Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Mirror of Mediocrity

Virtually the first column I make for when the Spectator thumps through my letterbox on Fridays is that by Rod Liddle, whom I once described as the thinking woman’s chav; yes, I’m the thinking woman and he is the chav! I may not always agree with what he says but he writes in a compelling, trenchant style, invariably telling it as it is, no punches held, no holds barred, no kicks disallowed.

Last month he wrote several pieces I most assuredly agreed with, all in the aftermath of London’s August madness. I’m thinking in particular of an article headed Our children urgently need less self-esteem. In this he takes his departure from the assumption that has haunted educational and social policy for decades, namely that there is no such thing as failure, that children, regardless of potential, or lack of potential, need more self-esteem. No, they do not, he wrote, they need to have the self-esteem sucked out of them because “they have way, way too much of it.”

It begins with schooling, or what passes for schooling in the abysmal public sector. Teachers are in retreat, more and more circumscribed in what they can do and say. They dare not tread on self-esteem. Children, Liddle writes, are not corrected when they misspell, not told that they are falling short of a standard because there is no standard for them to fall short of. Emphasis on hard knowledge is giving way to soft interpretation, to a gloss all too often of simple ignorance.

Apparently a former teacher wrote to the Spectator, complaining of the climate of lies in which “children believe that they can get away with anything.” In other words, if anything goes wrong in their lives it’s someone else’s fault: their teachers, or the police, or society. They are the victims of an educational philosophy based not on learning and the discipline of learning, not on what is right and what is wrong, but ‘bringing out’ even if what is brought out is arrant rubbish, all choices being equal. Here, Rod, speak for yourself;

This is a statement of what is wrong with our schools, but it is not much of one, and it exists alongside the insistence that any form of elitism must be wrong by definition, because all outcomes are sort of perfectly OK.

This is the kind of thing that really makes me mad, this lowest common denominator approach to life, the celebration of idiocy and the damning of excellence. I believe in elites; I do not accept for a moment that we are all born equal; some are meant to be lavatory cleaners just as others are meant to be rocket scientists.

We have, if you like, a kind of Brave New World which serves neither cleaners nor scientists, for all are reduced to a lumpy medium. There are no Alphas any more and no Epsilons; just a mass of undifferentiated Gammas. It’s the world of ever increasing academic inflation, a world in where university entrance is believed to be a right rather than a privilege, the world of Big Brother, and I mean the ghastly TV show, holding up the mirror of mediocrity, a reflection of what we have become

I’m offering Rod the final word with thanks for the inspiration, thanks for telling it like it is. Right on, comrade!

So by my reckoning the last thing we want is top raise the self-esteem of the inner city kids who might one day end up smashing down their local JJB Sports shop and nicking the trainers. None of the hooded imbeciles I heard seemed terribly short of confidence or self-assurance or self-esteem; it oozed out of them like pus, along with self-righteousness. They still do not think that they have done anything wrong; they are unfamiliar with the concept that something can be ‘wrong.’


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ah, welcome, Mr Pooter. It’s interesting that you preface your remarks with reference to your academic background. Is that to give greater authority and weight to your words? I’m not a snob, no; I’m just practical, though I seem to detect a certain cringe in you, that there is something shameful in being a lavatory cleaner rather than a rocket scientist. On a practical level I, in contrast, think the former is in so many ways more useful than the latter.

    It isn’t the first time I’ve tackled this subject, no. At the risk of testing your patience this is what I wrote in a previous article;

    Selective breeding has, indeed, been part of the human experience since the very inception of civilization. So why not take the process as far and as high as we can? After all, who would not prefer a world free of disease and disability, a world of perfect and super-intelligent people? Ah, who indeed?

    So, let me think some more. In The German Ideology Karl Marx set out the terms of a perfect society, a communist society, where it would be possible to be all that one can be without being anything in particular; one could raise cattle in the morning and be a literary critic in the afternoon, without ever being defined as one thing or the other. But when one of his associates asked who would clean the toilets under communism, Marx quipped ‘You should.’ Yes, the perfect put down. Even so, the question remains unanswered: who should clean the toilets in a perfect world? In other words, who would choose such a thing?

    So, there are two possibilities: the first, that genetic modification is too expensive to be afforded by each and all, and second, in a perfectly democratic world all will have such access. There is really no problem with the first: elites will continue to be elites, though perhaps some of the scions will be a little less stupid, a little less ‘degenerate’, than they have been; and, no, I’m not thinking of the divine Paris! :))

    Now the second scenario is altogether more problematic, for we live in a world where Cleaners are just as necessary as Consultants. But what loving parent is going to choose the former as a destiny for their child? I imagine that any process of genetic modification would involve choosing only the best elements; intelligence, good-looks and good prospects. But a world full of Consultants would simply collapse into chaos. Some Consultants may even have to force other Consultants to be Cleaners. New and more dreadful struggles may emerge: the Cleaner Wars! Do you see the point I am making? The low and the high, the Patrician and the Plebeian, could not exist, the one without the other.

    I said there were two possibilities. Well, actually, there is a third. The process of democratic modification might be ended and one of modification by determination takes its place. Some of you who read this may already know what I am driving at. Yes, it’s that Brave New World set out by Aldous Huxley, published in the 1930s, describing a society, where a reproductive technology is an accepted part of life; where children are raised in hatcheries, and where an elite decide, by a process of modification and engineering, who is to be Alpha and who is to be Epsilon; who, in other words, is to be a Consultant and who is to be a Cleaner.

