Few of us want to be average. And averages often tell us remarkably little.
Research apparently shows us that – on average – people who type faster make fewer errors. Yet it would take a pretty stupid person to think that deliberately deciding to type faster would lead to improved accuracy.
Todd Rose, whom I interview this week, believes that more sophisticated examples of “averagarian” fallacies – making decisions about individuals on the basis of what an idealised average person would do – are causing havoc all round. Developmental psychologists lay down the law on the single right pathway children should use to learn to walk. Cockpits designed for average pilots turn out to be very dangerous, because virtually no one is average in every dimension.
The same applies in higher education. Universities assume that an average student should learn a certain amount of information in a certain amount of time. Those who are much quicker than average on 95 per cent of their modules and slower than average on 5 per cent may struggle to get a degree. And there is no fundamental justification for this, since someone’s ability in solving quadratic equations or driving a car has nothing to do with how long it took them to learn.
Such points are developed at length in Rose’s lively and entertaining polemic, The End of Average: How to Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. Much of it draws on his own experience. He dropped out of high school and was reduced to performing enemas and stealing toilet paper to support his family.
Yet 15 years after dropping out, he joined the faculty of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, where he is now interim director of its mind, body and education programme. Alongside sheer hard work, he attributes much of his success to ignoring well-meant advice on the best ways to learn, or the right order in which to take courses, all of which might have suited some mythical average individual but simply weren’t right for him.
It all makes for a cheering story of how the square pegs among us can build successful lives despite being unable or unwilling to fit into round holes. But it also raises some big questions about how researchers miss the wood for the trees and how universities are failing individuals.