Interview with Peter Csermely, president of ECHA and the Hungarian Talent Support Council

Jasna Kontler Salamon
The 2012 December 6th issue of Delo, a major daily newspaper in Slovenia, published an interview with Peter Csermely, president of ECHA and the Hungarian Talent Support Council. The author of the interview, Jasna Kontler Salamon, permitted to publish the full text in English on the web. Printed version (pdf)

1. What is your personal experience with the issue of being gifted? Who was the first to identify your giftedness and how this recognition influenced your further schooling? Did you have had any special provision for gifted students in those times in your country?

I learned to read much before school age. However, I was rather unskilled for writing and therefore used a typewriter to express myself. I got a permission to start school a year before than usual (age 5 instead of age 6), where writing lessons became my constant horror. I recognized only later that I was left-handed, and was forced to write by my “better hand”, the right hand. When I turned 9 my parents took me out of the local school, and inscribed me to one of the best schools of my country. It did not take much time that I got rather bored there as well. We did not have special enrichment options at the time in Hungary, since talent support was considered to be anti-socialist in the former regime for a long time. I organized a rather successful lottery in the school just to entertain myself, until I told this to my parents, who warned me that it is legally forbidden and I may find myself in prison if I will continue my enterprise. Later we were taught to quantum mechanics in the age of 13, which was the first involvement I truly enjoyed. I got my first research experience in the age of 16, which led me to a lifetime devotion of both research and opening such experiences to other young people.

2. What is, in your experience, the most crucial factor to influence the attitude towards gifted in individual country; it is perhaps the level of development (GDP), or it is more the society value system or tradition in the field?

I think the richer you become, the less you care about your talent. Talent support is flourishing in countries, where it has traditions, and where people seek a better future. A friend of mine told me, that support of knowledge has a high value in Hungary due to the many sudden bad turns in Hungarian history. People realized when lost wars came one after the other, that it is the only treasure what you may really keep in life, what you have in your skills and mind.
Peter Csermely

3. What the prevailing attitude of Hungary is towards gifted today? How does it operate? (How do you evaluate its efficacy?)

Hungary is getting close to a talent friendly society. Let me tell two examples to show this. The first is about politics. Regretfully, Hungary is not a country of cooperation. While in UK schools half of the school tasks is about cooperation and the other half is about competition, in Slovenian schools the most of the tasks is about cooperation, in Hungarian schools the most tasks are about competition between students. This competitive character is highly developed in politics, where opposing parties find practically no topics to agree. The support of talented people is one of the exceptions. My other example is participation in talent support actions and tax donations. Talent support initiatives grew to a nationwide movement involving now more than 200,000 people. Last year 270 thousand people gave tax-donations to support talents totalling in 5 million EUR.

4. Your country obviously works seriously in this area. How difficult it was to convince the government to undertake these actions? Do you have also a long-term national strategy in this area? What do you believe is the secret of the “success”?

We had 15 years for the growth of non-governmental talent support initiatives. These involved all ages from nursery to university and all areas of talent including science, arts, crafts (manual skills) and sports. This was the latent, lag-phase of our development, when nothing visible happened. 16 of the most important NGO-s established an umbrella organization in 2006, called as Hungarian Talent Support Council. This council was recognized by the government and the Parliament had a resolution on a 20-year long Talent Support Program in 2008. The Parliament established a National Talent Fund, which has incomes from the state budget and from tax-donations of the citizens. The secret of success to convince politicians was a single sentence: we made it clear that every citizen may be talented, and one may never know when and how this talent will reveal itself (including the politicians themselves). The word “untalented” should be erased from all vocabularies. Recently we gained an additional support: the everyday experience of politicians. When the state plans between 2014, and 2020 were discussed and I proposed talent support as a national priority, the minister presiding the meeting instantly supported the idea and told that the day before he went to the countryside and was accompanied by a young man from the local village. The man told the minister that he would be nowhere without the support of the talent movement in Hungary. His story was so convincing that the minister instantly became a full supporter of our case. The 24 thousand talents we helped in the last year alone make such stories rather usual.

5. What is the role and mission of ECHA in stimulating gifted people and developing the culture toward gifted and giftedness in Europe? Why the Europe needs ECHA, why it is so important these days to network?

The European Council of High Ability (ECHA) was established 25 years ago by high level professionals involved in European gifted education. ECHA is committed to spread best practices of talent support all around Europe. This is helped by the establishment of a European Talent Support Network, which is served by talent centres as hubs. Such centres are already operating in Germany, Hungary, Ireland, UK and in many other countries. The biannual meetings are focal points of this networking activity. The 20th ECHA Conference will be in Ljubljana, Slovenia, between the 17th and 20th September 2014. The major topics of the conference is “Re:Thinking Giftedness: Giftedness in the Digital Age”. The organizers prepare a highly creative and unusual meeting, where digital devices will help networking and on-site, on-line information exchange. We are also thinking on making a European Talent Summit, where the best talented young people of Europe may meet the new leaders of the European Union and our Slovenian friends.

6. In general, it is probably true that the percentage of talented people around the world is about the same. Yet, I found somewhere a completely different fact that oriental people have a slightly larger percentage of gifted individuals than Caucasians and Jewish talent support is extremely strong? Do such differences exist due to genetics, or these differences rise on the basis of the differences in stimulating / educating gifted individuals in individual country?

