I was complaining to a teacher colleague in a Starbucks about the management where we both used to work—at the time, he had already left and I was still there.
"Everything to them is a 'code red'," I said, borrowing a phrase from yet another teacher colleague at the same place about the same issue. "Everything's important. But this [whatever I was complaining about at the time] is just not important."
He said, "I can't imagine telling my students that something wasn't important."
I don't remember ever being "struck" by something that someone said before that. But I was truly struck by his response—not in a reflexive, emotional way, but a dozen little rememberings happened, a hundred tiny connections, when I heard him say that. It was a perfectly timed, "obvious" truth that managed to pull together a number of pieces of my knowledge and experience and give them their own singular gravity.
Should the General Architecture of Reality . . .
"Ninety percent of everything is crap." This is the phrase most commonly referenced as Sturgeon's Law, formulated by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon to emphasize that the volume of lower-quality writing in science fiction was not a characteristic unique to science fiction writing. Indeed, when you substitute "crap" with something a little less bitter, and allow for some variability around 90%, this law is robustly observable:
Sensory Gating We filter out most of the stimuli that pound daily on our senses, attending only to a small percent of what we perceive. This is known as sensory gating. A measure of sensory gating used to help identify subjects with schizophrenia places the reduction in sensory stimuli for those without the illness at around 80%-90%.
Dark Matter and Dark Energy Today it is thought that dark matter and dark energy together make up about 96% of all the mass and energy in the universe, with about 73% going to dark energy and 23% to dark matter. It's far from "crap" (maybe). But this is all stuff that we currently cannot "see, detect, or even comprehend."
Junk DNA Given what we now know, most of the genome is junk, sorry. Even here we don't stray too far at all from Sturgeon's 90%: "at most 10% of the human genome exhibits detectable organism-level function and conversely that at least 90% of the genome consists of junk DNA."
The Pareto Principle Related to Sturgeon's Law is the Pareto Principle, which says that "for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes." It has been observed in many natural and social contexts, including wealth distribution and Internet traffic.
. . . Not Be Allowed to Stand Up in Schools?
So, is there a similar 90% in education, in teaching, in schools—however you want to contextualize that? My purpose in writing this post is not to answer yes to that question and then start listing things that are unimportant. Instead, I'd simply like for us to stand back and consider that (1) since education is a part of our natural and social landscape, Sturgeon's Law very likely applies to it in some way, but (2) we are forced to pretend that this is not the case.