“Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas culture has invented a single mold to which all must conform. It is grotesque.” ~Krishnamurti
When one of my sons got a physical for his first full-time job, the doctor informed him he was in the “overweight” category and handed him a pamphlet about weight loss. Tall and well-muscled, my son was in no way overweight. In fact, shirts that correctly fit his shoulders and chest were so oversized at his waist that they billowed out. But BMI charts rely on a standard weight/height ratio to determine what people should weigh. At six feet tall, the chart showed he’d be at a normal weight as low as 140 pounds but was overweight at a strong and healthy 190 pounds.
The logic train derails when we start standardizing anything in nature, whether potatoes or people.
Fresh produce deemed “ugly” (in other words, deviating from average) is tossed out. The United Nations reports that retailers’ “high cosmetic standards” exclude somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from going to market. That translates to 800 to 900 million tons of crooked carrots, asymmetrical apples, lumpy potatoes, and other perfectly edible foodstuffs wasted worldwide. Terribly wrong, but common practice in today’s consumer market.
We’re doing what we can to standardize humans too. Babies are measured against averages even before they’re born. That’s not always helpful. For example, one study shows up to 30% of pregnant women are told they’re carrying large babies, making them five times more likely to end up with a scheduled c-section. That continues even though 90 % of those babies are born weighing less than the medical definition of a large baby. We judge the birth process by averages too, although the very methods used for evaluation can result in more intervention and greater risk.
As we grow up, the metrics defining what’s average come with a built-in expectations that we should surpass them. Parents eagerly compare first steps and first words, as if these milestones are somehow predictive. Preschools introduce academics, often at the expense of free play, even though there’s known harm from using this approach.
Education has never been more test-heavy, starting with timed tests in kindergarten all the way up through SATs, ACTs, and GREs. This too is illogical, because better test scores don’t correlate with later success. A decade and a half (or more) of testing for what, exactly?
Each student has what’s termed a “jagged learning profile.” As Todd Rose explains in his TED talk The Myth of Average, we design education for the average student when there is no such thing as the average student.
If you design learning environments on average, odds are, you designed them for nobody. So no wonder we have a problem. We’ve created learning environments that, because they are designed on average, cannot possibly do what we expected them to do — which is nurture individual potential.
Think about what that really costs us. Because every single student has a jagged learning profile it means that the average hurts everyone, even our best and brightest… Designing on average destroys talent in at least two ways. First, it makes your talent a liability. We all know kids like this. So unbelievably gifted in one area that their educational environment can’t challenge them. They get bored and a shockingly high number of them drop out. The second way that designing on average destroys talent, is that your weakness makes it hard for us to see let alone nurture your talent.
(I urge you to read Todd Rose’s new book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.)
We’re ranked throughout life by metrics like income, educational attainment, weight, cholesterol level, fitness level, and age although such numbers can’t possible describe who we are, how we treat others, or what our lives are like. We know we’re individuals, heck, if it weren’t for variability in facial features we wouldn’t recognize each other. But being measuring against the average is so thoroughly accepted that we don’t call it what it is, oppressive. This kind of ranking is one of the main instruments keeping us separate, disconnected, competitive, busy, and unhappy.
As Rose writes, “Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgment always erases the individuality of the person being judged.”
Nature shows us the principles inherently necessary in living systems: cross-pollination, diversity, self-assembly, interdependence, adaption, balance, and an undeniable tendency toward beauty. Anything less is limiting and oh so wrong.