An autodidact's fan letter
This is the email I just sent to the author of the book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose.
Dear Mr. Rose,
It is rare that I write a fan letter to an author, but having just finished your book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness, I found I needed to. First I want to say thank you. In your account of how the concept of average and there being one “best” path has crept into and influenced our society, you have managed to give me words to explain so many things that have been lurking around the edges of my mind.
Even though I excelled at school, happily being one of those extremely quick students who were placed at the top of any curve, I knew intuitively something was wrong. I knew it when I would do what I considered to be mediocre work only to have teachers fawn over it. I knew it when I tried in vain to tell teachers that math was difficult for me, only to be placed back in the top math group… because I was ahead of the curve of everyone else. And I knew it when I had learned to work the system in school to do the bare minimum in order to maintain my 4.4 GPA, thus allowing me the time to learn about the things that actually mattered to me. I knew the system wasn’t about me as a person, but couldn’t say exactly why.
As an adult, I remember watching my young children hit benchmarks at vastly different times from the other children in our play groups. I remember watching mothers fret needlessly about the future of their children because of when each of their children learned to walk. I remember telling a friend that we needed to widen our idea of what average was. Even then I couldn’t contemplate the idea that there was not really such a thing as average, yet that is what I was intellectually deciding.
So thank you for giving me the words and facts to support what I had been suspecting all along.
In return, I would like to share a suggestion with you. In your book, you focus on the traditional schooling system. I would encourage to consider looking at the homeschooled population, especially those of us who have been doing it for a long time and chose to because they saw traditional schools as not being able to tailor an education to the individual child. While we may not have had the words or studies to back us up, I believe that we have been doing for years some of what you propose.
I am on my 18th year of homeschooling my children. I can tell you that not a single one of my children or the other homeschooled children I know, have learned in exactly the same way. It is one of the things you learn fairly soon when you decide to eschew traditional schools. We live with the idea of jaggedness every day. Even though they are from the same family, each of my children has learned to read at a different age and in a different way, even despite my initial attempts to do things the same with each of them. I have watched my children (and myself) go through what I have always termed “learning jags” (though I didn’t realize at the time quite how appropriate my terminology was.) Every one of them has gone through phases where there was an insatiable need to learn about a certain thing, and during that jag, they couldn’t get enough of it. We couldn’t check out enough library books, watch enough documentaries, or talk about that topic enough. And then, almost as if a switch was flipped, when satiated with that topic, interest would turn to something else… or nothing for a while as their brain processed all the new information. Since we are not tied to a certain time table or scope and sequence, we have the freedom to allow for these detours of learning.
We (I and many families like mine) are able to send our children to college without much of the drama that I see the families of traditionally schooled children go through. Since there is nothing average about how our students have chosen to do high school, they tend to stand out in the college admissions process. They are noticed precisely because of their individuality. To look at their experience in the college search and application process could be an interesting comparison to the more average path. (Yes, pun intended.)
Finally, I can only hope that the country takes your writing to heart quickly. I am an autodidact at heart. I research heavily any topic I am currently interested in. I have probably read and discussed enough material to give myself several more degrees over what I already have. But the way our current system works, what I have learned on my own doesn’t matter. Because I don’t have the correct letters after my name, I do not have the university-granted authority to speak on any of them and be listened to. It is supremely frustrating. I long for your credentialing system that would give a way for autodidacts such as myself a way of validating to the outside world what we know.
Isn’t it funny, that as a country we hold up the autodidacts of our own history… Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, etc., yet, if they had been born a century or two later, they would never have existed. Their self-learning would not have counted. Greatness and averageness cannot exist at the same time.
Once again, thank you for your book.