14: In reverse alphabetical order

The month of the year in which we are born can result in up to an extra 11 months of education in primary school, thereby providing undue advantage to those whose birthdays fall in the calendar year after rather than before August. Given the considerable difficulties, if not impossibility, of adjusting the school intake or evaluation of schoolchildren’s progress to reflect this, we have no choice but to accept the unfairness of the situation in the same way that we have to accept immutable genetic attributes affecting our height or intellectual capabilities.

Such resignation to a factor where it is not realistic to make change or over which we have little control, however, does not hold true with regard to another factor – albeit less significant – that also has a differential impact on our life chances. This relates to the position in the alphabet of the first letter of our surname which then dictates the order of our ‘appearance’ in named lists.

The disadvantage in this case applies as much to joint authors of an article as to a list of sportsmen. I would hazard a guess that, for this reason, the success of some academics has being somewhat furthered by the fact that their names are recorded before that of their colleagues. Furthermore, where there are several names, it is commonplace to use the first surname followed by the phrase et al, not only implying a lesser role for these ‘others’ or even resulting in their oversight. In the case of school activities, possibly limited by the availability of time or the exigencies of the weather, individuals whose surname is closer to the earlier part of the alphabet have a greater chance of involvement or practice.

I suggest that from next year schools and other comparable institutions, whose administrative practices operate with this unfair outcome for people at the lower end of the alphabet, list names in reverse alphabetical order (from Z to A), and that each year the order is reversed. I should add that my surname is fairly close to the middle of the batting order, and I therefore have no particular axe to grind (to mix metaphors).

Originally published in Cornucopia of Ideas: A Global Ideas Bank Compendium (eds. Nicholas Albery et al.) 2001. (Listing names in reverse alphabetical order in alternate years to offset possible bias from it.)

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