Tuesday, January 5, 2010


During the New Years Day debacle called the Gater Bowl (WVU looked bad!) they put on one of those nice "here's why you should come to our school" PSAs. I zoned, since I've been there and done that a long time ago, but one line caught my attention. Something about how anyone could aspire to get a collage education. Oh boy, there goes that alarm again (I really need to have that looked at).

This particular myth seems to me to be a direct result of American egalitarianism. Since Jefferson declared that "All men are created equal," some have thought that the meaning was that all people were equal. In everything and in every way. The problem, of course, is that reality tends to intrude. Let me explain.

One way to compare the traits of any population is to look at a large enough group and measure how each member of the group expresses that particular trait. You can then graph the result to show the distribution of the trait over the population. Your observations will result in a bell shaped curve, with the average, or most seen result, in the middle. Like this.

So, what good does that do us, you ask? Well, if you know how a trait is distributed you can address certain things about that trait. Confusing? Okay, let's try an example.

Say you want to open a shoe store. It would help your bottom line if you could only order the sizes that people are most likely to buy. Well, it seems that shoe size, like pretty much everything else, fits onto a bell curve.


On this chart, your Shaq size 22s are on the right and your jockey size 5s are on the left. It's pretty easy to see that you don't want to order 5 of each size now do you? The number of people looking for the very big, or the very small size shoe, is minuscule when compared to the number who need the "average" sizes. Or lets look at ladies skirts.

Same thing. Your ladies apparel store will need to order way more mediums and larges then XXX large or super petites. It just makes sense.

So why doesn't it make sense when we look at getting a college degree? Because when it comes to the smarts needed to get a degree we fall back on "All men are created equal." We want to believe that the great mass of people are smart, a small group is very smart and another small group are, shall we say, mentally challenged. It even makes sense when you see the IQ bell curve.

See, most of the people occupy the broad middle. What's the problem? The problem is that we have a very poor understanding of what smart means. We can't internalize being different than how we have always been. But what do the numbers say? In fact only about 30% of the US population has a college degree. The other 70% doesn't. Some of the 70%, of course, is in that group through a lack of means or opportunity. But most are not. They are not now, nor will they ever be, smart enough to get a college degree. 

Go back up and look at the curve. The 30% line falls right around an IQ of 110. Now, before the yelling begins, I'm fully aware that correlation is not causality. Everybody with an IQ greater than 110 doesn't get a degree and many from the lower group do go on to a college cap and gown. This stuff is only truly valid for large groups. But we keep making public policy as if those percentages were reversed and that, in my opinion, is putting this country at an educational disadvantage.

Our entire educational establishment is geared toward the "Any child can get a college degree" model. It didn't used to be so. Back in the day the schools tended to sift the student body into different groups based upon how smart they were. The "A" group was expected to take college prep type courses and were assumed to be on the higher education tract. The "B" group, the broad middle, were headed for white collar jobs and supervisor positions. And the "C" group learned wood working and auto shop skills and went on to work in the factories and mills and mines. This is the educational model which we abandoned in favor of the modern, everybody gets a blue ribbon, high self esteem model which we now have in place. Of course the old model also gave us the great scientific achievements of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Things like atomic energy, space flight and solid state electronics. Our modern model has given us Twitter. I'm just sayin'.

So, the next time you're reading the newspaper or watching the news and the actions of your fellow human beings is giving you heartburn, or worse, just look back at the IQ bell curve and repeat after me:



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