Jennifer Crane on how gifted children were imagined as potential leaders, or dangerous future citizens who might use their unique talents to subvert authority.

Jennifer Crane explores how gifted children were imagined as potential peacetime leaders in the Cold War, or as dangerous future citizens who might use their unique talents to subvert authority.
Psychologists, parenting groups, and nation-states had a fascination with the child mind in the decades after World War Two, as Emma Smith’s Wunderblock exhibition explores. In these contexts, the child mind was presented as dynamic, complex, malleable, and potentially dangerous. Psychological interest and intervention centred around children categorised as delinquent, criminal, subnormal, and maladjusted. Gifted children were also significant in these debates. Indeed, children identified as gifted a flexible and contested term were seen as future national and international leaders of science, industry, and politics in Britain and the wider world. At the same time, popular culture also expressed concerns about the ways in which these children may use their unique talents to resist, challenge, and subvert the expertise and authority of families, psychology, education, and nation-states. Given the tools to think, gifted children, potentially, could become powerful Hidden Persuaders.
Who Was the Gifted Child?
Gifted children were frequently defined and redefined as an identifiable population, from the interwar period onwards. The first structured attempts to observe and understand gifted children were made by the American psychologists Lewis Terman and Leta Hollingworth, who conducted longitudinal studies of these childrens wellbeing from the 1920s and 1930s. Yet interest in gifted children increased significantly during the Cold War, as the Space Race and nuclear testing saw nations reassess their scientific, technological, and political capacities. Interest in gifted children began to decline from the 1980s and 1990s, alongside the rise of sociological and educational research arguing that the identification of these children was significantly biased, meaning that gifted children were disproportionately identified in white, affluent families, and as male.
Psychological and national interest in gifted children, then, was a diffuse and global phenomenon, but also one bound by a relatively specific time span, coinciding with the Cold War. During this time, various psychological and policy reports suggested that gifted children may constitute between 0.01 and 6 per cent of the population. Gifted children were conceptualised both as particularly attractive, kind, and charming physical and personality traits perceived to align with their mental ability but also as a pale, sickly, nervous little bookworm, with bulging forehead and big round spectacles. Tests to identify giftedness, likewise, ranged broadly: psychologists would ask children to write essays in response to an artistic work, ask them to draw stick people, and to complete mathematical and logical reasoning tests. Psychological testing and intervention often revealed a dual vision of children as blank slates, able to develop and improve their knowledge, and as innately gifted, or not. The vision of gifted children as a product of nature has remained incredibly powerful throughout this period, and, today, is represented within genetic testing services offered in China and America.
While there was therefore no specific definition of the gifted child, this construct was highly significant in the Cold War period, amidst psychological, national, and educational interest in understanding and harnessing the power of the mind. The interest in giftedness specifically, reflected a fascination with the innocence and potential of children raised at this historical moment, in a peaceful society, with its new opportunities for education and leisure. Within this cultural and economic context, western nation-states hoped that these minds would be a future national and international resource.
International Exchange and Competition
In post-war Britain and America, voluntary groups hoped that gifted children would foster a new era of collaboration and peace. This was somewhat surprising given that identification of the gifted, as Julia Barbara Köhne has demonstrated, had been used to justify and facilitate strategies of exclusion aimed particularly at women and Jews in Germany under National Socialism, just years before. Nonetheless, writing in the more optimistic and liberationist context of the 1960s, educators and campaigners suggested that many of the worlds problems could be solved were the gifted more regularly motivated and inspired to attempt solutions. In this vision and despite the dark and recent history of giftedness gifted children were a potential resource, able to find solutions to the worlds problems. This vision was reiterated across the press in Western Europe and America, which also, echoing eugenicist rhetoric, expressed concern about the potential waste of their talents.
On the one hand, then, psychological and national intervention with gifted children was intended to foster a new Cold War era of collaboration and peace across borders. On the other hand, however, rhetoric around giftedness was tied to dark histories of exclusion: by nation-states looking to justify totalitarian regimes; and also by psychologists, identifying specific types of children as gifted. Indeed, elements of this rhetoric remained in the post-war world as well. Notably, contemporary journal and newspaper reports did not only refer to gifted children as international architects of peace, but also as a national resource; an assertion which continued to tie visions of giftedness to the construction of firm borders and global divides.
A school set up for the children of NATO staff https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_154865.htm
This push to identify gifted children as a national resource was produced in the context of a broader interest in creating healthy and productive future citizens. Michal Shapira has traced how the Second World War was followed by a new psychological interest in cultivating emotionally balanced and mature democratic subjects in an era bedevilled by totalitarianism. The Hidden Persuaders group, meanwhile, have explored how wartime interest in the parental bonds of attachment broken by evacuation, also, fueled interest in how the new British welfare state might raise citizens who would not be seduced by the temptations of either fascism or communism. Within this broad vision of raising democratic citizens, the treatment of gifted children was distinct. Notably, while psychology was to train all citizens to avoid extremism, gifted children, potentially, were to be future pioneers in industry, science, and politics. While most children could through psychoanalytic and psychiatric intervention become good citizens, those who were gifted could become good leaders. Yet, as we shall see, these hopes were also enmeshed with cultural anxieties.
