Ruminations for the Day

A Room without Books is a Body without a Soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

A friend tells me that her son’s school, a highly selective, expensive and competitive private school in New York City has “embraced mediocrity.”  I have been walking around twirling those two words in my mind like a tune I can’t get rid of: “embracing mediocrity”, ie praising a child for his effort (it’s a boy school), without letting him know that the result of that effort falls far short of the goal at hand. (I am not talking about crushing a child’s self esteem here. Actually as a mother, I know that self esteem is strengthened when a child knows he can excel at something, fair and square. Children are not so stupid.)

I would say that this country has embraced mediocrity for quite some time now. Did we not notice that George W. Bush’s dismissive comment about “fuzzy math” in regard to Al Gore’s  description of Social Security’s woes (or was it Medicare?) during the 2000 debates was a (to my mind) lame attempt to side track the conversation, because George W. did not know enough to give an educated answer (or in fact an answer at all)? It’s the oldest trick in the book on an exam: if you do not know the answer, write about something you do know, even if it has nothing to do with the question you are being asked…This, in my book, however cogent the answer, should still get a failing grade. 

W. did not even try to change the subject, he just waved Gore’s substance away and won the instantaneous admiration of all the adult children in this country who grew up being praised for knowing how to buck the system and to resent those who know more that they do. W. became the guy we wanted to have a beer with…and eight years later Sarah Palin is a beacon of the republican base because…why?… “She is one of us.”

Did we really need to have Iraq, Katrina, the failure of the US economy, to actually get it? To understand that ignorance and incompentence (along with blatant dishonesty) have real and not so pleasant consequences? And have we learned anything substantial from the last eight years, or Obama’s win is just the result of Bush’s incompetence hitting our pocketbooks?

I am very happy Obama won, for a very long number of reasons. One of them is certainly that he knows how to employ grammar in his use of language; that his sentences have a subject, a verb, an object. That he can actually think in paragraphs, not half sentences…so that I can turn to my child and say: “Learn to think through issues and speak like Obama and you may get somewhere in life…and by the way sweetie, it took studying to get where Obama is and continued studying to get where he will lead us, if he is going to have a chance in hell to do a decent job…”

Have we learned as a nation that there are no short cuts to hard work yet?

Mediocrity in education has led to poverty in public discourse and a total lack of discernment on the part of the public in selecting our leaders. It has led to acceptance of ignorance and just plain incompetence as standard. Expedience, manipulation of the truth, just plain half-baked thinking, inability to foresee the consequences of our actions. (Remember Rumsfeld’s comment: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had…” That comment illustrated our leaders’ inability to delay gratification, to forsee the consequences of their actions, to plan ahead of time…all things they should have learned by Fifth Grade, had they had a proper education. And I think this is true whether you agree with the war or not. In fact, it is more true if you believe we should be in this war…and clearly a Yale degree does not ensure a proper education…if that does not prove the failure of this country to educate the young, priviledged and non, I do not know what does.)

I recently read that during the American Revolution and the years that led to it, the 13 colonies had the highest rate of literacy in the world (70%, a figure unheard of in Europe where the rate was closer to 30%. Correct me if I am wrong).  The founding fathers themselves read Latin and Ancient Greek and knew a lot about the oldest democracies and how they had eventually lost their way (I am talking about Athens and Rome). John Adams would travel from Massachussett to Philadelphia, where Congress met, with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in the original language, under his arm. He was teaching himself Spanish in his free time. These were people who liked knowledge and critical thnking, were comfortable with pursuing it during their entire lifetimes and spreading it around. Considering that there was no public school system in the colonies, the rate of literacy is quite astounding to me. And the book that served as the equivalent of See Spot Run? The Bible…an easy read, right? Every family had one. I am not advocating the religious aspect of this, necessarily. It just that young minds struggling to read were not pampared with idiotic prose, just to make it easier on their self esteem.

What happened? When exactly did “being American” become synonymous with “being stupid”?

Thanks for reading. I am glad I got this off my chest.


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