Walt Disney

EDU 6397: A Case Study of Giftedness

Introduction

For the purposes of the case study, observations are derived primarily from Walt's early years, birth to eighteen years of age. In some cases, evidence of childhood giftedness is further supported by corollaries in his adulthood.


Image Credit: Library of Congress virtual archives

FAMILY

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 to a low-income family in Chicago, not far from the area that later became the headquarters of gangster Al Capone (Thomas, 1976, pp. 24-25).


Troubled by the rise of criminal activity in their neighborhood, his parents moved their five children to a Missouri farm. In the country, the young boy helped with family chores, explored the outdoors, and adopted the runt of a litter as a family pet, a pig named “Skinny" (Thomas, 1976). Despite later challenges, he characterized his childhood in Missouri as a happy one (Walt Disney Hometown Museum, 2014).


The strain of farm management and financial difficulty plagued his father, but the tension in the family’s home was alleviated somewhat by his mother’s playful humor. Eventually, his two older brothers left home in rebellion against their father. His father’s later illnesses forced the family to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.


Once in Kansas City, Walt added to the family’s income by delivering newspapers, rising at 3:30 in the morning and performing his duties, regardless of inclement weather (Thomas, 1976, pp. 33-34). He was eight years old.

Trivia!

In 1956, Walt purchased the family farm in hopes of preserving it (Walt Disney Hometown Museum, 2014).

EDUCATION: INSTITUTIONAL

Walt’s enrollment in school was delayed until he was almost seven years old, and his academic performance was mediocre, as he was frequently distracted from arithmetic, reading, and math by other interests (Thomas, 1976). Walt admitted later that his imagination commanded his attention: “I’d sit in class and I’d be way off” (Gabler, 2007, p. 28).


In Kansas City schools, Walt’s academic performance was “undistinguished,” with his teachers frequently complaining of his wandering attention and his failure to follow directions (Thomas, 1976, p. 36). His capacity for original thought emerged visibly through his art but was not always greeted appreciatively. On one occasion, Walt’s fourth-grade art teacher asked the class to sketch a bowl of flowers. When she reviewed Walt’s work, she found he had caricatured human faces on the flowers, adding arms in place of leaves (Thomas, 1976). Ms. Olson was not pleased.


Walt frequently fell asleep in class, a pattern to which his seventh grade homeroom teacher responded with sympathy, recognizing the nature of his exhaustion as being attached to his heavy workload outside school (Barrier, 2007, p. 333). At times, she did not attempt to wake him, allowing him a chance to rest (Sampson, 2007). Because of her “great patience, understanding, and incredible faith” toward him, Miss Daisy Beck became Walt’s favorite teacher, and the two corresponded for years (Gabler, 2007, p. 28; Thomas, 1976).


In spite of being a self-described “laggard” at school, Walt devoured reading material from the library: Twain, Stevenson, Scott, and Dickens (Gabler, 2007, p. 28; Sampson, 2007; Thomas, 1976).


Walt struggled to finish the seventh grade—graduation year—at his grammar school, as his interests were largely devoted at this time to drawing and entertaining (Gabler, 2007). At graduation, Walt’s principal handed him a diploma and money he had earned for a drawing, earnings that, in Walt’s mind, launched his career.


Shortly after Walt’s parents moved back to Chicago, he joined them, enrolling in a local high school and contributing cartoons to the school newspaper (Thomas, 1976). His freshman year of high school was his last year of formal education (Sampson, 2007).

EDUCATION: EXPERIENTIAL

Eager to help the war effort, Walt falsified his records in order to join the American Red Cross at the age of sixteen. During his spare time overseas, he sketched, submitting his cartoons to American magazines, which responded with rejection letters. Seventeen-year-old Walt returned from France a man, resolved to become a political cartoonist. “When I got back,” he said, “I had a maturity. I was settled. I then was able to kind of line right up on an objective, and I went for it” (Walt Disney Family Museum, 2014).