Talent is a result of thousand interactions in one’s life starting with conception and foetal development. Expectations and nurturing family and school environment are key factors in the development of exceptional abilities. Both are very high in oriental and Jewish cultures. The famous Rosenthal-Jacobson experiment performed in a California elementary school almost fifty years ago gave a wonderful proof of the so-called “Pygmalion-effect”, showing that the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. In this experiment students were asked to make an IQ test. The real results were not told to the school but a few students were selected randomly, and teachers were told that they are just before a talent-burst. (Most of these students were, in fact, not having a high IQ.) When the experimenters returned a year later the IQ of the randomly selected “talent-burst” group grew much faster than that of other students. It is important to note, however, that the modern concept of talent has much more elements than IQ itself. Still, the major conclusion of the experiment is valid: expectations and nurturing environment are bursting talent.

7. Personally, I often wonder whether that such large difference between the efficacy of gifted woman and man and use of their talents is inevitable; it seems that as the limit of ambition of the most talented girls in primary and secondary school is to achieve the highest grades and then high average grade exams at University, followed by a great degree and perhaps even by doctorate, but after all that success the majority of the most excellent woman are prepared to subordinate their career to families and even accept an official type of work. Exceptions only prove the rule. How to break this pattern?

Women’s career has many elements besides the joys of being a mother. The famous glass ceiling effect was recently striking me when I watched a European swimming contest. The awards were given by the head and deputy head of the organization of the swimming type involved. There was an equal representation of men and women: they were always giving the awards in pairs. However, among the dozen of pairs it was always the man who was the head, and woman, who was the deputy. We are full of hidden biases, which result in such selections in a large number of professions including science. These add a lot to the motherhood-effect especially in male-dominated, competing societies, like Hungary. We would need a lot more mothers (and grandmothers) in leadership roles to make Europe more cooperative.

8. How do you evaluate current educational trends facing “gifted“ students around the European countries?

Professor Franz Mönks, former president of ECHA made a comparison of gifted education in 21 European countries a few years ago including Slovenia and Hungary. This showed that in most of these countries the conditions were improved for the gifted students both in schools and in forms of enrichment programs. However, there is a lot more room for development. This is why we need to improve the European cooperation in this field.

9. In your opinion, which kind of provision for the gifted is the most promising one? How much it costs - unfortunately we are in a period of desperate saving public funds in all areas, including in the education sector?  

Talent has a thousand forms and therefore a thousand forms of help may be beneficial. Complex talent support programs, which combine both talent-friendly solutions in school education and extracurricular enrichment programs, were proven the most efficient. The network of Talent Points in Germany, Hungary, Poland and other countries saves a lot of money, since a Talent Point does not need to be excellent in all areas, but may “transfer” the talented student to another Talent Point. The larger the program the cheaper the per capita costs will become. Our national program will spend only 50 EUR/person/year between 2014 and 2020. This is not really an expensive effort. However, we will include 240 thousand talented young people, which is around 10% of the given population. The secret of efficiency is unequal distribution of support. Some people need more, while others may excel with less. A network of Talent Points and their local Talent Support Councils may decide in a rightful manner, which intensity (and costs) of support is required to the particular talented person. A good talent support program is a mutual commitment giving support but asking intensive efforts (and a later involvement in volunteer work) as a return.

10. What is your ECHA president and Hungarian National Talent Support Council president message to Slovenia for stimulating and educating gifted individuals?

Isolated efforts are seldom efficient. If talent support is laid on the shoulders of self-sacrificing parents and teachers, it will not give the return a modern society needs. Talent support is especially needed in time of crisis. All crisis periods also open possibilities to renew our society and life. For novel solutions we need novel talents. Therefore supporting talented young people must become a national priority in all European countries, including Slovenia. If we support our talents, we support our own future. Talent support is like the life insurance of a nation. It should be invested continuously, and can be “cashed in” right at the time of danger, when the society needs to renew itself.

11. To conclude, how do you as a talent expert see the future of mankind? Talent will still gain in importance? Do you expect genetic engineering experiments in creating more talented generations?

I am a network scientist with a background of biochemistry and molecular biology. I devoted myself to understand the complexity of life. The more we know on the molecular background of complex human properties, such as talent, the more we realize how difficult it is to control and change them. Therefore I do not believe in genetic engineering experiments creating more talents. We will not have a “talent pill”, which we need just to take and swallow. Talent will always remain a result of very hard work – for many-many years. However, this is not the curse, but the beauty of being talented, and helping those who have any type of the myriads of gifts. We will live in a century full of unexpected events. Mankind will need talented people much more than before. However, we have a huge talent reserve, which is largely unused at the moment. Thus not a war for existing talents, but the establishment of a worldwide talent support network to uncover new talents will serve these increasing needs. We are working on Europe’s better contribution at the moment to this network. As a part of this, a proposal to help the talents of Europe was submitted to the European Parliament by Mojca Kleva from Slovenia and Kinga Gal from Hungary. The proposal was signed by close to a hundred EP members in the first 3 days. We hope that more than half of EP members will sign this proposal by the 19th of February.

Jasna Kontler Salamon

Talent is a special kind of natural resource that is available in every country.