Instant Success

When students write down their goals, most of them say they want to get A’s.

But a grade is not a goal;.it is an indication that some other goal has been met (or not). What a grade ought to represent is learning. Unfortunately, in most schools it represents piles of worksheets turned in, information retained long enough to pass tests and then forgotten, and good behavior.

Nobody wants to be average. Average means mediocre.

As a culture we do not accept anything below average. This belief infuses everything we do – Olympic medals, education, living standards.

But can everyone be above average? Can everybody make the honor roll? What does the honor mean if everyone is equally honored?

Not so many years ago every graduating class had one valedictorian, the person with the highest grade point average. The runner-up was the salutadorian, and everyone else just got to graduate. A simple diploma wasn’t the consolation prize — it was why everyone had been working hard for four years.

Now at least a dozen people feel deprived if they don’t get to put ‘Valedictorian’ and their resume. A dozen sets of parents call up the school and whine if their graduate only gets a diploma after taking all those AP courses. So everybody with a grade point above 4.0 gets to be a valedictorian.

That is it possible for so many people to have a grade point that high (in a scale where 4 is the highest value) says that something has changed in our schools and in our culture.

Average is a mathematical term: measure everybody, divide by the number of everybody, and you have the average. People fall above and below this marker, and a lot of us fall in the middle.

Everybody can’t be above the middle. When we raise the target, the average may inch up a bit, but there are still a lot of people below average.

While it’s great to be idealistic and believe that everyone can succeed, idealism doesn’t change the math. Proclaiming that every student will beat the odds, that our graduation rate will be 100%, our unemployment rate 0%, our standard of living always on the rise denies the reality: if everyone beats the odds, the odds have changed, and people who ‘only’ have a diploma, a job and a decent income will feel deprived.

IQ has sort of fallen out of favor in recent years as a means of measuring intelligence. There are a lot of reasons for this — some legitimate and others political. But the idea behind an intellgence quotient is sound. Measuring true intelligence may be impossible, but anything that can be measured can be mathematically compared.

If we wanted to make everyone a bit taller, we might be able to increase the height of children a bit if we started pushing proper nutrition early enough. The average height of humans has increased a lot since the middle ages, when the average man was about 5’4”. So it can be done.

But if we managed to raise an entire generation to be taller than this one, there would still be a lot of people below average — whatever that turned out to be. Everyone won’t be tall, because tall will mean something different from what it means now.

Similarly, with IQ, there is a lot that could be done to increase the average intelligence level of the population. But there are limits. Everyone isn’t going to be seven feet tall and have an IQ of 160.

If we push everyone to go to college, will we end up with a nation of rocket scientists? Who’s going to cut my hair and fix my garbage disposal?

In schools we put so much pressure on students to succeed – as we define success. Students who don’t want to go to college, who would rather cut hair or fix things for a living are made to feel like failures.

I prefer hard work as a means, and individual improvement as a goal. We can all work a bit harder, aim above where we’re standing now. We can all be better, even if we don’t win prizes and international acclaim.

But we’re not teaching students this lesson. We’re teaching them to only care about the grade, and to see their GPA as a means of making more money, and that they don’t matter if they don’t make the grade.

We tell kids that they can be anything, but forget to tell them how hard it will be, how much work will be required of them. They complain about homework and ‘boring’ classes. Their parents push them to cheat on tests and pressure teachers to change grades. Students go through school expecting things to be handed to them when they walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas.

Success without effort means nothing. Work gives meaning to success. People who have everything aren’t necessarily happy. People who have something to get up for, work that is meaningful and people who appreciate them — they are the successful ones.

If we could teach this lesson, we might improve what really matters — happiness. And we might even raise a few IQ’s.

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