THE HISTORY OF THE BELL CURVE: SORTING AND THE IDEA OF NORMAL

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Abstract

Abstract Bell-curve thinking, as a model of distribution of success and failure in society, enjoys a perennial (ahistorical, objective, and law-like) status in education. As such it provides a rationale for sorting (tracking or streaming) practices in education, which has led many educators to criticize both bell-curve thinking and associated sorting practices. In this essay, Lynn Fendler and Irfan Muzaffar argue that the existing critiques of bell-curve thinking ring true for people who believe that the purpose of schooling is to promote a more equitable redistribution of resources in society; however, these arguments do not criticize the law-like character assumed for a bell curve as a representation of social reality. To extend these critiques, Fendler and Muzaffar focus on the history of the bell curve, from a representation of binomial probability, to a bearer of real things in nature, and finally to a set of expectations about how people should behave. They ultimately argue that the acceptance of bell-curve thinking in education is part of a recursive project of governance and normalization.

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