Once in Kansas City, he landed a job as a commercial artist. Thrilled to be making money for drawing pictures, his career began.

Giftedness

Hebert (2011) enumerated several social and emotional traits of gifted students: perfectionism; internal motivation and inner locus of control; emotional sensitivity, intensity, and depth; empathy; advanced levels of moral maturity with consistency between values and actions; strong need for self-actualization; highly developed sense of humor; and resilience (p. 55).


While Walt exhibited many of these qualities throughout his life, a few of his dominant characteristics are included below:


  • High expectations of self and others--perfectionism- In adulthood, Walt's perfectionism was notorious, with this trait remarked upon by his family, his employees, his critics, and even Walt himself (Barrier, 2007). However, as a student, Walt's perfectionism was largely self-oriented (Hebert, 2011). His desire to improve fueled his continual pursuit of growth and innovation, also allowing him to willingly accept feedback from others that facilitated improvement. One of Walt's early supervisors commented on this openness, stating that most young artists recoiled at criticism; Walt welcomed it (Thomas, 1976). Walt's spectacular vision and attention to detail, evident from his early life, later became hallmarks of his creative legacy.
  • Internal motivation and inner locus of control- From an early age, Walt demonstrated independence from his circumstances and a commitment to attaining his goals, regardless of setbacks. Nothing doused his commitment to his art--not social expectations (a friend commented that drawing was considered "kind of sissy"), not the grueling work responsibilities he shouldered as a young boy, not his own father's view of his art as "nonsense" (Gabler, 2007, p. 29, p. 41; Thomas, 1976). Ironically, Walt arrived at his career goal in the midst of an unfortunate circumstance: while recovering from a painful injury as a teenager. His reprieve from newspaper deliveries afforded him time to think, and he decided to become a cartoonist (Thomas, 1976).
  • Strong need for self-actualization- During grade school, Walt saw his first moving picture, and his interest in drawing was supported by his aunt, who supplied him with crayons and paper (Thomas, 1976). Walt said, "It was always my inclination to think in pictures rather than words...I spent many study hours [in school] drawing flipover figures on textbook margins--like the McGuffey readers--to entertain classmates" (Sampson, 2007). Walt’s schoolmates remember him as drawing, constantly drawing. A beloved teacher supported Walt’s artistic talents, allowing him to draw after finishing assignments and encouraging him to design posters for school events (Gabler, 2007; Sampson, 2007). Borrowing from childhood adventures on the farm, Walt channeled his lifelong love of nature, animals, whimsy, and humor into a signature medium: cartoons (Thomas, 1976). Walt was essentially self-taught as an animator, checking out books from the Kansas City library to help him improve in his craft (Barrier, 2007). Eventually, Walt’s father permitted him to enroll in art classes, and his skills expanded to include sculpting and casting as well as drawing (Gabler, 2007). His “stubborn, blind confidence in the cartoon medium” eventually resulted in his producing the first full-length, animated movie (Barrier, 2007, p. 4; Schickel, 1998).
  • Resilience- Although he encountered numerous financial setbacks and failures, Walt's father modeled stamina, optimism, and an "entrepreneurial temperament" for his son (Barrier, 2007, p. 14). People who knew Walt at the onset of his career "remarked on his resolve and absolute faith in himself, manifested not so much in furrowed grit as in a sunny ebullience" (Gabler, 2007, p. 44). Walt's wife commented that he could rebound from any difficulty or creative struggle, that he "never felt whipped" (Miller, 1956a, p. 133). Walt himself said, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me…You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you" (Howes, 2007).
  • Highly developed sense of humor- Walt acknowledged his mother's sense of humor in their home, an aspect that was formative in his development (Watts, 2001, p. 14). Walt's brother Roy called her “a wonderful mother that could kid the life out of our father when he was in his peevishness” (Barrier, 2007, p. 15). Walt entertained the family with his antics from an early age: playing tricks on his mother, dressing up in costume, and starting his own parade when the circus came to town (Thomas, 1976). In fact, he created his first animated flipbook to amuse his sister as she recovered from measles. His schoolmates remembered him as continually striving for attention, and he and a childhood friend gained local notoriety with their Charlie Chaplin-influenced skits at a local vaudeville theater (Thomas, 1976).
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The "mental processes of humor and creativity are interwoven and inseparable" (Hebert, 2011, p. 100).

