Dan told me the story of what he calls “the four stupid smart girls” that he graduated with, and I think it’s one worth repeating.
As I recall, there were four girls at the top of his graduating class in high school. They were all friends until it came time for class rank to be posted and for the valedictorian to be announced. You see, by any normal measure, all four of them would’ve been listed as number one, the person after them would be listed as number five, and that would be about it. After all, that’s what happens when more than one person is tied for number 42.
But number one was different. Whoever was number one got to be the valedictorian of the class, and give the big speech. So now, who was number one was important, and Dan says that the school took their calculations out to three decimal places to try to figure out who was really number one.
Because after all, you couldn’t have more than one valedictorian…at least not in 1974 you couldn’t.
All of a sudden, Dan says that the claws came out on these four girls, as they argued amongst themselves and in front of others about who was the smart one and who were the stupid ones. Each of these girls wanted to be the valedictorian so badly that it destroyed their friendships.
Meanwhile, Dan, who was "only" number 20 in a class of 450 laughed at the spectacle, as did many of their classmates. You see, Dan realized that even at number 20, he was still in the 95th percentile, and these four girls, tied for the number one spot, arguing over who the stupid one was, were up there in the 99th. They were so much smarter than everyone else, and yet it was important to them whether one of them had a 99.999, a 99.998, a 99.997, or a 99.996. Their egos were so bound up in this, that they couldn’t understand that it didn’t really matter, and that no one would care in four years.
And that's what made them stupid.
Why do I repeat Dan’s story here? Because it’s important as we think about where the United States sits in global comparisons about education, technology, and a few other things.
A few years ago, at a faculty meeting, I was shown a YouTube video called Did You Know, that’s scaring the pants off of people. It talks about how India and China are going to catch up with, and surpass us in a few years. About how in a few years China will have more English speakers than the United States. I've also heard from other sources that America sucks in math and science because our students only come in at number 10 on whatever test it is that they're using to figure this out.
My response to that is pretty much the same as Dan’s was to the four stupid smart girls: So what?
Really. Is there any rule that says that we have to be number one in everything? Were we always number one in education or technology? No. And if we’re “only” number 10, doesn’t that still put us in the top 10 of all the countries in the world? And maybe the way other countries do their testing is different. Perhaps those countries that seem to be beating us only let their best of the best take whatever test it is that they’re beating us on, while we believe that everyone should have a chance. Maybe if we cherry-picked our best and had them take the test, we’d beat the pants off of everyone else.
But again, the question remains: Why do we always have to be number one? What’s wrong with hanging out with Dan in the 95th percentile? That’s still pretty darn good.
This fear we have of falling behind, and of being beaten by some other country, has us now trying to shoehorn students who would’ve been better in English, Psychology, Linguistics, or Music into Engineering, Computer Science, or some other technology-related field, so that we can “regain our edge.” I think that’s a very bad idea.
And I’d like to think that 37 years later, even the four stupid smart girls would understand that.