Once long ago and far away, there was a land called South Kogglebot which had a problem with the education of its citizens.
South Kogglebot had a long and chequered history. Indeed it had endowed universities for well over a thousand years, and of course, schools far before that. Yet for some reason South Kogglebot qualifications attracted little respect in the international marketplace, or even at home. In fact, South Kogglebot citizens by the thousand were carefully tying up their gold coins in a headcloth, packing a good supply of their favourite mushrooms in a wooden lunchbox, and heading off to foreign lands in search of a respectable education.
Whenever his courtiers told the king of South Kogglebot about the folk scuttling away over the border he went red in the face and shouted that South Kogglebot was the best kingdom in the whole world. It was true that the citizens of South Kogglebot were very smart. Unfortunately the best of them were too smart to stay in South Kogglebot for their education.
Entering a university in South Kogglebot was a titanic struggle for tiny tots. From an early age the children were marched up and down the streets in strict formation. They trained and trained until everybody could snap to attention together, bow together, and shout "God save the King!" together. Any child who let his attention wander to a dog fight on the roadside, or the leaves fluttering from a tree was strictly punished. Each year there was a huge parade when the eldest children put on their very finest clothes and marched in front of the king. Inspectors combed the ranks looking for the tiniest fault, and those children who performed with absolutely mechanical precision were given high awards. They were ushered through the hallowed gates of the universities, which were also arranged in a strict order of prestige.
The mothers of South Kogglebot were of course desperate for their children to earn the king's favour. They muttered darkly about the abilities of the lowly public school parade trainers. Each month they took many gold coins from the family savings pot in the kitchen to pay slick private operators. The privateers promised without even a hint of self-doubt that they could take the most stumbling, bumbling, dreaming, absent-minded child and turn him into the very model of a modern major general. Thus in every town and village, every night when the children of other lands were curling up with their favourite toys, the children of South Kogglebot could be seen sadly marching up and down the streets while moonlighting sergeant majors shouted at them.
The universities of South Kogglebot were the most curious of all institutions. They had enormous gates to remind everyone passing through that they were about to leave the real world. They employed batteries of scribes to manufacture foggy mountains of words. Indeed, those who entered the foggy word mountains were in danger of never leaving because the many word signs, though grand, always led off to further misty paths running into dead-end valleys.
Deep in the heart of each university was a convocation of elders. The elders fluttered around in black robes and richly tailored garments with important expressions on their faces. They were, they told each other, the wisest of the wise. Therefore, whatsoever they uttered should be copied diligently and repeated by all lesser persons without hesitation or doubt. It was obvious to everyone that the noviates should be judged and graded according to their repetitions of the wise elders' words.
Deep in the heart of each university there was also a kind of embarrassing community secret. The noviates had put up with years of idiotic marching up and down. They had listened to their mothers, given up their childhoods, and never watched a dog fight or the leaves fluttering from trees. Now they were strong, healthy and as far as possible, brain-dead. At twenty years of age, their hormones were stirring, and suddenly as a group (they did everything as a group) they shouted "to hell with study. It's time to play!"
Every year the revolt of the noviates was greeted by the elders with wisely nodding heads and a sigh. They too had been noviates once. They had also decided long ago that it was a waste to time trying to study anything properly in the foggy word mountains. Life was short, and the truth was that things could be pleasanter for everyone if nobody did much at all in the university. On the other hand, the king and all the people outside the gates had to be impressed somehow, or they might march in and drag the wise elders off to work in a coal mine.
It should be said that nearly all the elders had earned their mystique by attending foreign universities. Often this meant years of humiliation, begging for hints from foreign professors, talking badly in barbaric foreign languages and paying the rent by selling hamburgers in a takeaway to uncouth foreign truck drivers. Once a prized foreign diploma was secured by whatever means they could return to South Kogglebot in triumph.
Anyway, the elders of South Kogglebot did pick up an occasional useful idea from the horror years of serving truck drivers and other foreign whims. At one time, one of them had learned a clever trick with counting. It was called statistics, and it leant itself to lies and creative deceptions in the most inventive ways. Best of all, nobody every knew what the numbers actually meant.
