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Yes, Garrison, All the Children ARE Above Average!—by Ben Fink

Right now I live in Elmer.  But for many years before that, I lived in Minnesota.  When people find that out, they usually ask me about the weather (yes it’s cold).  Then we sometimes talk about Prince (never seen him, but friends have) or Fargo (it’s actually in North Dakota).  And then, more often than not, we end up talking about Garrison.  Garrison Keillor, that is.  Host of the old-timey radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which broadcasts (great) Minnesota music and (awful) Minnesota humor nationwide.  (I actually performed onstage with him once!)

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I want to think with you about a famous line Garrison says during every show.  Each week, he tells funny stories about a made-up small Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon, and all the stories end the same way:  “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

It’s that last part we need to think about.  It’s meant as a joke, of course.  (All the children can’t be above average.  Half of them have to be below average, otherwise it isn’t an average!  Get it?)  And the joke is on us—all of us adults who think our kids are great.  Garrison is telling us that as much as we may love them, they can’t all be as good, smart, or talented as we think they are.  (He’s not alone in saying this.  Psychologists and other social scientists call it illusory superiority, or the Lake Wobegon Effect (no joke).)

For us at Appel Farm, this is a problem.  We don’t think there’s such a thing as a “below average” child.  We believe that “artistic talent is innate and waiting to be developed in every person.”  (It’s right there in our mission statement.)  We don’t do auditions or competition at camp, and we don’t need to.  We believe that every single person is good, generous, talented, and capable of doing amazing, far-above-average things—and every summer for the past 55 years, we’ve met hundreds of incredible young people who keep proving us right.

But how can that be?  It’s simple:  we’re all above average in different ways.  This is the basic idea behind the theories of multiple intelligences and differentiated instruction, which we teach our camp staff every summer.  People learn and create in all kinds of different ways.  If we’re all forced to learn and create in the same way, then yes, half of us will be above-average, and half will not.  But if we have teachers who really get to know us, who find the ways we learn and create best, and who help us to work in those ways, then yes, we all can truly be above average.

Take me, for instance.  I am an above-average singer.  I am not an above-average dancer.  (Except that one dance…)  Does that make me…average?  Or above average, as long as I don’t go near those tap shoes?  No way!  If I were still a camper at Appel Farm, I would love to take dance—because I know my instructors would get to know me and teach me to dance using those learning styles in which I’m already above average.  (And it would just be a lot of fun.)

So yes, Garrison.  I think your show is great—and it makes me miss Minnesota something fierce—but I still think Appel Farm is right about kids.  All the children are, in fact, above average in different ways.  And if we teach them right, they can become above average in lots of other ways, too!

(And it probably wouldn’t hurt for me to learn a few new dances…)