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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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Edited By Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.

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6 Evolutionary Anxiety, Monstrosity, and the Birth of Normality - Steven A. Gelb 71

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The publication in 1886 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic tale The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde created a sensation in England (Dury, 2004). Readers shuddered over the transformation of the good, respectable physician Dr. Jekyll into his terrifyingly murderous alter ego, Mr. Hyde, a repulsive, animal- like insinuation of a human being. Hyde’s mere appearance inspired revulsion in all who saw him. He was “deformed” (p. 12), “apelike” (p. 73), “troglodytic” (p. 18), “like a rat,” and compared to “a dwarf ” (p. 44). His terrible character matched his appearance. For sheer enjoyment Hyde trampled a young girl and beat a man to death with a cane. A character observed about Hyde that “there was something abnormal and misbegotten in the very essence of the creature” (p. 54). Mr. Hyde is more than a mere literary creation. He is a prototype of abnor- mality as the category was developed just before the 20th century. The anxiety that resulted from Darwin’s connection of humanity and animals catalyzed the late 19th century project to distinguish normality from abnormality. Longstand- ing myths about human-animal monsters mixed together with evolutionary theory resulted in western society’s projection of its most detested and disas- sociated attributes into the category of abnormality. In this chapter I argue that in spite of its scientific imprimatur, the normality/abnormality dichotomy was infused with irrationalism at its conception. But before turning to this history I discuss the problematic pre-suppositions of the normality/abnormality binary. SIX Evolutionary Anxiety, Monstrosity, and...

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