An Interview with Roland S. Persson: The Talent of Being Inconvenient

By Michael Shaughnessy.

Question by Michael Shaughnessy: Dr. Persson, you recently presented a paper at the 18th World Conference on Gifted and Talented Children. What was the exact title of your paper?

Answer by Roland Persson: “The Talent of Being Inconvenient: On the Societal Functions of Giftedness.”

Question: Why are gifted children and adolescents often “inconvenient” in the schools?

Answer: You can be “inconvenient” in any number of ways, of course, but in relation to being academically gifted, it is not always appreciated amongst teachers or other students to be a “know-it-all”: one who usually has all the correct answers. Even though I think this is a universal problem, to some degree it is also one differentiated by culture. In school systems where children are expected to be more passive receivers of knowledge, it is not likely that any child being too independent of mind or action is much appreciated if diverting from expected behavior. In school systems where children are more active and learning is more of a cooperation between teachers and students, tolerance is likely to be greater. But being too extreme would be a problem there as well. Then, of course, there are school systems which do not recognize giftedness at all as a viable reason for an adapted curriculum, such as is the case in the Swedish and Norwegian school systems. In these environments teaching is certainly student-active, but giftedness is a considerable inconvenience because students who want more, know more, and learn quicker than everyone else only become a further reason for teacher stress. Gifted students become inconvenient indeed! In a recent study, I found that 92% of students in the Swedish compulsory school system, with an IQ beyond 131 (n = 287), were everything from ignored to harassed by their teachers, resulting in some students even becoming suicidal.

Question: Why are gifted adults often “inconvenient” in their place of work?

Answer: Interestingly, there is not much research done of this. Apart from my own study, I have only managed to find one other Dutch study. However, there is anecdotal evidence of managers resisting to employ academically gifted individuals because they “tend to be a nuisance.” Kelly Streznewski provides a few horrifying examples in her book Gifted Grown-ups from 1999.

Question: Why and when are gifted individuals likely to be “considered inconvenient or ignored”?

Answer: In many ways this is a complex question, but, for a change, I believe the answer is fairly simple and straight forward. A gifted individual becomes inconvenient either when posing a threat to others’ low self-esteem or when being perceived as a threat to social authority. There is a saying, namely that the pen is mightier than the sword, meaning that truth by written knowledge will prevail. However, in evolutionary terms, this is a somewhat naïve understanding of the matter. Only knowledge that serves dominant power structures would be “mighty.” Sometimes in the world of struggling for dominance, knowledge falls short. Guess who discovers it first? The academically gifted most likely.

History is replete with examples: individuals who see and understand injustices, bring them to light believing this will be a good deed, but, more often than not, find themselves having become “inconvenient.” In short, our genetically imprinted social behavior, which we share with other species, decides whether we are friends or foes of authority. As a rule, perceived “foes” are ignored.

Question: When and why are they likely to be esteemed?

Answer: It follows from what I just said, that strengthening the power positions of others superior to yourself is also very likely to strengthen your own position. To demonstrate this to my students, I pick two well known scientists with opposing views and present students with the following scenario: Imagine that you are one of them. You have built a life-long career on theories and understandings, which have become well accepted and form much of our current knowledge in a certain field. Along comes another researcher who disapproves much of what you have done by valid argumentation and presents much empirical evidence to support given claims. What do you do? Do you fold and acknowledge the new ideas because you are completely convinced they are correct? Do you leave your life’s work behind, taking off from this entirely new platform of theory and knowledge? Or do you do your utmost to refute the new findings and find every way of defending yourself and your current position of influence? Students are usually quick to pick up on this and realize that the more likely scenario is a battle between schools of thought, a battle not so much fought over different ideas as one fought for social dominance. The disapproved scientist is fighting to stay on top and maintain his or her level of power and influence. Hence, “truth and knowledge” become less important, and “dominance” is very likely to become all-important. This has been brilliantly studied and exemplified by Ulrica Segerstråle (2000) of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in her book Defenders of the Truth.

Question: Tell us about the 4 different problems gifted individuals face in the world of work.