Book Review – The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness
Thursday, April 14th, 2016
Regular visitors to our weekly blog will no doubt have read and enjoyed the recent blog contributions by ILO (M&L’s community building non profit, Integrated Living Opportunities) participating family member Barbara Goldschmidt. Over the last couple of months, Barbara has been kind enough to share with us her experiences as she, her husband Jim, and their daughter Rachel (an ILO self-advocate), work towards an independent future. Today, Barbara reviews Todd Rose’s recently released book, The End of Average: How we Succeed in a World that Values Sameness.
Say Goodbye to the Age of Average
No book I’ve ever read has provoked me as much as The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness. Many times while reading it I felt such pangs of anger and sorrow that I had to take a break from reading. I had chosen this book because I wondered how it might apply to my “atypical” daughter; I was surprised to find out how much it informs my own life.
Author Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, charts the rise and fall of conformity and makes a compelling case for why everyone wins when individuality is celebrated. This book fortifies the concept that the “circles of support” we talk about as ILO families are key to a holistic life. As we partner with educators and employers, we should be aware of the many positive changes Rose describes, so we can become advocates not only for our children, but for changes that improve life for everyone.
How average became a driver of behavior
The history of “average” and how it influenced education was what made me mad and sad. It began in the early nineteenth century when a scientist named Adolphe Quetelet (Kettle-Lay), wanted some stable norm during a period of social unrest. Seeking the “ideal” man, he took measurements of over 5,000 soldiers, divided the sum by the number of men and came up with the “average” size of a man’s chest. He went on to measure every aspect of a human being, leading to the Quetelet Index—known today as the body mass index—which became one of our indicators for ideal health.
Sorting through the amassing data became the resulting challenge, which led to many systems of ranking. Governments, businesses and schools all got on board. One early method of ranking was based on a person’s deviation from average, which put them in either the Eminent, the Mediocre or the Imbecile category. Though we may be repelled by these words, we all sort people into bins that range from high to low, referring to “types” who are “smarter than average”, “second in their graduating class”, “athletic” or “introverted”.
Your fight with the school system feels like a life or death struggle for good reason
As factories grew in number at the end of the 19th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor set out to transform schools for the industrial age. He grouped students by age instead of ability, created a standardized curriculum and had students rotate through classes that took place during set periods of time. Why did classes end with the ringing of a bell? To emulate a factory bell and thereby mentally prepare students for their future life. Think about it, don’t schools even look like factories? Taylor’s motto: “In the past the man was first; in the future the system must be first.” His ideas are still entrenched our schools.
Timed, standardized tests quickly were implemented to rank students according to abilities. This gave rise to the notion of gifted students, special needs students, and educational tracks. College test prep scores, IQ tests, and class rankings all grew out of this movement. Teachers (and many other kinds of employees) were also caught in the ranking net, with performances evaluated each year to determine promotions, penalties and tenure.
In reality, no one is “average”
Ranking and standards have endured because they are efficient. Many more children were educated and got out of poverty through education. Yet, Rose points to a serious flaw and supports his contention with revealing case studies.
For instance, the U.S. Air Force undertook a study in the 1950s because of an alarming increase in the number of plane crashes. Jets had been designed to fit the average airman. Yet, an actual assessment found that of 4,063 airmen measured, not one fit within the average range on all ten dimensions. No wonder planes were crashing. A cockpit designed to fit the average pilot actually fit no one. As a result, the Air Force demanded redesigns that led to adjustable seats and instruments. Roses’ conclusion: Any system based on the “average” will eventually fail.
Enter the age of the integrated individual
If the age of average was perfect for factories, then the mobile, digital age requires new ways of educating the work force and measuring their contributions. Rose contends that these requirements have led to a new science of the individual. It is based on dynamic systems rather than fixed numbers. It is not linear, but multi-dimensional.
Patterns of individuality are replacing static reference points such as grades or test scores. Webs of development are being put into place instead of ladders to success. Context behavior is seen as more realistic than isolated trait-based personality scores. In the hiring process, employers are looking for unique potential instead of assuming top achievers from top colleges perform best.
Companies who diversify their workplaces by focusing on individuality can find talent in unlikely places, along with increased productivity and profit. Among them are giants like Google, Microsoft, Costco and Zoho. Interviews with the leaders of these firms are thrilling in their vision.
Sridhar Vembu, founder of Zoho, started a school that pays prospective employees to attend. Instruction is self-paced and project based. There are no grades. Vembu says, “If what you care about is how well students will do…you soon realize that fast and slow are useless distinctions to make. There just isn’t a relationship between learning fast and succeeding.” Companies like his also tend to make a genuine commitment to their employees.
Transformation begins with individuals
For me, reading about the history of our social process was liberating. I’m more aware of how I evaluate myself and others. And I see why all the testing we put our daughter through has not revealed a path we can take with confidence. Rose has convinced me that a new era in communication, creativity and education is taking place. We need to transform our systems and ourselves. It doesn’t happen overnight, but through a process of self-discovery. Why do we think the way we do? Is it our choice, or our conditioning? Can we free ourselves from the constraints of being judged? Letting go of preconceptions based around an artificial “norm” is crucial to opening to the innate potential and unique talents that exist in all of us, including our unique adult children.
Would You Like More Information?
Thank you all again for taking the time to join us today; we hope that you all enjoyed reading Barbara’s review as much as we did. You can read Barbara’s two previous posts, What it Takes to Weave Bridges: A Participating Family’s Perspective on ILO and Intentional Communities and Exploring Supported Employment: A Parent’s Perspective.
If you would like to learn more about the ‘circles of support’ that Barbara referenced, or would like to become involved in ILO and the work that we do helping families and self-advocates build integrated intentional communities, please contact the organization directly.
Have a great day everyone, and don’t forget to visit us next week for a look at the ABLE National Resource website. Until then!
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