Book review: ‘The End of Average,’ by Todd Rose
Special to the Daily
To be born into modern society means to be tallied and measured on various scales — even from day one, with the commencement of a person’s journey along a childhood growth chart. What do those marks and notations really mean, though? Do the height and weight percentiles of a child really tell anything meaningful about the adult he or she will grow up to be? Author Todd Rose says there can be a viable use in looking at averages, but not “in the moment you need to make a decision about any individual.”
In his recent book, “The End of Average: How to Succeed in a World That Values Sameness,” Rose argues that “any system designed around the average person is doomed to fail.” The 20th century saw a coalescing of a deep fascination with averages, most profoundly in regards to the physical and mental capabilities of human beings. The destructive eugenics movement rose out of this notion of building societal systems based on the analysis of the growing collections of statistical data on people, and though less extreme, the modern educational system and the current standards of employment have been profoundly impacted by the fixation on averages.
Throughout his book, Rose uses his own experiences growing up as a framework for his criticism of the world of averages. Tagged early on as a troubled child, he was placed on a conveyor belt of low expectations, and he responded predictably, dropping out of high school and beginning a series of low-wage jobs that he never seemed to be able to keep.
But, Rose says, “Fifteen years after I dropped out of high school, I was on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I am now the director of the Mind, Brain and Education program.”
His book is part historical analysis of the metamorphosis of the “averagerian,” a term first coined by poet William Cyples, who, in a very prescient analysis, worried over where this love of averages would lead mankind, and indeed, the notion of measuring ourselves against others has become so ubiquitous it is done without question.
Fortunately for Rose’s own future, he did question the established idea of the “average man,” where to be like everyone else was normal and to be individual was somehow a flawed endeavor. His first job when he left school was on a factory assembly line, where it did not take him long to feel like just another cog in the machine, “dehumanized,” a cookie-cutter part that could be replaced by anyone else.
In the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, he says, this became the new ideal, where the system needed to be the main focus, the theory being that it made for a more stable and uniform work place. “The worker, once celebrated as a creative craftsman, was relegated to the role of automaton.” Think Charlie Chaplin in his iconic role in the masterpiece “Modern Times.”
As the capitalist ideal of the age of automation ramped up, it became clear that the best way to mold workers to the new systems built upon the standardization of the workforce was to rebuild the educational system to reflect the needs of the work place. Education was designed more to sort people than to educate them.
This, Rose insists, has established an essentially fallacious systemic structure. “How can a society predicated on the conviction that individuals can only be evaluated in reference to the average ever create the conditions for understanding and harnessing individuality?”
Too Far Gone?
Rose spends a great deal of his book establishing the argument that averagerianism is mainstream to modern society, and his many examples reinforce that narrative. The balance of the book supports the notion that there is an alternative, a chance to rediscover the value of the individual, though he does point out that there are many critics who feel society is too far down the rabbit hole of averagerianism to alter course.
But Rose disagrees, citing studies in dynamic mathematical systems, which can be applied to study many potentially individual traits. Also, the modern era of digital data-gathering methods make it more practical to target for the individual.
As more and more modern companies, such as Google and Costco, are challenging the assumption that capitalism has to function independently from individualism, there is a growing consensus that individuals can strive to be what they want, rather than what society tells them to be. Building a culture around the individual instead of around the average really is returning to the ideal embodied in the notion of the “American Dream,” which was never about wealth and power and always about opportunities.