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The tyranny of mediocrity - The Fucking Bluebird of Goddamn Happiness [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Zoethe

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The tyranny of mediocrity [Apr. 29th, 2004|04:47 pm]
Zoethe
[Current Mood |bitchybitchy]

Ferrett posits today that the problem with trying to dicuss generalizatons about groups of people is that other people will always jump in with anecdotal evidence about unique individuals who overcame the odds and stretched far beyond their capacity and that these individuals are a skew to the bell curve and make it impossible to talk about the average person.

I happen to be one of those unique individuals. I was abused and all but abandoned, I grew up in a household where learning was given lip service but not actually valued, I grew up poor, with divorced parents and a really terrible mother, etc., etc. And look where I am today. People regularly speak admiringly of my perseverance and dedication and all that.

I have to make a confession. I'm not particularly special.

The problem isn't that people counteract discussions of the median with tales of unique individuals. The problem is that our expectations for people have gotten so low that almost any extra effort is regarded as superhuman.

In an effort to never hurt anyone's feelings or make anyone feel stupid or left out - in pursuit of that bugaboo of the 90s, "self-esteem" - we have reached a level of moral and intellectual relativism that makes it all but impossible to say to anyone, what you are doing is wrong. You have to try harder. You fail. Instead, we attempt to justify every behavior and thereby prevent the chance of hurt feelings.

This is not good for people. Because it caters to the worst in them, and institutionalizes mediocrity. When "average" is allowed to slip to what was formerly below average, the whole society suffers.

Years ago I read an article written by a teacher. When she started at a new school, she looked over her list of students and found that by each name a number was inscribed. Johnny Brown 138. Susy Smith 127. Kevin Jones 142. "My god," she thought, "they've given me the gifted class! I can't just use the textbooks, they'll be bored silly!" She dispensed with the mindless pap and drivel of textbook learning and devised a challenging curriculum of serious reading and projects. The class thrived and it was all she could do to keep ahead of them.

It wasn't until just before summer vacation that she found out that the numbers weren't IQ scores; they were locker assignments.

These kids weren't unique individuals, but by treating them as if they were she had challenged them and they had thrived. People don't need to be coddled, they need to be challenged. We should not point to the average single-parent household and say, "That's why the kids are messed up;" we should point to the ones who excel and demand, "Why aren't the rest of you like that?" Teachers need to tell students, "You are doing poorly; do it again," and be able to expect - nay, demand - that their parents will back them up. We need to be able to say to teachers, "You suck at this job, get better or get out." We need to be able to say to parents, "Grow up, take responsibility, pay attention to your kids."

We need to stop telling people who don't fulfill their place in society that it's not really their fault.

The unique individual should not be regarded as the irritating abberation in our worldview of How Things Are. They should be regarded as what we expect. Because to make excuses for anything less is to doom the next generation to an even lower standard.

Step up to the plate.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:08 am (UTC)
Chris Rock: "You're not suposed to go to jail! What do you want, a cookie?!"
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[User Picture]From: labelleizzy
2004-04-29 08:59 pm (UTC)
I'm stepping up. I wanna teach.

Help out by checking my resume (posted here on LJ today) and making a suggestion to help it be better.

K?

thanks.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:07 am (UTC)
I think you got good advise. Just try to hold onto your integrity!
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[User Picture]From: ysabel
2004-04-29 09:11 pm (UTC)
Marry me?
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[User Picture]From: cubes
2004-04-29 09:16 pm (UTC)
I was about to respond to Ferrett's post, but you have done a far better job of expressing my thoughts than I could. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:06 am (UTC)
It was rattling around in my brain most of the day [g].
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[User Picture]From: seicat
2004-04-29 09:26 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons I got out of teaching was because I had no support from the parents OR the staff. If a student did not turn in any of the homework, scored badly on the tests, and didn't even bother to stop in before or after school for help I failed them. The parents (usually the ones who didn't show up for parent conferences) would call in and complain and the grades would be changed without them even letting me know. Lovely!

There have to be winners and there have to be losers. Else why bother trying?
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:06 am (UTC)
The "everybody's a winner" scenario is SO flawed. The kids hate it, too.

