was a real giddiness in the campers—a sense of relief at finally 
getting to hang out with kids who were like them.

Did you notice different kinds of parents? Like stage mothers and 
fathers, are there nerd parents who push their children too hard to 

Both the Johns Hopkins and the Vanderbilt programs are sleepaway camps, 
so there aren’t that many parents around. Judging from my interviews 
with the kids, and with educators who work with the gifted, the parents 
of these kids follow the usual random distribution. Some of them are 
pushy, some indifferent, some wonderfully supportive. The Asian kids I 
spoke to seemed to agree that their parents were more focussed on 
education than most, but, again, that seems to be true across the 
board, not just with the gifted.

I’m sure that some kids go to nerd camp just to please their parents. 
And for them the experience must be mind-numbingly boring: six hours a 
day in a classroom, in the glory days of summer, trying to cram a 
semester’s worth of work into two weeks. But I didn’t see many bored 
kids at Vanderbilt or Johns Hopkins. Most of them have what Ellen 
Winner, a psychologist at Boston College, calls a “rage to master.” 
They were just naturally curious about the world and had an inner 
compulsion to use their minds. It’s almost impossible to force that 
kind of focus and diligence on a kid—just try getting the average 
ten-year-old to practice piano for half an hour a day. But these kids 
did it, ironically, almost without thinking.

What about “intelligence”—or giftedness—more broadly? You write about 
the different tests used to gauge intelligence, many of which have been 
criticized as socially or racially slanted. How do we measure 
intelligence today?

Since the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test was developed, in 1916, intelligence 
tests have proliferated. You can now test a kid’s math ability, verbal 
ability, visuospatial intelligence, and half a dozen other abilities. 
The most popular tests, like the S.A.T. and the A.C.T., have been 
rejiggered so as to be less culturally or racially biased. But, to 
critics of the tests, the whole notion of testing intelligence—of 
pinning down a trait so complex and subjective—is wrongheaded. 
Intelligence, they say, is largely a social construct: there are many 
different ways to be intelligent, and we arbitrarily focus on one or 

  Still, to me, there’s something in that claim that doesn’t quite ring 
true, that plays better in PTA meetings than among actual students. As 
much as we like to believe that everyone is created equal, our children 
remind us daily that they aren’t. It’s not just that Johnny is no 
Einstein and never can be, but that he can’t seem to learn his 
multiplication tables, while Jane memorized them between breakfast and 
lunch. If rigid tracking sounds a lot like segregation—separate and 
therefore inherently unequal—throwing these brilliant kids into regular 
classrooms sounds dangerously close to the old saying “There is nothing 
so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal people.”

What about genius? How do we separate high intelligence from real 
genius, and how rare is it?

I.Q. tests used to try to define genius as the upper range of 
intelligence. But really it’s a whole different ball of wax. David 
Henry Feldman, a developmental psychologist at Tufts, who has studied 
and written about a number of child prodigies, calls it “an amazing 
concatenation of nature and culture—like a ballet that is perfectly 
synchronized.” If Einstein had been born a century earlier, Feldman 
says, he might never have formulated the theory of relativity—the 
mathematics and cosmology just weren’t sophisticated enough yet. On the 
other hand, if a mathematical genius like Ramanujan had been born fifty 
years earlier—or in a different country—he might have had a much 
greater impact on his field. Ramanujan grew up in India, far from the 
centers of mathematical thought, without a great deal of formal 
mathematical training. So a number of the mathematical conundrums that 
he solved had already been solved by other mathematicians.

It’s hard to know exactly what qualities are the most predictive of 
genius. Intelligence is important, obviously, but it’s not nearly 
enough. In the nineteen-twenties, the Stanford psychologist Lewis 
Terman tried to find the most gifted kids in California by having 
teachers nominate candidates and then giving them the Stanford-Binet 
I.Q. test, which Terman had helped develop. He ended up with more than 
fifteen hundred exceptionally bright kids—people called them the 
“Termites”—and spent the rest of his life tracking their careers. Not 
one of them won a Nobel Prize. Ironically, though, two students who 
hadn’t made the cut—the physicists William Shockley and Luis 
Alvarez—did win it. So it’s hard to say if any of the prodigies at nerd 
camp will turn out to be the next Einstein. But, judging from the 
performance of other camp alumni, who have been tracked for more than 
twenty years, they’re very likely to get advanced degrees and to excel 
in their fields.

One of the students you describe in your article talks about how hard 
it is being smart, because “anti-intellectualism is really popular in 
America.” Is it?

Sure. The intelligence of a Bill Clinton is as much of a liability, 
politically, as an asset, while the poor grades of a George Bush don’t 
seem to matter much to most voters. That wouldn’t be the case in 
Europe. On the other hand, America has the greatest collection of 
research universities in the world, and it still tends to win a 
disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes (though many of the winners are 
foreign-born). Intellectual achievement is well rewarded in the 
workplace, but it’s often a strike against you in schools or in social 

What’s the importance of intelligence, in the long run? Does it 
correlate with success?

It depends on your definition of success. When Camilla Benbow and her 
husband, David Lubinski, tracked the top scorers from the gifted camps, 
they found that the very cream of the cream tended to become 
physicists, those in the middle gravitated toward medicine, and those 
at the bottom became lawyers and businessmen. If they had looked at 
their salaries, though, I suspect that the order would have been 
reversed: the businessmen and lawyers would have come out on top, the 
physicists on the bottom. Intelligence is a wonderful asset for any 
career, but the life of the mind has never been all that well paid. 

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