Friday, May 31, 2013

Boxed In

It was during the 60s and I was invited to a meeting of people interested in civil rights. The moderator asked us to sit in a large circle and then introduce ourselves. One after the other, I heard people say their names and then tell what they did. I saw myself categorizing them as they said their professions and wondered how they would categorize me. My career was as a wife and mother—housewife, and I knew how that looked on a resume. So when it came my turn, I said my name and turned to the individual beside me to allow him to introduce himself. There was a long pause and then he collected himself and said his name and profession. Later, during a break, people came up to me and asked what I did. I could see they needed more information so they knew what box I could fit in.
While working as an educational therapist, I saw the value of categories. You couldn’t get services for children without those labels, and so I don’t want to throw out the idea of categories, but the labels can be limiting as judgments are made. Determining intelligence is a complicated matter, and labeling can be a simple matter, too simple. We have no trouble with the label “left handed.” However, saying someone is “lower middle class” can be a different story.
Numerous studies have been made regarding labeling. Two graduate students, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, set out to show that the recipe for academic achievement requires more than raw intellect and lots of schooling. They kept the details of their plan a secret and told teachers that the test they administered was designed to identify which students would improve academically over the coming year. They called these students “academic bloomers.” The test was really an IQ measure with separate versions for each school grade and had nothing to do with academic blooming. Rosenthal and Jacobson recorded all the scores and then chose a random sampling of children and labeled them “academic bloomers.”
The “academic bloomers” in reality should not have had any more success than the other students. But the results at the end of the year showed that they did. They outperformed their peers by a 10 to 15 IQ points. Four of every five bloomers experienced at least a 10-point improvement, but only half the non-bloomers improved their score by 10 points or more. Teachers admitted that during the year, they praised the bloomers for their successes, over looked their failures, and devoted plenty of time and energy to ensuring they would fulfill that label of blooming.
There are some lessons in here, I’m sure. Are you allowing yourself to be a “bloomer”?



  1. This is a great post Ruth ~ compassionate, inspiring and very thought provoking. Certainly a part of my life throughout my entire career in education. Ironically, the whole "label" thing is something I constantly wrestle with at present when I try to explain to people what it is that I "do".

  2. My self-label is "advocate." It applies to my job as mother of my children (or mother bear if need be). It works for my job as an attorney, where I can be an official advocate. It applies to my friendships and relationships. What I need to work on is being my own advocate. Maybe someday I will bloom in that area.

  3. The recent interest in, but the long research behind, the superficiality of the MBTI (or whatever it is called) and many of the instruments really has me thinking a lot about labels and how attractive they are for us even when we know they are wrong, or superficial or limited. They are easy and often that is enough. They are especially attractive when the alternatives is deep thought without a resolution, not all things can be answered and we need to feel complete, to close the circle, to have AN answer. Labels are so comforting, except of course when they are not.

    We cant stop using labels, a table is not a chair (and its useful for most practical purposes to not see them both as just manifestations of energy). But that is what they are. So they are both and we are many things at once, both spirits and human flesh, both strong and weak, both wise and immature, both individual and collective and many others things. But we need, for our own sanity, to define a few things and then say that is enough, and it is. Not enough to form perfect reality, but enough for us to navigate our worlds. We draw circles around the portion of reality we can accept, we can handle, we label it reality, and to us that label is exactly what it is.