Challenges

  • Poverty- An NBC interviewer once asked Walt what his biggest problem was. Walt responded, " Well, I'd say it's been my biggest problem all my life; it's money. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true" (Howes, 2012; Jones, 2006). As a child, his father's enterprises often met with either moderate success or great disappointment, resulting in continuous financial strain (Thomas, 1976). His father's frugality was dogmatic; "I didn't inherit any of that thrift," quipped Walt much later in life (Watts, 2001, p. 21). As a child, Walt was unable to visit the first amusement park he encountered. The reason? He couldn't afford the price of admission (Thomas, 1976).
  • Physical Fatigue- As young boys, Walt and his brothers worked long hours--sometimes at multiple jobs--in order to supplement their family's income (Thomas, 1976). Although they developed a robust work ethic that aided them throughout their lives, their exhaustion interfered with their focus and performance at school. Walt admitted that he often dozed in class; in his own words, his report card "told the story" (Sampson, 2007).
  • Underachievement- While Walt attributed some of his academic mediocrity to work-related exhaustion, he also admitted that he had "little inclination toward book learning" (Sampson, 2007). Walt was much more interested in doodling than in studying. His seventh-grade teacher, while affirming his artistic aptitude, also encouraged him to explore other subjects, believing him to have significant intellectual ability.
  • Parent Disapproval- Presumably due to his spartan pragmatism, Walt's father viewed entertainment such as motion pictures and vaudeville shows as a frivolous waste of time (Thomas, 1976). Walt's brother Roy characterized him as a "good dad," "with a great sense of honesty and decency” (Barrier, 2007, p. 12, 14). Walt called him the "kindest fellow," saying he "worshiped" him (Barrier, 2007, p. 14; Watts, 2011, p. 12). Roy also described him as a “strict, hard guy" (Barrier, 2007, p. 12). Although Elias Disney acknowledged his son's gift for humor and even supported his enrollment in art classes, he ultimately dismissed his artistic pursuits as "nonsense" (Gabler, 2007, p. 41; Thomas, 1976). In Walt's adulthood, when reporters pressed his father for comment on his son's achievements, he acknowledged chiefly his son's determination and work ethic.

Diane Disney Miller: "One of my father's maxims is 'You don't know what you can do unless you try'" (Miller, 1956b).

Action Plan

Theories of giftedness vary in their emphases, some attributing development largely to environmental or genetic factors, with others placing great import on the individual’s decisions. Gagne’s (2004) model of giftedness accounted for three major groups of catalysts: environment, change, and intrapersonal traits such as volition, self-management, and personality. Renzulli’s (1998) Three-Ring Model of Giftedness presented giftedness as the interplay of three elements: above-average ability, creativity, and task commitment. He criticized the tendency to over-emphasize ability and asserted that the other two elements play an equally vital role in giftedness (Renzulli,1998). Walt Disney’s story illustrates the compelling role of creativity and task commitment. Walt’s daughter once remarked on the source of her father’s vision and passion, stating, “For the most part, my father’s beliefs are based on experience, rather than schooling” (Miller, 1956b). Through imagination and determination, he accomplished tremendous feats. Even still, one wonders what might have resulted from additional development of his abilities, particularly in the formative years of his life.


