"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 22, 2014

Excellence–Talent, Expectation, And Ambition

A recent article by a mother in U.S. News suggested that her son get a trophy for ‘trying’.  It was exclusive and unfair to only reward the talented and high-performing children of the class when Bobby had his own special talents. The school was of the same mind, apologized, and gave Bobby a trophy more shiny and impressive than any other.

Now Bobby, no matter how many different talents or multiple, alternate intelligences he had, was surely certain to be consigned to odd jobs, seasonal work, and minimum wage because of that trophy.  Teachers no longer had to spend the extra effort to make him learn his multiplication tables, dissect the grammar of a complex sentence, comprehend a difficult paragraph, or understand subtle moral and ethical concepts.  In other words, they were off the hook.  They could let Bobby draw his squiggles, make twice as many mistakes in arithmetic as correct answers, and look dumbly at the blackboard when they wrote Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Bobby’s mother was off the hook as well, having ceded most of her parental duties to the Jansen Public School years before, happy with in loco parentis for six hours; and delighted with her son’s progress recently noted and lauded in the end-of-year awards ceremony.

It was only poor Bobby who had to suffer.  He was not a stupid boy by any means, and one who, with a little personalized attention, might have raised his intellectual achievements a few notches and left primary school knowing at least how to add, subtract, and read basic English; but he had no chance at all, for he was channeled into the ‘alternative’ stream of primary education – the slow-flowing water of those who can’t color within the lines, who have trouble subtracting, and who stare dumbly at the map of Asia.

There is no doubt that Bobby was not destined to be a mover and shaker.  It is unlikely that his little world of Elk Run, Colorado would register even a quiver when he entered adulthood and the workforce; but rather than hauling seed and replacing tractor parts his whole life, he might have had a chance to start his own feed store or farm machinery repair shop.

The point is that no one gains from the current citation of mediocrity. Children who are slow and uninspired but not at the bottom of the phylogenetic scale need to be pushed, prodded, and flogged until they reach the absolute maximum of their intellectual potential.  It matters little whether or not these children will ever progress beyond multiplication tables and young adult fiction.  They will regress rather than progress if only their modest achievements are praised and accepted.

Smart children also suffer from this focus on ‘inclusivity’ and ‘equality’, for little time and resources are available to promote them from the ordinary to the excellent.  Worst of all is the assumption that excellence is elitist, a result of wealth and privilege, and genetic inheritance.  In our pseudo-democratic and politically correct America of the 21st Century, talent and brilliance are suspect.  Children who can play chess in kindergarten, have mastered basic arithmetic by the first grade, who read adult non-fiction by the fourth, and who have understood the abstractions of calculus in the fifth are considered outcasts, geeks, dweebs, and outliers and suspected by teachers and classmates alike.

The young people of Elk Run cobble work together to make ends meet.  They work for the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, for local ranchers and farmers.  They share quarters with friends in town or rent trailers on Rt. 34.  They grow their own vegetables and hunt for meat; but most of them have been consigned to this limited, difficult, and dead-end life because of low expectations.

Japanese and Chinese mothers have been criticized for being ‘Tiger Moms’, unsparing in their discipline and expectations.  No son or daughter of theirs would be caught dead replacing grader blades or resurfacing backcountry roads. They might end up in low end jobs, but it would be no fault of their demanding parents who expected the best of them from birth.

The dumbing down of America seems to have no limits. Primary school children are given trophies for failure.  High schools students are moved along as long as they are not disruptive or anti-social.  Colleges and universities take any graduate with cash, loans, or federal grants.  Everyone has the right to a college education, progressives say.  It is a validation of America’s democratic, egalitarian principles; a display of American exceptionalism.  As a result young people who never should have set foot in a quadrangle are in hock for years, chattel to an exploitive system and to an irrational, idealistic dream.

Even the best universities are under fire. A recent spate of articles has been written about the failure of the Ivy League. Yale does not intellectually challenge its students.  Harvard is not inclusive enough.  Princeton has not yet evolved from a gentleman’s club into a diverse, multi-culture center for higher learning.  Few of these accusations have any merit at all, but are part of a progressive juggernaut to discredit excellence.  Eastern Arkansas Community College is just as good as Harvard, Ivy League critics say; but Americans know better.  There is a good reason why the number of applications to elite schools are ten times the acceptance rate.  East Arkansas is not as good as Harvard and never will be.

The point is that not everyone should be admitted to Harvard; but that everyone should try.

Too much is made of self-esteem and the tragedy of failure. If we set standards too high, these pseudo-psychologists say, we are setting students up for disappointment and years of unnecessary insecurity and doubt. Get over it. High standards are good for everyone.  The indifferent or unambitious student who is energized by a teacher who refuses to accept his mediocrity benefits even though he never even gets near the Ivy League.

The most important beneficiaries of a culture of excellence are the most promising students who now are consigned to the backwaters of ‘cooperative learning’ and classroom inclusivity. If these special students are recognized for their superior talent and ability and are given more attention rather than less, everyone gains – the student, the school, and ultimately the country.  America needs more homegrown talent, and there are hundreds of thousands of high IQ, high ability, highly motivated young people in Elk Run, Tupelo, and Bozeman.

I know that many of the young people in Elk Run who are now cutting firewood for the winter, oiling and cleaning their guns for hunting season, clocking extra hours at the feed store and diner to cover rent and utilities could have done more with their lives.  The tragedy is that they never had a choice.  They were consigned to low-income jobs, marginal employment, and dead-end occupations because no one insisted on excellence, striving, overreaching.  This has been a cultural failure of significant proportions.

To be sure, these sincere but unfocussed young people are balanced by their over-driven cohorts in Washington, DC, New York, and Los Angeles. The adolescents who have never had time for fun, personal choice, or even reflection.  They have been programmed for success (very much distinct from excellence) ever since pre-school and graduate from Harvard shell-shocked, dazed, and confused.

The best of the lot, the truly best and brightest have been brought up to strive for excellence for its own sake and for what benefits it can provide in today’s American society.  Students who graduate summa cum laude in Art History from Yale will have challenged their abilities and earned an honors degree which provides the credentials for further study or professional employment.  These young people are no different from the Roman aristocrats who were taught according to the principles of Cato the Elder who insisted on excellence, but an excellence which included respect, honor, compassion, empathy, and courage.

There is no value in dumbing down, in the prizing of ‘multiple intelligences’, or the focus on inclusivity and the equalization of the bright and the dim.  Everyone benefits from a culture of excellence.  Unfortunately we are headed in just the opposite direction.

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