A Review of Terman’s Kids by Joel Shurkin
Jonathan A. Plucker
West Point Elementary School
West Point, NY
While the presentation of the book review has occasionally been accomplished in a creative manner (Feldhusen, 1973; Hohn, 1975), its purpose has remained the same: to help the potential reader decide whether to read and possibly purchase the book. But after the decision has been made to read the book, the review has lost its usefulness. Indeed, suggestions for how to go about reading the book are few and far between.
Granted, this situation is not terribly disturbing when the book is Green Eggs and Ham. Problems arise, however, when an attempt is made to read a book with numerous, detailed themes, such as Shurkin’s Terman’s Kids, which deals with the longitudinal study through which Lewis Terman, the late Stanford psychologist, followed the lives of more than 1,500 talented children. The study began in 1922, and the lives of the surviving “Termites,” as his subjects refer to themselves, are still being tracked by Terman’s successors. Terman’s legacy, through the publication of revisionist biographies (e.g., Seagoe, 1976), has grown to partially overshadow the studies, which constitute more than 7 volumes and numerous articles (as well as many unpublished studies and findings). How can a review assist the reader in analyzing one of the most complex individuals and series of studies in the history of the investigation of human behavior?
A possible method for increasing the utility of the review could be the inclusion of a set of questions to serve as guides to readers as they make their way through the book. For example, guiding questions for Terman’s Kids include:
- In what ways did Terman’s “conservative” definition of giftedness (above 140 IQ) affect the study? Would the results have been different if he had used a more flexible definition?
- How is Terman’s personality manifested in the study?
- Why have some of the studies’ findings been criticized and discarded, while others have been accepted almost unconditionally?
- What principles and concepts in education and psychology are based upon Terman’s work? Do the studies give sufficient evidence to justify the formation of these principles and concepts?
And, most importantly:
- Considering the errors, biases, and controversy surrounding Terman and his longitudinal study, which of his contributions helped him to attain such an important influence in psychology and education?
Without the help of these questions, the reader could resort to using the comments on the dust jacket or cover of the book to help create a frame of reference through which to read the book (Reading a book by its cover as opposed to judging a book by its cover). A good cover will describe the targeted audience, as well as some major questions that can be answered after reading the book. In fact, after reading Terman’s Kids, I found that my responses to the book, both positive and negative, were represented by the information on the cover.
Shurkin has attempted to write the definitive book on Terman and his work, and this is both the book’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness. In a positive light, Shurkin devoured an imposing task: the analysis of the voluminous data collected by Terman and his staff, some of which (e.g., studies of homosexuality) are rather obscure. Many of Terman’s pre-1922 studies are analyzed, as are his research projects which ran concurrent to the longitudinal study.
With respect to the audience to which the book is targeted, however, Shurkin is much less successful. The back cover states that Terman’s “insights into the nature-verus-nurture conundrum will fascinate parents, scholars, and anyone who works professionally with children” (Shurkin, 1992). But by aiming the work at several targets (i.e., audiences, with each looking to gain something different from the Terman investigations), Shurkin fails to hit any “bull’s-eyes.” The mini-biographies of Termites clustered between every few chapters will appeal to every reader, especially those narratives in which the true identity of the Termite is revealed. These intermittent sections are very readable, which contrasts them with many of the actual chapters of the book. Because of the mass of data which is reported, these sections can become rather dry and lacking in implications, which will provide parents with little motivation to read further. In addition, scholars will be frustrated by the inconsistent analyses of the studies. For example, Shurkin criticizes Terman repeatedly for not comparing his research to other longitudinal studies, yet he also questions, on methodological grounds, the few instances in which Terman did make comparisons. Both criticisms hold some validity, but these sections are not concisely written, creating an occasional appearance of hypocrisy. Throughout the statistical analyses, Shurkin frequently left me with the feeling that he stopped too soon, without exploring the implications thoroughly enough. The book is written too technically to be a meaningful survey of Terman’s life and work; it lacks the depth needed by scholars and the practical implications desired by parents and educators.
Shurkin correctly points out many of Terman’s weaknesses, many of which have been glossed over in other biographical works (Seagoe, 1976); for example, he was not a model of moral propriety, and he frequently involved himself in the lives of his subjects, writing letters of recommendation, giving advice to parents, and counseling the “Termites.” But in Shurkin’s desire to avoid the appearance of favoritism (he is a science writer at Stanford), he may have unnecessarily prevented himself from investigating the positive aspects of Terman and his personality. After all, Terman was arguably one of the most influential psychologists during the first half of this century, with a presence that is still felt in numerous disciplines, especially education and psychology.
While I feel that this book has some glaring weaknesses, I still give it a guarded recommendation for both scholars and educators as a reference for further investigation into Terman’s life and work. For example, Shurkin’s recurring criticism of the role of Terman’s influence in the lives of his subjects is pertinent from a research point of view. However, from a more practical perspective it caused me to wonder whether the absence of this influence would have had an appreciably negative effect on the level of the Termites’ success; if so, this suggests that the roles of both personal and career counseling have a positive effect on the lives of high potential youth.
Definitive books on a subject should provide a comprehensive background, while piquing the reader’s interest and creating a desire to further investigate the details and complexities of the topic. Terman’s Kids, however, tends to create more questions about the basic aspects of the topic than it is able to answer. The book is still useful as a guide, however, because Shurkin has done the literature a service by calling attention to the more obscure aspects of the Terman studies, one of the great research treasures of psychology and education. We can only wish that he had chosen one target, rather than three.