Garrison Keillor used to sign off the News from Lake Wobegon in his weekly Prairie Home Companion programme with the words, “that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” Didn’t idea of all the children being above average, seem reasonable? Perhaps, if the average was derived from a much wide sample, perhaps a small community might score well on scales based on the general population, but within the community there would be an average score among the children, some would be above it, some would be on it, and some would be below it – that’s the way averages work.
Averages are relative, they are subjective, they are constantly changing, yet an abstract notion of scoring better than average has become a tenet of secular faith. Government departments devote huge resources to the collection and collation of massive sets of statistics, percentages are constantly compared, a stream of reports is constantly generated.
Senior management teams have become like the clergy of old, hectoring people about their failings, about the need to try harder, about the need to do better. Missals and prayer books have been replaced by PowerPoint presentations and charts on walls and spreadsheets emailed to staff. Consultants appear, like the visits of the Catholic religious orders or the Protestant itinerant evangelists to churches in former times, people must listen to words about how things would be better if they would change their ways, how wonderful things lie ahead if they take to heart what is being told to them.
When one is dealing with things, perhaps the gospel of the statisticians is feasible; production can be made more efficient, resources can be deployed more effectively, but when the creed of measurement is applied to people, it starts to lose credibility.
An average that expresses a level of literacy or numeracy may be useful, people may be scored against an objective level, how well they can read, how competent they are at arithmetic, but averages are more often about examination scores, scores which are relative to the numbers attaining each grade. If it is determined that 3% of candidates will be given a top grade, then scoring 99% will fail to achieve a top grade if 3% have attained 100%.
Yet, despite the relative nature of examination success, children are constantly under pressure to score higher and higher on the scales devised by the statisticians. Sometimes, it seems that the Lake Wobegon fallacy has taken hold of thinking, that it is possible for everyone to be above average. Individual schools may move up the tables, but if they all improve uniformly, then those that were below average will, obviously, remain below average and will be beset with talks on how they could and must do better.
The gospel of statistics may provide managers with work and with a message to proclaim, but it does not change fundamental realities. People are neither more nor less intelligent than in the past and human nature is not going to be changed by spreadsheets, charts and PowerPoint slides. Would the managers set aside their data and allow people to get on with their work?