“Your merciful God? He destroyed his own beloved, rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of his glory. *He* killed Mozart, and kept me alive to torture. *Years* of torture. Years . . . of slowly watching myself become extinct; my music growing fainter, all the time fainter, ‘till no one plays it at all. And *his* . . . I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere . . . I absolve you.”
—F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri in Amadeus
What happens to us as a society when we stop cultivating talent?
Our parish priest once asked us why, if we were paying for private school anyway, we weren’t sending our kids to our parish school. The answer at the time was pretty simple: St. Laurence didn’t have any kind of an honors program for academically gifted students, while the nearby secular school was nothing but an accelerated curriculum. When we inquired as to why that was so, what we were told was that St. Laurence’s mission was to provide basic education to as broad a swath of the community as possible, so their sole focus was on the average student. I suppose if you’re privately funding an educational endeavor, you are free to craft its charter any way you choose.
But watch the pattern here.
Fast forward several years, and our eldest has moved on to high school. For a number of reasons not germane here, we steered her into the local public high school, which is one of the very best in Texas and a major reason we moved to this area. Our school district has established a number of “academies” spread among the several high schools. These are special programs that provide accelerated college-level curricula (and credit) for students with special talent and interest in specific areas such as computers, engineering, international business, math/science, etc. The academies operate on a “magnet” basis, meaning that students who qualify for one can enroll regardless of whether they reside in an area zoned to attend the high school hosting it.
Well, it seems someone on the school board has gotten a burr under their saddle about the academy program. A meeting was convened last week to discuss the “fact” that the district is spending too much on the academies at the expense of not spending enough on the regular curriculum for the average students. Of course, no one had any hard figures as to how much was “too much” or why it was too much, nor on what was “too little” or why; these were just truisms to be accepted on their face. Much of the blame, however, apparently is being cast at the cost of the extra busing required to move academy students away from their zoned schools. But rather than consider the obvious solution of eliminating the busing (or charging for it), the board is looking at two draconian alternatives: (1) cancel the academy program altogether, or (2) consolidate the program at one high school that is underutilized because it is in so dangerous an area that everyone has moved out (which will effectively kill the program because everyone will pull their kids out). Either way, the effect is the same: diverting resources away from talent to funnel them to mediocrity.
This is where we’ve come as a society, and it is positively insane.
I am not for one minute suggesting that there is anything wrong with average students or that they should be looked down upon. Nor am I suggesting that they should be denied an education. But we as a collective whole do ourselves an enormous disservice when we don’t do everything we can to identify talent and provide it with the means truly to excel. We should be celebrating the gifted and investing in their success; otherwise we dumb everything down.
But Rusty, won’t the gifted students still be more successful than the average students if they’re all pooled into the regular curriculum?
Most likely, sure. But those gifted students won’t become what they could have. The average students will still reach the same level of achievement with or without the accelerated programs (which they don’t attend, and in which many, if not most, would likely not succeed if they did). What killing the accelerated programs does is hold back those who would have been capable of more than the average students are, if given the resources and support to nurture and develop that additional ability.
Rather than maximizing our potential for development by investing in talent, we are increasingly about celebrating the average at the expense of the successful. This was one of the principal warnings in Atlas Shrugged. Consider the story of Midas Mulligan, the world’s most successful banker, who was sued under a law that forbade discrimination in any matter involving a person’s livelihood. The plaintiff in that case was a failed businessman who demonstrated that due to his own incompetence his only chance to make a living was to be given the money to buy a factory. As Mulligan tells it:
“[A] court of law ordered that I honor, as first right to my depositors’ funds, the demand of those who would offer proof that they had no right to demand it. I was ordered to hand out money earned by men, to a worthless rotter whose only claim consisted of his inability to earn it.”
A court ordered him to make a loan to a man whose only qualification for the loan was that he lacked the business talent to qualify for that loan. Ineptitude equaled need, and thus constituted the trump card over ability in the claim on resources. Mulligan refused to participate in such an absurdity, and instead chose to close shop and drop out of society altogether.
This is where we’re heading. We’ve already dumbed-down most of our core classwork in favor of standardized-testing based checklists; today’s average high school senior would flunk the 8th grade of 1950, not because of a lack of intelligence, but because we don’t teach the material anymore. Many school districts have abolished Fs in a misguided attempt to protect children’s self-esteem and curb their dropout rate at the expense of actually making the kids learn. And now we’re making a conscious decision to refuse to give those students who have the ability to excel the opportunity to make the most of that ability, choosing instead to increase our societal investment in those whose more modest potential is already more or less being maximized.
When we focus our resources on the average, when we shift our support from the gifted to the lowest common denominator, we as a society become limited to that which the mediocre can achieve. The median is the ceiling, and we deny ourselves the opportunity to realize the much greater heights that could have been achieved had we nurtured the ability to fly in those that could. This is the Peter Principle in its ultimate manifestation.
Why would we cheat ourselves like that?
BENGHAZI UPDATE: 107 days since a military attack on sovereign U.S. soil killed four Americans while somebody in intelligence or the White House watched live via spy drone, and the President still hasn’t addressed the American people about it. He’s on vacation in Hawaii, and his Secretary of State is nowhere to be found.