Book review: The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School tells the story of four families in the fictional town of Crystal, Colorado and the “delicate ecology of privilege” (p. 92) within which they, as well as their children’s educational futures, become embroiled. When Crystal Academy, a new, and decidedly public, “gifted school” is set to open in their community, debates surrounding giftedness, privilege, achievement, and success intersect with issues of race, class, gender, and cultural background as each family sets out to enrol their children.

This book was captivating and thought-provoking from the very beginning. While it took some time to catch on to the names of each family member and their respective relationships to one another (I sketched out a genealogical diagram of sorts to help me with this–it worked wonders), the narrative was unique and compelling the whole way through. What made it so successful to me was Holsinger’s seemingly effortless ability to intertwine two contentious subject matters. Indeed, the book explicitly engages with the issue of public vs. private education, concepts of giftedness in childhood, special needs, and socioeconomic access to education while simultaneously navigating the much deeper psychological journeys of Crystal’s families and the disturbingly misplaced and misguided expectations the parents place on their children.

Crystal Academy, a free and public institution, is a beacon of hope designed to distinguish itself from the typical elite American private schools in which “wealth and entitlement [are] disguised as ability and smarts” (p. 197). Students from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply, as admission is ultimately based on the results of a series of rigorous standardized tests. The irony of this process is revealed in the great lengths this group of wealthy parents are willing to go in order to ensure their children’s success.

But is this new, free public school not just a promise of elitism and giftedness without the price tag? What is there left to lust after when you already have all the money and access in the world? Put another way, is Crystal Academy a harbinger of new beginnings and bright ideas, or a cesspool of competing egos, each wounded by the perceived missed opportunities and unmet expectations of their own childhoods?

To me, it is both, and therein lies the genius of The Gifted School–a novel that brilliantly weaves together a meditation on the nature and role of schools and education in our societies and a critique of the widespread, vitriolic consequences of ruthless ambition in the pursuit of pride, success, and opportunity.

Rating: 5/5 ★

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