Mike Rose, in “I Just Want to Be Average,” talks about his school days in South L.A. Now a professor of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, Rose goes through secondary school at Our Lady of Mercy on the Vocational Ed. Track, explaining why standardized versions of this “educational system” are inconsistent with fundamental principles behind liberal, humanistic education as we know it.
While much of “I Just Wanna Be Average” is spent discussing the negative effects of standardized education, Rose makes a clear argument for why education should be about more than just acquiring skills. He writes:
“It seems to me that what we are really talking about when we demand rigor and higher standards in Education is not some Platonic sense of the Good but rather a more tangible social good: the need for all members of our society to have access to the kind of critical thinking and cultural capital that will enable them to participate fully in our democracy. Education, at its best, is a liberatory enterprise. It should open us up, make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us, help us to question what we take for granted, and equip us with the skills we need to change ourselves and our society for the better.”
Rose is critical of the way education is often used as a tool for social control, rather than liberation. He argues that the “narrowly utilitarian view of Education” is what leads to “a lot of wasted time and effort in our schools.”
Thevocational Education (voc-ed) track at Rose’s high school was designed for students who were not college-bound. For these students, the focus was on acquiring job skills instead of a more well-rounded education. Rose felt that this track was not challenging enough and did not prepare him well for life after high school.
While Rose was critical of the vocational Education track, he does not believe that all students should be pushed towards a college education. He writes that “there is value in work that is not highly skilled or professional,” and that voc-ed programs can be beneficial for students who are not interested in or ready for college.
Rose paints his fellow students in Vocational Education in vivid detail, emphasizing the value of everyone. Ken Harvey, one of Rose’s colorful personalities and lively Americans he met throughout his experience, made this remark when the teacher called on him for an opinion during the parable of the talents.
Ken had been messing around in class, and he was bored. “I just wanna be average,” Ken said. Just wanna be average. The line stopped me cold because it was so sad, so final, such an absolute admission of defeat. It also showed how totally Rose’s classmates had bought into the system’s low expectations for them.
The Education system is set up in a way that vocational students are not given the same opportunities as their college-bound peers, and this is something that frustrates Rose. He wants his readers to understand that these kids are human beings with dreams and aspirations, even if they don’t always vocalize it or seem like they care.
I was startled by the fact that I had never considered how much impact books might have. So, I decided to explore what happened when Ken and his team read the same book. The book they read was The Last Artful Dodgers: Chasing a Dream in Postwar Brooklyn (Rereading America) , which documented Ken’s family’s journey from rural Barbados to urban Brooklyn during World War II. It chronicles the heartwarming tale of an undocumented kid trying to make it in baseball against all odds (201).
In the essay “I Just Wanna Be Average,” author Michael Winerip recounts his encounters with a student named Ken, who aspires to nothing more than mediocrity. To Winerip, this is incomprehensible; why would anyone not want to excel? However, upon further reflection, he begins to see that Ken’s perspective is not so unusual after all.
Ken’s response to Winerip’s question about his future plans highlights the different attitudes toward education held by those in the lower and upper classes. For Ken, school is a burden to be endured, not an opportunity to be seized. He sees no point in striving for excellence when he knows he will never be able to compete with wealthier students who have all the advantages. In his mind, it is better to be average than to set oneself up for disappointment.
Winerip’s own experience as a teacher reveals the truth of Ken’s words. He has seen countless talented students from poor backgrounds fall by the wayside because they lack the resources and support to succeed. Education is supposed to be the great leveler, but in reality, it often reinforces existing inequalities.
In the end, Winerip comes to respect Ken for his realism and honesty. His experience has taught him that the American Dream is not always within reach for everyone. For some, just getting by is achievement enough.
Rose goes on to detail his understanding of this one-liner and how it relates to the education system in the United States. Ken Harvey was attempting to protect himself by “taking on with a fury” the vocational track’s identity, according to Rose (187). He also mentions that he was fortunate enough to switch schools at an older age and meet late-blooming beatnik intellectuals like Jack MacFarland, who became a College Prep educator, and Brother Clint, a tough-minded science instructor.
These men encouraged him to develop his writing and thinking skills, which allowed Rose to eventually attend college and pursue a career in teaching.
While “I just wanna be average” is a sad line, Education of Lucky Dog reminds us that there are educators out there who refuse to let their students become average. As long as we continue to have inspiring teachers like Jack MacFarland and Brother Clint, there will always be hope for our nation’s education system.
These personalities brought a college-level curriculum to a community that hadn’t previously experienced it. And Rose explains how classism and racism most frequently prevent this from happening, wasting entire American populations in specific communities intentionally while demanding higher “standards” and “accountability,” even as real efforts are never made, save in name and sprinkled across the country as media headlines.
The book I Just Wanna Be Average is a story about Education. In the book, the main character Mike Rose reveals how classism and racism prevent many American students from getting a proper education. He argues that teachers and schools should be more accountable for their students’ success. This is a powerful book that will make you think about Education in a different light.