The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he found, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teens’ attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze out “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” One girl told him what it really took to be part of “the leading crowd” at her high school: “Don’t be too smart. Flirt with boys. Be cooperative on dates.”

Coleman found that in many schools, athletics ruled. More than 40 percent of boys, for instance, wanted to be remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student,” despite the fact that, as Coleman observed, school was “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”

Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, he found that most high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” The institutions may be different, he wrote, “but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands.”

It was, Coleman suggested, a rational response to a system whose rewards sat on a bell curve. Students were protecting themselves from extra work by ostracizing high achievers, “constraining the fast minority,” and holding down the achievements of those who were above average, “so that the school’s demands will be at a level easily maintained by the majority.”

A few academically oriented, highly competitive “isolates” might prosper under this system, he found, but even the gifted high achievers, set apart with “special tasks,” usually found themselves unhappily separated from their peers. And the effort to serve gifted children, he wrote, “at its best probably misses far more potential scientists and scholars than it finds.”