I spent my entire academic career on the Honors track. Aside from math, which seems to be the one subject my brain processes at the speed of paint drying, I took the Honors and AP courses available in every subject. Yet I never really thought of the implications of separating out the smart kids until I read this editorial by Judy Jones.
The advantage of Honors courses was we could drive dragsters while everyone else puttered about in sedans. We could blow through material faster than the regular classes. When teachers knew everyone in the class could absorb material quickly, they could cover more ground and still fit in time for the students to explore their own interests.
At the same time, I recall being in those classes with a lot of the same people. The “gifted” students stuck together because, let’s admit it, it’s very fun to hang out with people who are at the same geek level you are. It’s great to be able to crack jokes about math or physics and have people laugh so hard that soda rockets out of their nose. Everyone else would just give you a look that asked “so what Star Trek dimension are you from?”
But that environment doesn’t reflect the working world.
Even if you wind up working in academia or research, the perpetual safe havens for brainy people, you will have to collaborate with people who have different priorities. You may very well be managed by one of those folks. For folks who are used to being surrounded by people who only think like them, people who think Pi Day should be a national holiday, this can be a real kick in the nads.
That is why it may have benefited me and the other “gifted” kids to have more exposure to students outside of our circle. Yes, we did interact with folks outside of our circle in elective courses or extracurriculars (you can’t separate people according to “smarts” for gym class, metal shop, or the track team). But subjects like math, science, and even English are closer to simulating the workplace we would ultimately enter.
The class structure Judy Jones proposes, in which students can pursue the Honors or non-Honors tracks in the same class, makes complete sense. It would remove several barriers. It would discourage the “gifted” students from clustering into a nerd circle and encourage them to help students who don’t pick up the material as quickly as they do. Also, combined classes would reduce other factors that prevent some students from pursuing Honors–like not being able to hang out with their friends, or the stupid assumption that Honors makes you less sexy, or the possibility that none of the “gifted” students share your skin color.
I don’t regret taking Honors classes. Those classes made me what I am today–a problem solver who can learn new subjects quickly and with little guidance beyond a book or article. Yet they also shielded me from having to learn the emotional intelligence and collaborative skills that are invaluable for the modern workplace.
Achieving true integration means accepting and exposing yourself to diversity in intelligence just as much as diversity in culture and skin color. Rather than forcing today’s kids to adapt as adults, let’s support Judy Jones proposal and start them off young.