Samplers, religions, bell curves and “test gaps”

Jan. 31, 2011

In my childhood, my mother had a needlework sampler on the bedroom wall that read, “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it little behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” In my youth I took that sentiment to heart.

As an adult I slowly came to appreciate the opposite sentiment of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

In my old age I admit that Longworth’s view makes for a more interesting social evening.

Which shall we follow in considering a touchy subject—the good and the bad of religions, supernatural and secular?

Christianity, for instance, has been both good and bad. On the good side, it has inspired compassionate actions of many millions of people over the past two thousand years: pioneering in building hospitals, inspiring art and architecture, teaching moral codes, banishing slavery, and surprisingly enough, laying intellectual foundations for the future triumphs of science, capitalism and democracy. (I realize this last is subject to dispute. See my programs Religion and Democracy, Science and Democracy and Capitalism and Democracy for details.)

Christianity, like all religions, has also had its not-so-good side. When it was the dominant force in Middle Age Europe it promoted heretic burning, Jewish persecution, crusade wars against Islam, bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants, suppression of science and scientists in the Renaissance, and the conviction that Christianity was the only true religion, the only way to worship the one true God. Reformed and mellowed by the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, Christianity today has lost most of its not-so-good sides.

Islam has had many of the same good and bad sides. For many centuries Muslim countries were the leaders in art, science, scholarship, hospitals and schools—even in tolerance. Islam taught some of the same moral codes that Christianity taught: care for the sick and downtrodden, relief of the poor, forgiveness of enemies, honor your parents, etc. On the not-so-good side, like Christianity, Islam taught the value of war to defend and spread the faith, the persecution of heretics, stoning of sinners, and the conviction that Islam was the one and only true faith. Unfortunately Islam did not have a Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and today in its Radical form at least, Islam is still actively pursuing some of the bad sides.

In modern times we have experienced at least two secular religions that also have their good and bad sides—Communism and Fascism.

On the good side, communism (as well as its close relative, socialism), teaches that equality and fairness are necessary and good. They are. In context, and in balance with freedom and common sense. Exploited workers and minorities are a fact, and we do need to find better ways to protect people from the abuses that come with the freedom of laissez-faire capitalism. Effective trade unions are one answer. Western liberal democracies have already taken other important steps to bring about more equity and fairness. National health-care systems, civil rights laws, affirmative actions, unemployment insurance, graduated income taxes, social security and environmental legislation are all examples.

A serious danger is that in implementing these equity and fairness programs, we so handicap the basic engine of wealth creation—free-market capitalism—that we end up with a lot less wealth to distribute. A smaller pie means all must have a smaller piece, rich and poor alike. For the rich this may not be tragic; for the poor it could be catastrophic.

Fascism, too, has good and bad sides. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Pinochet were dictators who (like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Castro) were responsible for unforgivable crimes against their own citizens. On the plus side, Mussolini boasted that he “made the trains run on time.” Fascist dictators, like communist dictators, did bring order out of chaos. And Fascists (unlike communists) were right in recognizing that people are not equal in talents or productivity. Hitler’s legacy has made it ever since politically suicidal to point to obvious facts—that people differ significantly in all human characteristics.

He was criminally wrong, of course, to claim the “Aryan” race was “superior,” and to condemn Jews, Slavs, Africans and other non-Aryans as “inferior.” He and other racists are wrong today in suggesting that any definable group is “inferior” or “superior.” But Fascists are right to claim that ethnic, racial and gender groups differ. It is simply a fact that for all living creatures—plant, animal and human—there are bell curves for any and all measurable characteristics.  In human beings there are bell curves for height, weight, athletic ability, strength, intelligence, speed, musical ability, sensual acuity, sense of humor, susceptibility to diseases, introversion, extroversion, longevity, social skills, word skill, math skill. You name it; there is a bell curve. And these bell curves have the same shape but have different peaks and valleys for different ethnic, racial and gender groups in pretty much all measurable characteristics.

It is not politically correct to dwell on this. No politician today could be elected if he or she calls undue attention to the bell curves. Almost everyone knows they are there, however, and almost everyone realizes that bell curves play a strong part in the political, social and economic life of all countries in the world.

Bell curves, however, do not have to reinforce prejudices against groups. Most people are smart enough to distinguish between individuals and groups. In fact recognition of the bell curve reality can offer hope for reconciliation and progress. While some ethnic groups, like Jews and Asians, may be on the average and on the median, superior when it comes to academic and scientific achievement, they may also be, on the average and on the median, inferior when it comes to other important human characteristics. While African-Americans may be, on the average and on the median, superior when it comes to musical and sports achievements, they may not be when it comes to some academic and scientific achievements.

So what? Many other traits—speed, strength, social skills, musical ability, street smarts, empathy, verbal fluency, sense of humor, ability to convince others, sports and selling skills—are often far more important and far more prized by most people than academic or scientific achievements. And rightfully so.

Most important of all, “average” and “median” have no meaning and no relation to any given individual in any given social, ethnic, gender or racial group. This simple truth applies most tellingly and most especially to current concerns about gaps in academic test scores in our schools. It really is time we stop blaming teachers, principals and schools in general for “gaps” that are the results of unrealistic equal outcome theories.

Knowledge and acceptance of these bell curves, and their irrelevance to individuals, is especially important in the early 21st century when people from all countries, regions and ethnic groups are mingling, merging, interacting, marrying and often clashing with one another. Jews with Slavs in Russia, Chinese with Philippines in Southeast Asia, Tutsis with Hutus in Uganda, Muslim immigrants with European natives in western Europe, African-Americans with Latin-Americans, Native Americans and Whites in the U.S., whites with native Africans in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Mexican immigrants with U.S. citizens in the U.S., Japanese with Koreans, gays with straights everywhere, and hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of other racial and ethnic groups in societies around the world, with hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of competing racial and ethnic groups in societies around the world.

What is to be done about these bell curve differences?

My solution sounds simplistic and callous. Nothing. A wag once said all comparisons are odious. And so they are. Let’s have a moratorium on comparisons. Especially let’s cool down the agonizing over “gaps” in public school tests of academic achievement? Writing books is valuable. Programming computers is valuable. So is cleaning the house, collecting the garbage, competing in the Iron Man, playing in the Super Bowl, and mining the iron ore.

The dancer Martha Graham put into words an ideal we should strive for, individually and as a society, “there is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

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