In the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, we see the young orphan Beth Harmon discover her talent for competitive chess. During a game in the orphanage basement, Harmon’s chess teacher, the caretaker, tells the nine-year-old, “To tell the truth, child, you are amazing” – in contrast to her youth and naivety of her seemingly inherent gift.
The series ends with Harmon as a young woman who takes part in chess competitions at the highest level. The series executive producer William Horberg has said they are unlikely to do a second series. “Maybe we can just let the audience imagine what’s next,” he said Urban and countryside Magazine.
My research examines the question “What’s next?” for so-called child genuities like Beth Harmon and how the “talented” label affects their lives.
Growing up gifted
Interest in measuring children’s intelligence grew during the 20th century. The first IQ tests were developed in the early 1900sLook for children in need of educational support. Later evaluations used IQ tests, but also hormone levels, sleep patterns, metabolism and blood markers or genetics trying to understand and quantify “intelligence”.
All of these tests assume that we should try to assess intelligence in the first place, and that in children as young as possible – that we need to identify our talented Beth Harmons. But should we really? And what happens to these brilliant children when they grow up?
Historical archives can help answer this question, since we’ve been testing gifted children for so long. In the 1990s in particular, newspapers and volunteer groups became obsessed with tracking and reporting on the lives of these children.
One formerly gifted child told the Daily Mail in 1995 about their experience. In elementary school, the child spent the mornings on the model[ling] Modeling clay like everyone else, ”he said. But in the afternoons he received special lessons in quadratic equations from the headmistress. For children like these, the “gifted” label was useful and enabled special delivery, often informal or by volunteer groups, as well as new peer networks.
While Beth Harmon moves from a child prodigy to chess at the highest level as an adult in The Queen’s Gambit, historically every “typical” path for gifted children is far more secular.
Testimonies in historical newspapers and in the archives of the UK National Association for Gifted Children are full of adults who had this diagnosis as children, used it to access new services, types of education and recreational activities, and then lived normally “lives.”
In 1991 a mother wrote to the National Association to emphasize the importance of this label to her family. She was a highly intelligent child herself, “eager to learn but not what they taught in school”. As a result, she “slipped through the web of education”. She had failed the 11+ exam, left school with few qualifications, and had a career behind her that she found unrewarded.
However, when she noticed that her son was also very capable, she had him tested by an educational psychologist. Declared gifted, the family was able to find a public school where he excelled. The child had come to university and had “a lot of fun”.
In the extreme, the obsession with identifying gifted children has turned into eugenics.
In 1971 Robert Graham founded the Storage location for the choice of germs, informally referred to as the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank”. Graham was a eugenicist who tried to “improve” the human population through breeding. His aim was to provide women with free sperm from “the brightest men”, fearing that developments in medicine would “keep more of the defective population alive than ever before”.
Doron Blake was the second child of the 240 born from the archives. Blake’s mother spoke to several journalists during his childhood who duly reported on his exceptional intellect, math skills, and interest in build complex toys.
When Blake turned 18 in 2001, he started playing Profiles and documentation himself. Instead of trumpeting his accomplishments, Blake used media attention to criticize the idea of the gifted child, arguing that the label distorted the public’s understanding of what human qualities were valuable. Blake pointed out that his IQ didn’t make him “good”:
What I like most about me is not that I’m smart, but that I care about people and try to make other people live better.
Blake argued that the gifted label wasn’t a path to life satisfaction – his IQ didn’t make him happy. These comments were similar to those of other formerly gifted children: One told the Daily Mail in 1981 that “there is more to life than learning” and “being gifted doesn’t make you a person anymore likely to be successful”.
The social worth of intelligence has had dangerous effects. Eugenics had a particularly strong influence in the early 20th century. In a US ruling in 1927, the US Supreme Court enacted laws that allow citizens with intellectual disabilities Facial sterilization.
These ideas continued into the middle of the 20th century: Research has shown These ideas of genius and human worth underlie the charismatic leadership, oppression and mass genocide of Nazi Germany.
As recently as the late 20th century, IQ tests had profoundly discriminatory and harmful effects. In a US case filed in 1971, California courts admitted it was biased against IQ testing black studentsand have them excessively represented in special school classes. This was also the case in Britain.
These stories are disturbingly new. We know that the gifted label has helped many children in the past gain access to new services and lead happier lives. But we also know that intelligence tests are aimed at groups that are already privilegedto disproportionately identify white middle-class boys as gifted. While all children need technical support in education, the impulse to glorify the gifted can best be left in the past.