‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air’
In Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” those flowers are a metaphor for talents and gifts. I have always loved both the poem and those lines, but I wonder whether they accurately describe what is more likely to happen to talented youth today? What happens to talent that is not nurtured?
I remember the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan—the gifted son of hardscrabble Irish immigrants–telling me that ‘cream rises to the top,’ which was his own experience. My experience as a teacher in a federal penitentiary suggests otherwise. More importantly, so does hard data from solid research.
Let’s put one important fact on the table to start: Talent is randomly distributed. It is not a function of social class, race, income or even education. For more information on this, look at “The Achievement Trap” (PDF), a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. It notes that when they enter elementary school, high-achieving, lower-income students mirror America both demographically and geographically. They exist proportionately to the overall first grade population among males and females and within urban, suburban, and rural communities and are similar to the first grade population in terms of race and ethnicity (African-American, Hispanic, white, and Asian).