The Law of Average-ness

To be average.

What a dreadful fate.

We're no longer surprised when "movie stars" are eclipsed by "superstars," when 4.0 grade point averages are inflated into 5.0's, when companies expand their executive ranks so more people can share in a coveted position as "chief."

Schools that can't beat the test score norm are suspect, if not outright flops. The most piddling of things are described "world class," as in Uncle Bob's World Class Meatloaf. Just a couple of years ago, UC San Diego tried to rank its graduate departments on a scale of one to three stars, but the faculty objected on grounds that graduate departments were, by their nature, all three-star.

Last I checked, more than half the students in elite colleges graduated with honors. Overall, the percentage of A students in high school has increased 10% in the last decade even as SAT scores of these same students have generally dropped. The Florida Legislature went further last month and voted to lower the requirement for A grades in public schools from 94% on a test to 90% to help more students on their way.

To be average, you see, is its own kind of doom.

This is a significant change in the American Dream, and not a good one, I think.

The very idea of excellence has been watered down and overblown at the same time.

Yes, lip service is still paid to the "average American." And our president jokes about his own average-ness. But who believes it, really?

Without intending so, or at least I don't think it was intentional, we have stigmatized the idea of being average. When we refer to an "average Joe" in conversation, we really mean someone inferior. Everything about being average is not regarded as average anymore, but we are the less for it.

If democracy reflected the self-interest of "average Americans," Social Security pensioners would get the same break as millionaires when it comes to double taxation of their earnings. But not so. Under President Bush's new tax cuts, Social Security recipients will continue to pay higher marginal rates than millionaires.

Why was there only faint squawking at this outcome? I don't think it's because Americans are asleep. I don't think it's because we've been hoodwinked. Democracy answers to cultural imperatives, not just personal concerns. And who wants to go to the mat for somebody that so few of us admire or want to be: average Joe?

So it's only natural that the wealthy would benefit. Wealth is the signature measure of excellence. How can we deny the full rewards for what we so relentlessly strive to achieve?

Perhaps I have fresh perspective on this. Not long ago, I spent two winters in remote Alaska researching a book. It so happens that the northern frontier lags behind on most all trends, so I found myself turning my watch back to the days when being average remained a source of contentment. People were still reassured by the immutable truth: Most of us are, in fact, average Joes. Just do the math.

Maybe some of my friends up on the edge of the Arctic Circle were preoccupied with everyday chores, like chopping firewood and filling the larder with salmon. Or maybe they had found other reasons to enjoy life. At any rate, they hadn't caught onto the idea that being an American now means neurotic competition to escape averageness.

If Mark Richards up near Eagle, Alaska, tells you he saw a world-class moose, you will know it was the kind of bull that could clear-cut a forest with its antlers. On the other hand, an average moose walking by his cabin is still plenty big.

If the kids earn an A in school, it's cause to celebrate, not merely something to be expected. Receiving a B is not a dishonor. Uncle Bob makes no special claim about his Yukon River meatloaf, but everyone looks forward to a slice of it and there is never any left over.

My dictionary describes average as "the usual or normal kind." Just do the math. It's self-evident. And I'm with my friends in the Far North who say let's relax about it, really.

In fact, as I look around these days, normal sounds better all the time, even if you have to go all the way to the Arctic Circle and dodge moose to find it.

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