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The Tyranny of the Mediocrity

Illustration for article titled The Tyranny of the Mediocrity

My trusty paper copy of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, defines mediocrity three ways: (1) the quality or state of being mediocre; (2) moderate ability or value; and (3) a mediocre person. That’s informative, but a bit circular. So let's be thorough — though this may dare to trespass on the execrable fields of exemplariness — and enter the definition of mediocre into the record.

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Mediocre: of moderate or low quality, value, ability or performance. From the Latin medius, or middle. Cf. ordinary, so-so.

Now, what was that exercise for? Well, this charming article is the latest blatant example of how the mediocre is exalted and the exemplary is suppressed. It's titled "Boy Kicked Out Of Reading Competition Because He Reads Too Much", and no, it is from neither The Onion nor the Daily Currant. It’s the story of a nine-year-old bibliophile from Hudson Falls, NY, who was – you guessed it – kicked out of a summer reading competition because the 63 books he read that summer mean that he “’hogs’ the contest every year and that he should ‘step aside.’” (It’s unclear if it’s a municipal library, the school library, or a school district-wide competition.)

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What the unholy, everloving fuck is this fuckwittery? Reading is stigmatized enough for young people – why are we punishing ambition, motivation, and dedication as values in and of themselves, and especially in the context of reading? I’m so disgusted with this punitive philosophy and the fear-fueled “everybody’s a winner” mentality that drives it. We’re asking the hardworking best person to drop out of the race so that other people don’t feel bad? At what point in a child’s development, then, do we inform them that merit does matter? Please, tell me what arbitrary grade level denotes a shift from the participation ribbon to the placement ribbons when you are talking about who "won." Why can’t there be both here? Is it because everyone is supposed to toil half-assedly at one or two books and there’s a seventeen-way tie for first place (with two books read! Congrats, you're not an amoeba!)? Is it because this boy is an outlier in his own way and we can’t risk destabilizing the self-identity of less motivated individuals? Either give participation ribbons to the participants and a prize to the winner, or change it from a competition to an activity. And in the holy name of Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer, don't pull the winner's name out of a hat of participants, as the librarian plans to do next year. *headdeskheaddeskheaddesk*

So far as I can tell, this reading competition isn’t for a grade, it isn’t for standardized testing, and it isn’t for any sort of mandatory academic curriculum. Isn’t it possible then, that the kids who are only reading two books ( those sensitive souls whose lifelong aspirations will be crushed by Lord Sauron, I mean Bibliophile Boy) are busy giving more of a shit about their basketball camp or their Pony Club? Do we bustle into the YMCA and tell them that their youth basketball league has to bench their best players because the boy who reads 63 books is a shitty basketball player and the other players’ superior talent and commitment isn’t fair to him and discourage him from playing?

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A brief point – some googling turns up a cute picture of a toothy white boy. I don’t want to make this all about race (because the issue here is the normative standards of success among children, not race and privilege), but I do dare posit that the librarian would have been a little more afraid to knock this kid out of the competition if he was non-Caucasian. Yes, I said it. Moving on.

The bigger problem is that competition is now synonymous with participation – and we live in a putative meritocracy. How are we supposed to teach children that it’s good to be good at something, and that it’s okay to be better at it than others, and that there is nothing shameful about doing something you love and doing it better than anyone around you? They are teaching shame and guilt and that the path to success is to be average. No nine-year-old reads 63 books in a summer just to be a smug brat unless he is Draco Malfoy. This kid spent his summer reading because he loves it. Bibliophile Boy, you’re the winner in my book. And everyone else is a participant.

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Therefore, I’d like to propose a fourth definition of mediocrity: a collective of mediocre persons, ranging from a specified number to a hypothetical generalization. (A society which postulates this as the normative measure of success is a mediocracy.) It’s unfortunate that this boy’s case demonstrates that the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the mediocrity are the same fucking thing. I take comfort in the fact that he will spend the next nine years in the 99th percentile of all verbal components in the standardized testing repertoire. At least until we officially designate 75 the new 99.

(Image from source article)

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