Friday, June 08, 2012

Home Truth

David McCullough Jr. lays it out for you in the Boston Herald:

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it... Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune... one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School... where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
More, a lot more, at the link.


Brian said...

I was told by an undergraduate at a university most people would regard as "one of the best" when I awarded him a C in my class (a C that he frankly should have been grateful for) that the policy of the department in which I was teaching (part time) was to curve all grades to an A-.

I explained to him that no one had seen fit to explain this policy to me when they hired me, so I doubted very much that it was, in fact, policy. Furthermore, the average grade in that class was roughly a B+ anyway...he just did very poorly.

Based on his reaction, I am certain I was the first person in his entire life to tell him such a thing.

The sad thing is...I suspect that even though it wasn't official policy, what he said was probably more or less true in practice. I didn't have tenure hanging over my head, and I knew I would be moving elsewhere within the year. I didn't care what students said about me in my course evaluations.

Apparently, $40K/yr = guaranteed B

Mr. D said...

Based on his reaction, I am certain I was the first person in his entire life to tell him such a thing.

I'm sure you're right. And perhaps some day he'll realize that you did him a great favor.