Dangerous Gifts
Gifted children, then, were future leaders, whether nationally or internationally, but their identification and management was fraught with legacies of bias, discrimination, and conflict. Following this, there was also a significant level of concern about their disruptive potential, and their powerful minds. This came to be negotiated by psychologists, families, schools, and in wider culture. Kirsten Gregory, a scholar in English Literature, has argued that Cold War films and novels, produced in Britain and America, offered a dystopic view whereby gifted children were able to follow through on their instincts of cruelty, and to overcome and control older generations. This theme, Gregory argues, reflected the anxieties of the atomic age. Laura Tisdall, likewise, looking at the extraordinary child in post-war British science fiction, finds that these novels explored fears of the threats posed by abnormal childhood, and were influenced by new research in psychology and psychoanalysis.
In the short story The Veldt, for example, published in American magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1950, a family lives in an automated home, which provides virtual reality simulations and completes everyday tasks, such as cooking, or even tying shoelaces. When the parents become concerned about this lax way of life, they call a psychologist. The psychologist suggests that they move to the countryside, and become less reliant on machines. Yet instead, the precocious children lock their parents into a virtual reality room, where they allow them to be eaten by virtual yet nonetheless carnivorous lions. The psychologist returns to this scene, where the children are calmly eating their own meal, alongside the lions. This story made visible contemporary anxieties around the potential of technology, which could make everyday life easier, but also remove and challenge parental attachment. Further, the story also revealed specific concerns about the amoral minds of gifted children. These children were persuasive and charming, and yet also utterly remorseless in using their skills to subvert psychological and parental intervention. Instead, they relied on one another, and on their automated home: dual forces in modern society. Although originally an American publication, this narrative and the anxieties it reflected spread more broadly, and the story was recreated in radio, stage, and film productions, in Britain, Canada, America, and the USSR.
Gifted children were not always represented as being so purposefully malevolent. In the American short story Its A Good Life (1953), by contrast, published in a popular anthology series, a gifted three-year-old called Anthony, with extreme mental powers, was able to separate his birthplace from the rest of the world. His fellow townspeople live in constant fear of his whims and wishes, which can change the weather or natural and constructed environments causing rain to fall or ceilings to collapse. Yet, Anthony is not driven by malice. Rather, he is driven merely by his inherently childish whims, which he cannot control, because of his lack of life experience and maturity. In this story, then, the child mind was fragile and tempestuous, and not well-equipped for distinctly adult skills. Again, illustrating the broader resonances of this concern, this story was later incorporated into popular television show The Twilight Zone, in 1963, and was parodied by TheSimpsons in 1991.
These tropes arise again inThe Gamma People (1956), filmed in Austria by British and American production companies. In this film, an American reporter found himself within a non-identified country behind the Iron Curtain. Here, he found that a series of gifted children were being created, mutated, and controlled by a dictator with impressive scientific capacities, who had mastered a gamma ray. In this vision, again, gifted children were highly dangerous. Yet, as in Its A Good Life, they could not necessarily control their own gifts, and, indeed, could be manipulated and coerced by scientific and national agendas. These cultural representations revealed and potentially magnified broader international social anxieties about the depths of the mind of the gifted child. While they were perceived to have exceptional talents, adult interpreters, from filmmakers to psychologists, were concerned about how these might be used in a changing world order.
Still from The Gamma People (1956)
Hidden Persuaders?
Gifted children were perceived as potential solutions to Cold War tensions, but also as potential architects of further ills. Behind the interest in gifted children lay a range of transnational anxieties about the potential loss of freedom, democracy, and individual agency in the postwar world. Gifted children could potentially act as model leaders and citizens, resisting hidden persuasion towards fascism and communism, mobilising future citizens into democratic global peace, and developing new scientific and technological capacities. They might, however, be Hidden Persuaders themselves: dangerous future citizens whose innate complexities led them to seek power and control over their families, psychology, education, and nation-states. Alternatively, gifted children could also be subject to the whims of psychology and national leaders, identified in discriminatory fashion, and mobilised for disturbing agendas. As Wunderblock explores, much was invested in the mind of the child in the post-war period. In a shifting and complex new world order, children identified as gifted were conceptualised as threats and resources.
Jennifer Crane is a social and cultural historian, and joined New College, Oxford in 2019 as a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow. Her interests include activism and voluntary action, social policy construction, health, expertise, experience and childhood. She is author of Child Protection in England: Expertise, Experience, and Emotion (Palgrave, 2018), and co-ordinates the History and Policy Parenting Network. She received her PhD from the University of Warwick in 2015, where she also worked as a postdoctoral researcher on the Cultural History of the NHS Project.
Further Sources
Listen to the popular post-war American radio programme, Quiz Kids (1940-1956).
Read the Wellcome Collections Six Part story onSearching for Genius.
Banner Image Credit: ‘Child Therapy Session’ The Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ecndsq5a?query=child&page=3&workType=k%2Cq