By Will Fitzhugh Publisher of the Concord Review
In the fifties, I think it was, there was a science fiction novel, my copy of which has disappeared, by, I think, Charles Eric Maine, called High Vacuum. The idea was that in teaching cadets in the space program about the dangers of vacuum to their survival in space, it was useful to have them think about Vacuum as trying to get into their spacecraft and kill them. From a “Safety First” point of view, it seemed more practical for spacemen, as they were thought of in the 1950s, to think of keeping high vacuum out of their craft rather than to think about keeping their life-supporting oxygen from escaping, thus leaving them to die. So, instead of thinking of vacuum as the absence of atmosphere, they were taught to think of it as an active agent trying to get “in” and kill them.
When we think of Mediocrity in education, a similar strategy is advisable for us. Generally it is thought that Mediocrity is the absence of excellence, a lack of good quality in performance or knowledge. But in thinking about standards in our schools, I have come more and more to regard Mediocrity as an active agent, trying (with notable success) to establish itself and spread itself throughout every academic enterprise. I think of it as a potent force for lowering standards, and for reducing the value we place on the work that teachers and students should be doing in the classroom. I know we could outline many of the strategies employed, and many victories won, by the forces of Mediocrity in our schools, and this is something to which I believe we should turn more of our attention as we think about education reform.
But let us think for a moment of the gifted students in our classrooms, and ask ourselves why so many of them have “dropped out” of education. What are some of the demands and pressures on them which make it harder for them to do what they are good at, which is to learn a lot and achieve proficiency in a variety of the skills of understanding and expression in history, literature, science and math?
One of the problems with teaching high school students is that you never know who is out there. As you look out over your class, you can easily forget that Mohandas K. Gandhi, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Richard Feynman, Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Robert Oppenheimer, Madeleine Albright, and George C. Marshall, among others, were once high school students too. And to some extent, they were all disguised as teenagers. Some gifted students stand out and seem to be immune to any effort to make them work less hard, or pretend to be stupid, or be ashamed of being smart, or try harder to be popular in order to compensate for the “problem” of being really bright, but some gifted students instead hide out and do not succeed in finding a good place to work in the classroom. We can’t imagine this sort of thing happening on the playing field, where a gifted athlete would try to hide his athletic skills for fear of being rejected. The very idea is absurd. Yet this is what we see with too many bright students in school. And many in the Mediocrity establishment tell them, in one way or another, that their intelligence and skill at learning are not things to be so proud of, that they should not be “elitist,” that they should make amends by performing community service, that they should help other students as a sort of due penance for the sin of excellence, and the like. We would not dream of treating our best athletes this way, yet we do it to bright kids all the time, almost without thinking about it.
We seem to have some strange confusion about the relative roles of genes and hard work. In athletics, apparently, no matter how much natural talent an athlete has, it is all right to think that her achievement is the result of real effort and thus praiseworthy, yet in academics we seem to believe that no matter how hard a student works, the achievement is fundamentally the result of her genes and thus nothing to be proud of. Among the worst consequences of this philosophy are that it has encouraged black students to huge efforts and superb achievement on the courts and playing fields, but discouraged them from making much effort in the classroom, lest they be seen as “acting white.” Black kids can dominate sports invented by white people, but if the curriculum is defined as “white,” then black kids must not be expected to do well in it. As this Rule of Mediocrity continues to operate, we all pay the cost.