Walt’s educational experience is, in many ways, typical of a gifted underachiever, or, in gifted studies parlance, a “selective achiever” (Hebert, 2011, p. 245). Hebert (2011) emphasized that instruction for these students must be “challenging, practical, and applicable to their personal goals” (p. 242). For Walt, whose awareness of his artistic ability emerged early, this was not the case (Thomas, 1976). Converging sources implied that Walt invested effort in his studies but only half-heartedly, choosing to devote his energies to his artwork instead (Gabler, 2007; Sampson, 2007; Thomas, 1976).


However, Walt adored his seventh-grade teacher, Miss Daisy Beck, for many reasons, one being that she gave him the “first inkling that learning could be enjoyable, even schoolbook learning. And that is a great moment in a kid's life. She had the knack of making things I had thought dull and useless seem interesting and exciting. I never forgot that lesson” (Sampson, 2007). Hebert’s research (2011) revealed that underachieving gifted students responded favorably to teachers with the following qualities: passionate about their subject matter, committed to mastery, focus on process as well as product, incorporation of student input and authentic assignments. Without exception, the students in his study cited an individual teacher as “the most influential factor in the reversal of their underachievement” (Hebert, 2011, p. 245). Miss Beck was all of those things, but her influence was insufficient to secure Walt’s commitment to formal education. It seems likely that wearied by too many years of blasé classroom experiences, uprooted by his family’s move, compelled to support war efforts, and convinced as he was of his own potential, Walt’s departure from school after ninth grade was only logical in his contemplation.


Hebert (2011) named five needs of underachieving gifted high school students: choice, control, challenge, complexity, caring. It seems that while Walt was exposed to caring adults—Miss Beck, his principal, and other outstanding faculty—his classroom environment lacked many of the other elements (Sampson, 2007; Thomas, 1976). His elementary school art teacher, for example, scolded him for not following instructions rather than praising him for his ingenuity in animating the flowers in a still life; choice and control could have been effectively appropriated in this incident (Thomas, 1976). Also, Walt’s drawings were not mere doodles; often, he imitated political cartoons from his father’s socialist publications. While he may not have grasped all their ideological intricacies, a savvy teacher could have extended Walt’s interest into a weighty discussion and presented the challenge of generating his own depiction of a political event or notion; simple adaptations could have fluidly incorporated the elements of challenge and complexity. Furthermore, the same teacher could have channeled Walt’s gift into curricular purposes, allowing him to use his talent in social studies or math, creating a flipbook of the Boston Tea Party or a cartoon of the Pythagorean theorem. Surely such a measure would have added vitality both to Walt’s work and the to the class as a whole, minimizing his disruptive behavior and maximizing the enjoyment essential to deep learning (Hebert, 2011; Thomas, 1976).


While all possibilities are speculative as well as retroactive, Walt’s underachievement in school might have been prevented by the implementation of these additional measures:


  • Mentoring/Apprenticeship- Although he publicly expressed gratitude to his art teachers for their influence, much of Walt’s talent development occurred through his own efforts (Sampson, 2007; Thomas, 1976). As evidenced by his supervisor’s testimony, Walt was an eager learner and might have been a willing protégé as well. As Walt’s legacy is chiefly for the grandeur of his vision and not for the caliber of his art, arguably, a timely partnership with a more advanced artist could have expanded his natural abilities.


  • Authentic Audience- Even when he was young, Walt’s drawings gained notoriety throughout his hometown town, used in advertisements and displayed at a friend’s barbershop (Gabler, 2007). As an adult, Walt acknowledged the value of this public validation, calling it a “great stimulant” (Gabler, 2007, p. 28). Citing Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad Model, Hebert (2011) underscored the importance of providing gifted underachievers with an authentic audience. While Walt’s art was featured in school posters and in his high school newspaper, his later efforts clearly indicated his desire to expand his influence to a wider audience, a desire which might have been effectively coaxed along at an earlier date.

Disney: “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse" (Howes, 2012).

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The sketches above were created in 1928 and represent some of the first known renderings of Mickey Mouse.
Image Credits (all except as noted otherwise): Walt Disney Family Museum


http://www.waltdisney.org/

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