THE BLOG
10/14/2014 09:07 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

The Five Percent Rule

Mehmed Zelkovic via Getty Images

I call it the Five Percent Rule, and it goes like this:

Ninety-five percent of everything is unimportant baloney, crap that we humans use to torture ourselves and each other. Neckties. Eye shadow. Funny hats. Hair length. Only five percent of what we deal with is true and important and lasting. Only five percent of what we deal with is really important. Only five percent of what we deal with really, truly matters. It's what Thoreau was saying -- simplify your life by getting rid of the 95 percent junk.

I'll bet you that many people agree, that many people would also say that folks waste way too much time and concern and effort and worry and energy on stuff that just doesn't matter.

But here's the catch. We can agree that a huge slice of life is wasted on inconsequential stupid stuff, and that only that small sliver, that five percent, really deserves our heart and soul and attention.

But we can't agree on what falls within the five percent.

We all subscribe to "Don't sweat the small stuff." But we can't agree on which stuff is small.

You may think that having a neat and orderly house is essential to a good life, but I think comfort and personality is what really matters. I may think that an unexamined life is not worth living, while you feel all that navel gazing is a waste of time. You may think ready access to fresh, compelling music is an unnecessary luxury, while I believe that life requires it.

Oh, there are some things we all mostly subscribe to, like "Nobody ever lay on his death bed wishing he had spent more time at the office." But so many of our fights with other humans are about what constitutes that essential, true five percent. (And of course, some people will argue that the five percent is really 20 or 30 or 50. The Five Percent Rule also applies to the Five Percent Rule.)

Sometimes we make accommodations by association. There are things I have never really believed are part of that five percent, but my wife is part of my five percent, so what she values, I value, because I value her.

Disagreements about the five percent don't have to be a big deal. Particularly if we value other people and hold them in our five percent, it's not that hard to accept that we all have our own five percents, and that doesn't make people wrong necessarily -- just different. Though, of course, if your five percent includes a moral absolutism that you hold more important than other people...

The problem comes when we start trying to enforce our five percent on everyone. I think this value is real and true, so you will value it also or else.

Educational reformsterism, the GERM, the new status quo -- it's all about enforcing and inflicting one particular idea about the five percent.

Traditional schools in the post-war period allowed for a certain looseness, a certain freedom for students to pursue whatever five percent they felt connected to. If they clashed with one teacher who held a conflicting view of the five percent, they might also find a teacher who valued a similar sliver. They were free to suss out that deepest of adolescent mysteries -- what do I really value? What falls within my five percent?

What Common Core-based, high-stakes test-driven, data-hovering, no excuses, college- and career-ready schooling does is tell students (much as schools did 100 years ago) that the only correct view of the five percent is the one dictated by the People In Charge. There is no need for a young person to search or probe or question. The five percent is already there, on the test, in the standards, in the insistence that education is only job training, and that only scores and dollars are the measure of a person's life. Listen to what reformsters like David Coleman say -- it's not so much about education as it's about what they believe constitutes the five percent. Coleman's whole educational philosophy has been about saying, "We are spending school time on things like feelings and literature that are not important in life, are not part of the five percent."

My dispute is really two-fold. First, I disagree with their view of the five percent. I think it's stunted, sad, and wrong. But second, even if the reformsters embraced most of the values that I do, I would still object to enforcing them as the only values pushed by public education. One size does not fit all -- not even if it's the size that fits me.

It is a hard thing to learn in life, that letting go of the 95 percent, that learning to stop bothering with the sweaty small stuff. But it's essential to living a full and focused life in which one does not waste time on things one does not care about. Education must leave people free to figure out their five percent, not force them to adopt somebody else's.