As to your teaching story, I'm working up from the bottom, so my acendote o' horrow is down here. It's just sad.
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[User Picture]From: yoak
2004-04-29 09:28 pm (UTC)
I have nothing to add, but thought that this was so well written that I should comment if just to say thank you. I'm fairly new to reading your journal, but entries like this ensure that I'll stick around quite a while.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:01 am (UTC)
Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: hookncrook
2004-04-29 09:34 pm (UTC)
Like prophesies fulfilled, isn't it? Expectations usually are met, no matter how high or how low we set them for people.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 03:02 am (UTC)
It's very true. And of expectations we set for ourselves.
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[User Picture]From: wolflady26
2004-04-29 09:34 pm (UTC)
Ooooh, excellent point!

My husband told me a story recently about a nearby university. They had one particular class with a very high failure rate. The university thought, we must be doing something wrong, and changed the class so that only half the amount of material was covered. The current class scored immediately better - but the one that followed again had a very high failure rate. So again, they cut the amount of material covered in half, and again the same thing happened - the current class did better, the next had a huge failure rate. So the university shrugged and went back to the original curriculum, figuring that if people were going to fail anyway, they should at least learn more while they were at it.

Counterarguments (unique individuals) don't necessarily mean that there is nothing to worry about with the situation at hand - but it does at least mean that there is a way to overcome the problem, whatever it is.

To take theferrett's example of a single mother - he's probably right in that it is more likely to succeed as a parent in the average situation if you have a two-parent family. But counterarguments are useful, too, because they mean that someone in a less than ideal situation still has hope of being able to succeed with hard work.
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From: jrtatsc
2004-04-29 10:08 pm (UTC)
To take theferrett's example of a single mother - he's probably right in that it is more likely to succeed as a parent in the average situation if you have a two-parent family. But counterarguments are useful, too, because they mean that someone in a less than ideal situation still has hope of being able to succeed with hard work.

That's a really good point, too. I think by labeling the counterarguments as "unique individuals," he's made them seem a lot more rare than they really are.
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[User Picture]From: blazepoet
2004-04-29 10:04 pm (UTC)
Amen.

I've grown up surrounded by it my entire life. The amount of coddling that people go through and the amount of artificial lies and false self esteem people get is amazing.

College has only made it worse, failing something is almost a trial where you have to provide evidence and back up your claims, teachers are emasculated and they wonder why the education system here is so poor.

Grade inflation is rampant because gosh darn it we are ALL winners. It is not as bad in the engineering school where I am, but some of my humanity classes were a little bit below pathetic. People who never attended classes and never opened the book were able to get B's easy. I don't think it was possible to fail.

I understand the need not to revert to the whole thrive or die mentality that had us leaving people totally behind and rejected, but this has gone too far.

I'm graduating in May with a master's and two bachelor's, all hard science degrees, I transfered 54 AP and college credits from high school, in the word's of our dear president, "I have brought it".
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From: poeticangelx
2004-04-29 10:17 pm (UTC)
I actually think college is a LOT better than high school. There's less of a tendency to just pass people because you don't want to have to see them again next year in the teacher's. There's a lot less busywork. I find it more challenging than high school.

But then again... I'm in the honors program and take the honors version of all my courses if I can. It's more difficult, and you're surrounded by people who actually want to learn...so maybe I don't count. I just think of college as a vast improvement to high school.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-04-29 10:05 pm (UTC)

Personal vs. social

That's a great perspective to take in interpersonal dealings; it is, to some degree, how I relate to other people. I have high standards for myself, and tend to project those toward others, although I try always to be mindful that my yardsticks are just that-- my own. But to demand that everyone excel is a terrible basis for social policy, which I think was Ferrett's point.

Also, to call yourself "not particularly special" may be wildly inaccurate. You may indeed be highly special, unique, whatever, and just not see yourself that way, for whatever reason. I often think that I'm nothing out of the ordinary, either. In my more objective moods, I know that's wrong. I am in fact extraordinary in many ways, not least of which is basic luck, which is much, much bigger factor in our lives than we generally care to admit. My success in life has been the result of hard work, but also of very good luck. There are other who have worked as hard or harder and, thanks to bad luck, not done nearly as well. They're part of that big bell-curve hump Ferrett was talking about.

We absolutely need to challenge each other to excel. That doesn't mean that we should engineer our society and its programs around the assumption that anyone who doesn't excel isn't worth helping. The unnique individual is not an annoying abberation, but he or she is, statistically, an aberration.

