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Tracking the IQ Elite : TERMAN'S KIDS: The Groundbreaking Study of How the Gifted Grow Up, By Joel N. Shurkin (Little, Brown: $22.95; 296 pp.)

May 31, 1992|Frederic Golden | Golden, a former senior writer at Time and assistant managing editor of Discover, is writing a book about some of the geniuses of contemporary physics

But some of Terman's other gifted kids failed to live up to their promise. One particularly troubled boy found in a San Francisco orphanage was dead by age 18, having swallowed cyanide in a Greenwich Village bookstore after being rejected by a girl. Another Termite graduated from Stanford at age 17 and showed great promise as writer, but ended up a landlady. The saddest profile is of five siblings, the two sons and three daughters of a Japanese father and American mother, the study's largest single-family group. All tested as exceptional, yet they were dogged by racism. After reading a newspaper story about the five young whizzes, a former U.S. Senator complained to Stanford about the inclusion of a "mongrel" brood. During World War II, the four survivors--one girl had died of tuberculosis--narrowly escaped internment.

Shurkin's sketches are interesting but uneven--in part, I suspect, because the subjects weren't equally communicative. Also, their lives don't always seem very relevant to the issue of intelligence. In any case, they're overshadowed by Terman's own story, which Shurkin tells very well. Born on an Indiana farm, one of 10 children, he was a sickly child, afflicted with TB. He persevered through college and graduate school and did brief, uninspired stints as a school principal in San Bernardino and professor of pedagogy at Los Angeles Normal School (UCLA's ancestor) before becoming a nationally known educational figure.

His private life, however, was less than exemplary. He ignored his wife and daughter (who easily made the IQ cut, but wasn't included in the study) and had a succession of affairs with his female graduate students. He also meddled egregiously in the lives of his subjects, influencing their educational and career choices and inadvertently prejudicing the study. He was especially involved in the education of his gifted son, Fred, who became Stanford's dean of engineering and provost and inspired the start-up of Silicon Valley's first high-tech companies.

Still, for all his shortcomings, Terman left behind an extraordinary legacy. The Termites not only met his great expectations--earning bigger salaries, accumulating more professional and academic laurels, including more career women and producing children with higher IQs than control groups--but also upset cliches about the gifted: for example, that they were physically frail, subject to burnout and not well rounded. Intriguingly, his most successful kids came from close and affectionate families, with fathers as well as mothers strongly involved.

"Terman's Kids," while sometimes repetitious, is nonetheless an absorbing tale about a historic study of the intellectually gifted. About the only question left unanswered is whether Terman himself ever took an IQ test. No matter; this pint-sized, red-haired former Indiana farm boy was plainly a genius at what he did.

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