Rewarding Mediocrity

Are we asking for trouble? 

We were having one of those after-dinner conversations. And we were putting the world to rights. You know what's it's like. "If only" this, "Why can't they" that. We'd done health and safety nannying. We'd touched on yobbishness. And decided on policies to stop pavement cyclists and inconsiderate parkers. You probably think that, as the four old friends that we were gathered, glass or two of wine inside us, we were busy moaning that things were no longer like the 'good old days'. I suppose to a degree we were. After all, we all often yearn for what used to be. For the rules and the routines that we were familiar with. Because it's what we knew, we all like to think it was 'the best of times'. Of course some parts of it were. Some parts, however, were decidedly not. 

But, whatever our motivation, the conversation inevitably turned to the education system. I say "inevitable" because it's a subject we often chat about. We may have differing views on politics and music. Enjoy wildly differing pastimes. Support different football teams. But we are all roughly the same age. We all attended the same type of school, in the same kind of area, at roughly the same time. We all had the same education. And we all witnessed a change in how teachers, and the system which they worked in, treated pupils at the top and bottom of the academic scale. 

I sat somewhere in the middle. Pretty good at some things, pretty awful at others. I'd get top grades for English, History and Geography but terrible grades for Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Of course I wanted to ignore the latter, but yearned for recognition for the things I was good at. 

But I went to school in the 1980s when effort was already more highly rewarded than success. Not that I'm suggesting this is a bad thing. After all, effort is important, vital. But success is every bit as important. Because all that effort has to have an aim. If it makes no odds whether you succeed or not, why would you bother to make the effort in the first place? Many, of course, would argue that success is its own reward. And, when it came to academic achievement, pupils at my senior school had to be content with just knowing they were quite good, without ever knowing just how good. Sports, however, were treated quite differently. In fact, when it came to sport the whole thing was reversed. In sport, it was success (of which I had none) that was rewarded while effort (of which I put in plenty) was not. Believe me, if effort had been rewarded than I would have been sure of a prize for my gargantuan efforts at making contact with a rounders ball. In five years of senior school I only managed it twice, and only once did I hit it far enough to even reach first base. 

I've never understood why it's so difficult to reward children for succeeding AND for trying hard. It might be unfashionable to suggest that we encourage our children to be competitive. But surely there's a way to do this without passing judgement on those who have less ability? My primary school seemed to manage just fine. There, everyone was encouraged to do their best. If they did well they were rewarded. If they tried hard they were rewarded. If they were unable to do well, they were never ridiculed or put down. It was very egalitarian. It was acknowledged, and taught to the children, that while every individual may not have been of the same ability, or had the same drive to succeed, each one of us was equally valued. And it left most us wanting to do well, but not feeling inadequate when we didn't.

Nowadays it seems  we feel we have to reward everyone. There's a lot of suspicion voiced about the way in which the number of kids getting top exam grades goes up by a significant percentage every year. I have no idea whether exams are easier, or grades are judged differently. I don't think that kids born in one year are automatically smarter than those born the year before. I took my O and A Levels in the 1980s and have no idea whether I would have go better grades if I'd been taking them this year. I'm pretty sure I know plenty of exam-fearing former kids who would have done better had coursework provided half, or more, of the overall grade. But no-one can really know. And you certainly can't blame the kids taking GCSEs and A Levels today for the difficulty, or ease of the exams they are given. It seems rather unfair to disparage those kids for something that could never be their fault.

But there does seem to be a general trend in making sure everyone excells at something, even if it requires a little re-writing of the rules. And I think that this is why, these days, at least we seem to embrace mediocrity entirely. After all, if you don't applaud success, for fear of upsetting those who haven't succeeded, or you have to alter the way people are measured to give everyone a boost, then you risk bringing everyone to the same level. Just when, and why, did average become the aim for everyone, instead of a measure of the half-way point between two extremes?

The whole effort-success balance seems to have gone haywire and, indeed, instead of rewarding talent or effort we do seem to reward mediocrity. Because in many areas of life, particularly in education, everyone gets a reward. After all, if just about everyone gets top exam grades, and just about everyone is able to go to college, if everyone is a winner and no-one fails, it's a flawed system. And what does that teach our kids?  By taking away the incentive to succeed, we risk removing the desire to try from those less inclined. And ultimately we run the risk of replacing it with a terror of failure in those who, despite the apparent universal success of even the mediocre, are never going to be high flyers.   And, most awfully, we are teaching our young people a fundamental lie.  A dangerous lie. Because the truth is that life isn't fair. People, even given equal opportunities, are not all the same. Some will excell, some will struggle. And most will sit in the middle being alternately great and awful. If we teach youngsters anything else, then we are surely setting them up for disappointment and, potentially, disillusion.

But, it's not just in our schools that mediocrity reigns. It's everywhere. And everything is being "bigged up". If you doubt this, just think about English league football. What used to be the First Division is now the Premiership. What used to be the new First Division, and before that the Second, is now the Championship. What used to be the Third Division, and then the Second is now League One, and what used to be the Fourth, and then the Third is now League Two. See what I mean? They are still at the same level, they just don't sound like they are. We live in a world where everybody is somebody, where every former sports star is a "legend", where everything is "iconic" or "world class" or "historic". Even when it's actually just "well known", "familiar", "very good" or "newsworthy". 

We have levels of "Celebrity" from A-list right down to Z-list and it's crazy. I mean if a so-called celebrity is on the Z-list, are they really a celebrity at all? We have people more famed for being a bit dim than they are for being super intelligent, for misbehaving than for living exemplary lives. Can this really be right? Because I think that's only a short step from re-inforcing that whole idea that doing well, trying to do well is pointless, untrendy, uncool, and that it doesn't really matter because everything will be okay regardless. Either because everyone gets the same rewards, or because there's no chance of being any better anyway.  It's all very worrying.