Once the idea of statistics caught on with the scribes for foggy word mountains, in no time whole ranges of craggy peaks bristled with impenetrable numbers. It was marvelous, like the imitation leather shoes that nobody can tell is imitation leather anymore. In a frenzy of building, research institutes with names inscribed in stainless steel letters were planted in the sleepier corners of campuses. Science, it was declared, had arrived.
At last, the perennial problem of the revolt of the noviates was seized upon by those elders now wise in the wiles of statistics. The parameters were clear enough. a) There were shoals of noviates who didn't want to study. b) There were covens of elders who wanted a quiet life. c) There was a ravening world outside, where the king and naive citizens actually thought their children should learn something useful. The trick was obviously to please a) and b) while fooling c). Then everyone could be happy. The solution was brilliantly simple.
As any statistical maven knows, if you take a large sample of almost anything, from the length of fingernails to the respect that citizens have for their king, and stack the numbers up, they will make a kind of bell curve with a big belly of similar numbers in the middle and a tail of stragglers on each end. The wise elders of South Kogglebot universities knew very well that nearly every class test would yield a similar bell curve.
The statistics witchery by the elders turned on the universal nature of bell curves. Wouldn't it be smart if they took control of the bell curve, decided the numbers that would go into it, and used it as a template to fit around every class of noviates? In that way, each class would have a small number of certified geniuses, a decent number of also-rans, and a small tail of no-hopers.
What was the beauty of this design? Well, what if you ran a class on nuclear physics and everyone passed brilliantly? You could almost draw straws on who would be the lucky or unlucky trailers at each end. What if you ran a class on tying shoelaces, and nobody actually learned to tie a shoelace effectively? No problem. You could still arrange your silly bell curve, say by marking people on whether they took 15 seconds or 30 seconds to do a bad job. The world would duly salute the A+ students.
It was true that if you took 10,000 noviates and arranged to teach them shoe lace tying, as sure as heck some of them would learn to do it brilliantly, and some other poor souls would fumble forever. That was the original power of unsullied statistics : a decent sample size. But if you took a class of 30 noviates, there was no way you could know, let alone guarantee, where they would fit as individuals or a group into a sample of 10,000. They might all be dummies or they might all be geniuses. The sample was just too small.
No matter. The problem of the noviates was solved. If the students worked or didn't work it didn't matter. If the wise elder said wise words or said 'rhubarb rhubarb', it didn't matter. At the end of the term everyone would be fitted neatly into a bell curve with a given number of certified geniuses. To make things as comfortable as possible, it was arranged that the no-hoper tail should be very small indeed, usually with a 30% bonus for turning up to class at all and bowing with the correct obeisance.
Having relived their childhood, and learned a few grown up things like dating and having a mind-blowing party, the noviates of South Kogglebot universities almost never failed to be awarded their diplomas in due course. The diploma was a kind of rite of passage to adulthood, a signal to get married, and above all a time to stop living off dad's money and find a job.
Sadly, things didn't always work out that way. Many a captain of industry in South Kogglebot was disappointingly unimpressed by the gilt-edged university diplomas from earnest wannabes who were, as near as possible brain-dead, and couldn't actually do anything. The more ambitious wannabes tried hard to talk dad out of even more money and head off overseas for one of the prized foreign diplomas. This too had problems when foreign universities, which loved the gold South Kogglebotters brought with them, discovered that their international students didn't actually know much, and had never done anything resembling research in their lives. Uncouth foreign professors began to mutter grumpily about the great South Kogglebot bell curve conspiracy.
Well, you can't please everybody all the time. Maybe though you can fool enough of the people enough of the time. The wise elders and the feckless noviates, the desperate mothers and the captains of industry, even it is rumoured, the king, nowadays puzzle over backwash from the great South Kogglebot bell curve conspiracy. Can South Kogglebot, they wonder, live happily ever after?
Bio: Thor May has been teaching English to non-native speakers, and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. At the moment he is teaching in Chungju National University, South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at http://thormay.net ; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . His doctoral dissertation is on language teaching productivity .
The Conspiracy of Kogglebot
copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2006
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