Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Normal Distributions

I think it's Albert Camus who said that we often underestimate the effort people make to be normal. Though I'm not sure it's a misinterpretation of what Camus himself intended, I think it's unwise to let the truth of this statement lead us to abandon "normativity" in the sense in which this notion is used in identity studies. I suppose I risk being called conservative, and will no doubt be asked to "check my privilege", but Andrew Gelman's post on grade inflation got me thinking about the impossible burden of identity work in a world without norms. Let's leave aside the important issues around race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, and consider just the question of academic achievement.

One of the things you're supposed to discover about yourself at university is whether or not you're inclined towards research and, of course, whether you have an aptitude for it. Obviously, not everyone is cut out for a professorship, and that's no shame on anyone. People go through years and years of schooling and then, at some point, many of them leave school to go into business, or politics, or entertainment, or gainful unemployment. It makes sense to have "elite" schools, like Princeton, where exceptionally high-achieving high-school students go to get a(n even) higher education. But once there, it would be really surprising if all them turn out have the intelligence and curiosity to impress "academically". It also makes sense to have less elite universities, where people who didn't do quite as well in high-school can go and, again, try to impress their academic teachers. This creates a career path for straight-A high school students through an Ivy League BA, to, say, a top law school and into the legal profession, but also a path for a B-student in high school, through a less selective state university, a master's degree somewhat higher up the ladder and, finally, a PhD at Princeton. That's because what it takes to succeed in academia isn't exactly the same thing as a what it takes to succeed in high school. You've probably seen my point coming: different norms apply.

I'm focusing on academic outcomes here, but they are of course affected by extracurricular distractions. The important thing is to have a system that actually registers the students' relative success at meeting the specifically academic standard at a particular point of their life path. At some point, the student runs into a limitation. Having received easy As in math all her life, she suddenly finds herself getting Bs in advanced statistics. This should not be a tragedy for her; she's just learning what she's good at. Having struggled for his Cs in high school English, he suddenly discovers he's able to earn As in philosophy. This isn't an indictment of high-school English. It's just, again, an exposure to a different set of norms.

What about the curve? I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea of meaningfully graduating at the "top of your class", i.e., of letting academic achievement be relative to your cohort, not some Platonic ideal grasp of a subject matter. And most people in most classes really should be satisfied with the Bs and Cs that are available to them after all the well-deserved As have been given out to people with abnormal intelligence or curiosity, and the well-deserved Ds and Fs have been assigned to those who need to find other things to do (or learn to show up to the courses they have enrolled in).

My point is that there are enough different kinds of "normal" out there for everyone to be normal in some ways, exceptional in others. By refusing to articulate clear, even pedantically clear, standards for "academic" work in higher education out of a "respect for difference", i.e., by refusing to mark out a space of perfectly respectable "normal" achievement (Bs and Cs), as well as a range of high and low achievement (As and Ds), we are robbing students of the opportunity to find out exactly where and how they are normal. Sure, some will still make the tragic effort to be normal (or brilliant) in an area they are simply not normal (or brilliant) in. They may be trying to impress their parents, for example, or embarrass them. The truly sad cases are of course those who pretend to be average where they are really brilliant.

Camus' insight is important, finally, because any effort we make risks being wasted. There should be vast regions of normalcy out there that most people, in most of their activities, can enjoy effortlessly. Being yourself should by and large ... on the whole and in the long run, on average, however you want to put it ... be easy. Our opposition to normalcy is really a demand for uniqueness. We are asking everyone to be unique in every way. And we then ask our already beleaguered faculty to grade these singularities by way of an assessment of the "whole person". Can't we see how impossible we're making things for ourselves? Just assign those damn 5-paragraph essays. Tell the students there are such things a good and bad writing, greater or lesser ignorance. Then spend the five or ten minutes per paper it will take to distribute their efforts under a normal curve. These "whole people" will be fine knowing only how well they did relative to each other in the art of composing themselves into five, more or less coherent, more or less intelligent, more or less knowledgeable, paragraphs.


Jonathan said...

There used to be the idea of the "gentelman's C." In other words, you could get Cs in college because what was important was your class position and having attended a prestigious university. The privileged didn't work particularly hard for that C.

With mass education, having gone to college was not enough: you had to excel. It's hard to see students as "customers" and give them Cs.

Thomas said...

Yes, I guess my basic argument is that if you have to work hard for a C you're in the wrong program. (It may also be true that if you don't have to work hard for an A you're in the wrong program.) But also that a C from a good school should, indeed, be a perfectly respectable achievement, worthy of a "gentleman", if you will. It says that you're normal.

Presskorn said...

Marie Østergaard has made exact same argument in detail with regard to the Danish primary school: The slow readers and the 1. grade geniuses are outliers and are, to that extent, pathological. But the true pathology within education is the lack of a sense of what is normal.

I particularly like her thesis, since it based on hard statistics, but analysed in the most excentric (i.e. innovative) manner possible. In order to make her point about the Danish primary school, she draws on a combination of Kuhn's early concept of normal science in his book on "The Copernican Revolution"(1957), Canguilhem on the normal in medicine and Jacob's work in normal distributions in molecular biology.