Home / A Scientist of Excellence — Leta Stetter Hollingworth

A Scientist of Excellence — Leta Stetter Hollingworth

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Several years ago, I attended the National Association for Gifted Children Conference. It was there that I first heard of Leta Hollingworth even though I had been working as an advisor to Pittsburgh's gifted program for some time. I attended an evening session where several well known presenters described Hollingworth's life, her work, her poetry, and her person. I was hooked.

The following day, I attended another session which ignited my determination to make sure that Leta was given credit, if only here in Pittsburgh, as the foremother of the gifted movement. A rather strange thing happened. This session dealt with the problems of gifted women.

The presenter made the point that too few men in important positions know too little and care too little about gifted girls and their plight. To prove her point, towards the end of the session, the presenter asked the women present to stand. There were over one hundred! Then she called for the men to stand up. Two! Just two!

This experience made me determined to learn more about Hollingworth. I began examining some of her original books to find her insights as poignant today as they were years ago. I uncovered another startling fact: our lives coexisted for a brief three-month period toward the Fall of 1939. I was just beginning; Leta was dying of cancer.

Consider the following statements.
• The proper role of women is motherhood.
• An appropriate measure of giftedness is reaching a position of great distinction or superiority.
• Because males vary from the norm to a greater degree than women, men are more intelligent.
• Gifted children need no special provisions to reach their greatest potential.
• Children with high IQs are social misfits.
• Women’s mental and motor abilities are cyclical, intimately connected with their menstrual cycle.

Few people would seriously entertain these attitudes today, so ludicrous are they; yet, during the early decades of the last century, much of the populace would have deemed them true, especially regarding education.

Disproving such attitudes is due to the remarkable work of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, a young Nebraska pioneer of enduring courage, remarkable wit, and unquestionable talent. She challenged accepted beliefs about women, education, and gifted children as well.

Hollingworth was born in the Spring of 1886, in Chadron, Nebraska. "Texas long-horns, Sioux Indians, blizzards, sod-houses, our log house, and the one-room schoolhouse" are all memories of her early life with a pioneer family. Her elementary education in that tiny school she judged as excellent. "We had small classes (twelve pupils, in all), all nature for a laboratory," she wrote, "and individualized instruction” (Hollingworth, 1943).

After graduating from Valentine High School at the age of fifteen, Leta was immediately accepted at the University of Nebraska where she intended to pursue both literature and writing. It was there that she met her future husband.

Having earned a Bachelor of Arts degree by the age of nineteen, Hollingworth remained in Nebraska to teach high school for the next two years. Finally, she joined her husband in New York City. He had now received an assistantship at Columbia University.

If Lewis Terman (Genetic Studies of Genius, 1925-30) can be considered the founding forefather of gifted research, Hollingworth is indeed its educational foremother. On the one hand, Terman’s studies centered around the nature of giftedness; he remained fascinated by determining those characteristics which differentiate the Gifted from the average population. He asserted that innate ability determined giftedness.

On the other hand, since society and the schools seemed to ignore the Gifted, Leta was haunted by a much more practical concern: how to educate children with superior mental faculties. She believed that the extent to which a person can do may depend on inherited equipment, but what a person does do depends more on the environment (Gifted Children, their Nature and Nurture, Hollingworth).

The claim that Leta Hollingworth is the mother of gifted education is entirely justified considering her dazzling list of accomplishments.
1. She conducted over thirty scientifically documented research studies which remain the foundation principles of gifted education, even today.
2. She authored Gifted Children, Their Nature and Nurture, the first major textbook on gifted education.
3. She instituted the first course of study that examined not only the nature of the Gifted, but also their educational needs.
4. In New York City, she founded Speyer School, the first experimental school for gifted children (Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture and Children Above 180 IQ, Hollingworth).
5. Lacking both materials and methods, Leta developed the first curricula for her students, along with appropriate activities and materials. All were generated from student interests rather than a priori guesses of what the Gifted could and should learn.
6. A lot of courses of study for the Gifted are still based on many of her original ideas. Speyer school emphasized creative thinking along with guided independent study. Hollingworth insisted upon teaching of major principles and themes rather than specific factual content. Her students were led to examine biographies of accomplished persons and write about them.
7. Hollingworth was the first researcher to recognize that giftedness can exist with handicapping conditions (Special Talents and Defects, Hollingworth).
8. After training eminent psychologist Carl Rogers, she developed a child-centered, counseling-therapy approach that has remained remarkably current. She completed one of the first texts on adolescent development ("Leta Hollingworth’s Legacy to Counseling and Guidance" in Roeper Review).
9. She was the first person to champion the cause of gifted girls and women.
10. She conducted the first extensive study of children with IQ's above 180 (Children above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, Hollingworth).

Leta Hollingworth was always deeply interested in the social and emotional adjustment of children with giftedness. She conducted intensive scientifically controlled studies to refute many of the prejudices of her era, such as that gifted children were eccentric in some way, strange looking in appearance, or physically weaker than the average child.

Her work ended the age-old myth that giftedness bordered on insanity

It is for us, her beneficiaries, to ensure that this remarkable pioneer woman receives just homage for a life dedicated to timely research. Not only did she give birth to gifted education, but she courageously took the very first steps to ensure equal rights for women. In doing so, she proved that menstruation had nothing to do with intelligence (“Functional Periodicity: An experimental study of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation,” Hollingworth).

Further evidence concluded that while men often appear more highly gifted than women, it is only because they’ve had far more opportunities to learn and excel than their counterparts; the differences in achievement between the sexes cannot be due to special character or innate ability of any kind. 

Leta Hollingworth would surely smile to find that disinterest toward the Gifted, and toward women in general, is fading. To parents and educators alike, I commend to you the memory of this courageous woman.

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