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The End of Civilization

February 20, 2014

Henny Penny is right.  The sky is falling.  Our assumptions are being challenged all over the place.  Received wisdom is being called into doubt.  Derek Jeter is retiring.  Mammograms don’t decrease mortality.  Now this:  It turns out that SAT scores make exactly zero difference in college success.  (   Oh man!  All that money my mother spent at Kaplan!  Actually my mother spent no money at Kaplan which is why my SAT scores were, well, what they were.  Doctors and physicists with low SAT scores are vindicated!  In any case, while there had been rumblings about this from colleges and industry groups for awhile, this was the big study that confirmed the hunch.

Studies like this are scary for a lot of people.  Not just for the test-prep folks or the people that administer the tests.  It’s scary for people who’s job  or inclination it is to impose control on the world.  It threatens the idea that everyone can be scored and categorized, put in his or her proper place.  It threatens the comfort of knowing where everybody stands.  It threatens imposed order.  This sort of study, and to a lesser extent the mammography study, implies that it might be OK to refuse to conform.  Just a little bit.  It suggests that everyone saying something “must be done” doesn’t actually end the conversation.  It suggests that people with skills and opinions that don’t fit into neat multiple-choice niches might have a place in a carefully guarded meritocracy.  It suggests that it’s OK to be a little bit naughty.

When I was growing up there were a lot of things you “just did”.  You went to school and sat quietly.  You got good grades.  You took your SATs.  You went to college.  You did what you were told and the implication was that if you conformed in all these ways you were safe from…what?  Safely on the “good” side of the line, the responsible citizen line.  And you would be happy.  Same thing in medicine.  It used to be that you got your yearly physical, you did what the doctor said, you got your cholesterol checked, you got your mammogram and your PSA and your PAP, you did your 30 minutes of exercise, and all this put you safely on the responsible side of the line, where it was safe.  Very simple.  Very comforting.

It turns out that a lot of us got sold a load of crap.  I went to medical school and came out miserable.  Matt Damon dropped out of Harvard and is, to all appearances, happy as a clam.  One person from a prosperous home gets perfect SATs but it’s the minority student on the next street over who succeeds at the college they both go to.  One violinist plods along faithfully, practicing 8 hours a day, but the violinist who gets the symphony job is the one who never set foot in a practice room.  One person has 12 letters after their name but it’s the guy with the high school diploma who creates Facebook.  One woman never gets a mammogram and lives to be 100 and another gets hers at age 40 and is dead 2 years later.

Life is much messier than we would like it to be.  We live in a great world where we can make choices.  We can challenge the received wisdom.  We can use our actual talents, rather than manufacturing talents we don’t have in order to fit the picture we are supposed to present.  We can succeed in a way that feels like our personal definition of success, not someone else’s.  We can refuse to conform and live with the consequences.  But we have to think a little, and we have to choose.  It’s so much easier to just do what we’re told.


From → education

  1. Vic Nicholls permalink

    Who is Matt Damon? Next, I scored lower on my SAT’s (salutatorian) than our valedictorian. He lasted 1 semester in college. I have 2 degrees.

    Next …

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