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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lake Wobegone of the Future

What would happen if some popular policies of today were taken to their logical conclusion? If all the children are above average, would they not be “re-centered” like SAT tests? I do not know if the author, Richard Salsbury, pondered the question when he wrote his story Law of Averages. Maybe he did. But whether he did or not, the story reads like a parody of all that is wrong with education today.

It is the meritocracy turned on its head in the name of preserving the self esteem of all. (Snark alert)

“ are other kids supposed to cope if they think you're above Average?"

Although the story takes place fifty years in the future, but even today there are many students who hide their academic achievement in self defense. Even if they go ahead and achieve, it may mean they are in the job market before society is ready for them, like the boy I know who graduated with a degree in chemistry when he was eighteen. No one wants an eighteen year old chemist, Doogie Howser not withstanding.

Girls have been playing dumb forever.

"Honey, think about this: what are you going to do if you score too highly in a knowledge test*?"
     "Well I haven't so far, have I? It's easy to fool them. I know how much the others know and I just answer the questions as if I were one of them."
     "That's not going to work forever. These tests are designed to catch you out...”

"The point is, Hannah, that people feel bad if someone else knows more than they do."

Because we all know how important self esteem** is. That is why everyone gets a certificate of participation at science fairs these days. Maybe the student's science fair project is nothing but an Internet cut-and-paste job, but as long as they feel good about themselves...

In the education system of the future, teachers can be called on the carpet for even so much as threatening to punish a student for misbehavior. But Hannah's teacher, a rebel in the mold of 1984's Winston Smith, recognizes Hannah's potential and takes the chance.

In the first private lesson (Hannah's teacher) ever gave me, she said, "If you are ever less than convincing (about publicly being only average) I will have you punished."
     That made me realise how serious she was, and how trusting - I could have reported her for threatening me.


They called a trauma counsellor for me. She said it must have been a terrible shock to be punished for misbehaving...

There was one student who the teacher knew was below average.

Lois surreptitiously tore the sheet (upon which she had been skillfully sketching a portrait of the teacher) off her pad and screwed it up into a ball. "You think I'm stupid, don't you?" she said.
     There was an intake of breath from the class. They weren't used to hearing language like that.
     "No, Lois," Mrs. Jeffries said, "you're Average, like everyone else here...

You're all more clever than I am," (Lois) muttered.
     Mrs. Jeffries saw her chance, and replied thunderously. "I will not have language like that in my class, do you understand?""

In Mrs. Jeffries view, Lois is not merely below average, but a danger to everyone else. So she does something about it.

"Lois, listen to me. Your last score in the knowledge test was Average. No matter what else happens, that's what matters. You're no different from anyone else."

Ask any middleschooler. Being different from everyone else is the kiss of death.

"Listen, Hannah. If she fails a knowledge test then she'll be made to sit two more, and if her score is low on all three they'll take ... some very drastic measures."
     "How drastic?"
     "They can't make Lois any more intelligent, so they'll lower the standard across the country; they'll make Lois' level of ability the new Average. They think it's fair to do that. A computer will automatically rewrite the curriculum and ... young people will be even more stupid." She started chewing her lip. "You can see now why I changed her marks."
     "But ... there must be other children below Average."
     She nodded. "I think most of them skip school altogether - they can't face the shame. But Lois' parents think she's Average. They insist she attends."

Lois' parents remind me of parents we have all seen, except they insist that their children must participate in the gifted program. I don't know why. Society attributes no more genuine prestige to the gifted than it does to teachers.

But the teacher's efforts were in vain. She loses her job, and there is no one to change Lois' marks on the next test go-around. Hannah hears an announcement at an assembly and draws her own conclusions.

The presenter cheerfully called it "a set of improvements to the education system, designed to make it more fair."
     What he meant to say was: "They tested Lois Durrell and found out she was stupid, so to make sure she doesn't feel bad about it, everyone else from now on will be stupid too."

Nevertheless, Hannah recognizes, if dimly that maybe Lois was above average after all.

When I saw that sketch you were doing of Mrs. Jeffries I felt jealous. That's why I said it was rubbish - to cover up for the fact that the exact opposite was true. I always wanted to be able to draw like that. I rescued that piece of paper from the bin and it's become my most treasured possession.

*I am not a Wikipedia fan, but this article is a comprehensive and well-cited overview of SAT history and issues. There has been so much tinkering, some justified, some questionable, that no knows for sure how to interpret them.

**A typical statement of the popular view of self esteem.

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