-1em
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 02:54 am (UTC)

Re: Personal vs. social

To NOT demand that people excel is a worse social policy. I'm not saying that everyone should be expected to be Einstein, just that they should be expected to give their best effort, act with integrity, and not give into excuse-making.

There will always be a bell curve, no doubt. We just keep lowering the middle of the hump so that a "C" ablity is now somewhere closer to 30%, rather than 65%. That doesn't serve anyone well.
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From: poeticangelx
2004-04-29 10:08 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I love this.. You make a VERY good point.

My boyfriend and I were just speaking of that today when I was complaining about the "No Child Left Behind" stuff. and how by slowing the stuff down so a brick could pass high school isn't going to solve anything, it's going to make people lazier and turn out some VERY poorly educated people.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 02:51 am (UTC)
Sad, but true. College is the equivalent of high school now, and by then there is no way you can teach a person the fundamentals of writing.
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[User Picture]From: call_me_harmony
2004-04-29 10:36 pm (UTC)
"The unique individual should not be regarded as the irritating abberation in our worldview of How Things Are. They should be regarded as what we expect. Because to make excuses for anything less is to doom the next generation to an even lower standard."

Exactly my 13 year old son was arrested today for being involved with some thefts of garden ornaments from a garden where someone had just moved out and they thought the garden was empty.

I made it very clear to my son that I expected better from him and that even had the house still been empty the garden ornaments would have belonged to either the buyer or the seller of the house.

It shocked me that the police officer said it was very rare that they got parents like me who actually cared and was prepared to clearly say "this is wrong".

As it was he didn't actually take any but he had been prepared to and that to me is just as bad.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 02:50 am (UTC)
It's vital to say that. I remember watching Phil Donahue back when there was a rash of murders of tourists in Florida. (I was a nursing mother at the time, I have an excuse for watching Donahue!) His guests were the mothers of two kids who'd killed a guy as he was driving down the highway. The mother of the boy who had been driving told Phil that when her son came home and told her what had happened she had told him that he had to turn himself in, that he owed a debt to society, that they'd cried and prayed that night and in the morning she drove him to the police station. Then Phil turned to the mother of the girl who had actually pulled the trigger.

She pulled herself upright in indignation. "She told him to pull over!"

Like that excused shooting a man in the head, having his brains spatter all over his wife, who was badly injured in the ensuing wreck. What could she do, if he wasn't willing to be robbed? It was clearly the rotten old bastards own fault.

Jail the girl for life. Fuckin' execute the mother.
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[User Picture]From: donkey_hokey
2004-04-29 10:37 pm (UTC)
Oh thank you. You've managed to cover the points I couldn't quite put my finger on, and that I couldn't phrase anywhere near as elegantly as you did.

As a side note, about expectations, one example I've seen is what passes as a reading level for a particular grade, and how the level of complexity seems to keep dropping as the years pass. All the stuff that used to be assigned to kids to read is being phased out because it's becoming too challenging. Hell, I don't even know if kids are being assigned books to read at all anymore. I remember reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the Rye" in my 9th grade English class. My 9th grade STANDARD English class (not Honors). I wonder if these books are even being taught at all in High School anymore. I'm finally getting around to reading literature that used to be standard classroom fare (ie F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Bronte sisters). Although, to be honest, I'm enjoying just reading the story and not having it analyzed to death.

I had something more to say about the link between personal responsibility and being challenged by education, but I can't quite figure out how to word it. And how personal responsibility seems to be, in a lot of ways, disappearing. Ever read Jack Williamson's books about the Humanoids? It's ever so much more relevant nowadays than it was in the 60's.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 02:44 am (UTC)
The reading thing scares the crap out of me. Kids who don't read extensively never learn to write. I'm all for fun reading, but please, let's pick up some challenges! I still feel like I'm catching up from a sub-par english lit program, and I used to read the Brontes and such just for fun.
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[User Picture]From: technomom
2004-04-29 10:59 pm (UTC)
Amen!

My parents expected a hell of a lot - and they got it. I'm glad they did, too.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-30 02:27 am (UTC)
Some parents do a bad job of it, providing no reward and scarring kids. Others do great. Tell yours I have drunk a toast to them!
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(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: zoethe
2004-04-29 11:54 pm (UTC)
Not at all! Post, link, sing it! [g]
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