    And in the name of Our Ford so it shall be.

    But we shall do the civilized thing, you and I: we shall agree to disagree. I do hope that cad Padge has stopped being quite so awfully bothersome. :-)

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  4. Oh my goodness, you silly, resentful man. Nowhere are implied the sort of sentiments that you are reading into my words, a chimera that clearly haunts your own mind. I’m not going down your road; I simply won’t engage on the personal level that you clearly prefer. All I will say is that it would seem obvious that you suffer from a deep sense of grievance and personal inadequacy, clearly centring on race and education. There is nothing, unfortunately, that I or anyone else can do about that, nothing I can do to compensate for the slights that you have suffered from in the course of your life.

    I’ve made my position clear. You are at liberty to disagree with me, but I do not retract a single word. I can see where this is going, where you would like to take it, so this discussion is now at an end. If you like you can take that as a victory. I wish you well, Mr Pooter, I wish you the ability to look beyond yourself.

  5. I don't like to intrude Mr Geek but:
    "Either way, we need to kick ideology---whether of the Left or the Right---out of education and put science in. This requires giving schools the freedom to experiment and parents freedom to choose on the evidence."

    The evidence of the last 100 years is that those of the left will not let parents decide anything. They know what they know and that is that.

    Those of the right, in contrast, admit they don't know everything and are willing to experiment.

    We don't have a government of that sort at the moment - unfortunately.

  6. Let me FIRST say "THANK YOU" Anastasia, for your wonderfully honest, fair, and accurate assessment in "The Mirror of Mediocrity." You have brought our attention to what I feel is one of the root causes of adult incompetancy as a byproduct of the neo-social philosophy that has tainted not only the educational system in the UK, but also in the US and in most of the Western world as well.

    Secondly, let me also say "THANK YOU" for the graceful, graceful way that you handle sharp critics who seem to have little regard for propriety or the social graces, and cannot seem to differ with another persons point of view without insult, malody or ravaging mediocrity. YOU are a MASTER at absolutely everything that I have seen you write on, as well as the way you handle the opposition when they apparantly have chosen NOT to be at their best in public profile, as has been taught in both public and private schools for many years, especially in the United Kingdom.

    Third, let me also thank you for your hard work, dedication, sacrifice, pain, committment, selflessness, and mentorship that you so faithfully and consistantly publish on this blog
    on an almost daily basis.

    It has well been said that "without vision the people perish."

    You are a visionary, a light shining in the darkness of a corrupt, evil, Godless, futile world that is proverbially "going to hell in a handbasket."

    YOU impart vision to us through your dramatic gifts of leadership, discernment, and upright moral values. I must say that it is clearly evident that your values are rightly based on a solid foundation of propriety, knowledge, history and the wisdom gained through the proper application of the human experience through the successes and failures over time.

    Without fresh reminders for Ana The Imp, of what is going on in the world aroung us, and also without you, your wonderful personality, your enthusiastic embracement of wisdom, and your enlightening expository analysis, this world would be a much darker place.

    Lastly but not in any way least, let me say "THANK YOU" for being you.

    Most Gratefully and Respectfully,

    Dan the Yank

  7. Fascinating for my soul!

    Ana, I'm curious. Do you have a set of moral standards by which you wish to live? Knowing this would cast a brighter light on your conclusions on the elite vs. the mediocre masses.

    I agree that this social phenomenon exists--it probably always has. How do you define elite?

    It is frustrating for me, also being a bit outside the bell-curve, to see the world pandering to mediocrity and the masses licking it up. However, when I feel the urge to judge, I remind myself that the reasons they are not more highly evolved in certain aspects is probably because many of the elite have withheld the education, economic security, etc. that would help raise people out of mediocrity. In this sense, your comments addressing the state of elitism vs. mediocrity brings with it irony.

    Does elitism guarantee happiness or contentment? I doubt it; we require more to attain those goals. If you were not of the elite, not as intelligent, could you still be happy? Could you still be an important contributor to society?

    You say yes: even the most mediocre of us can clean toilets. But I doubt that anyone enjoys this kind of work. (I doubt the toilet cleaners enjoy cleaning their own toilets!) But, you are right, it is one of the most important jobs!

    Are people born toilet cleaners? I disagree. Nature and nurture work together. Though it is an ongoing debate which aspect plays the larger role in our development, I believe no one is born as decadent, depraved, sick and ignorant as some people turn out to be.

    You are right--there has been and always will be an elite. We are not equal in ability. However, I believe the role of the elite is to help pull other less able, less advantaged people up--to help them self-actualize.

    For elites to do this is difficult. A psychological phenomenon occurs making it difficult, if not impossible for the elite to have enough empathy to follow through in the best way with what they have been given or attained.

    It is for this reason, I believe, that society continues to struggle against each other and sows the seeds of conflicts and war.

    Beware of being caught in the net of belief and standards of elitism. Excellence is not the most important aspect of human society. Love and compassion are. And by having those attributes so much more can be salvaged and healed in our troubled society.

  8. 9/30
    BTW, I have a post on my blog called "The Myth of Self-esteem" that I think addresses some of the issues you bring up in this post.

    What we need is self-love, unconditional self-regard. You are right--even the most criminal of people have great self-esteem!

    With self-esteem we put ourselves into a trap because it is based on doing not being.

    Doing is very good. But doing what and how depends on the perceiver's judgment and that can rock the self-esteem boat to a very unhappy and even sick place.

    The bedrock of mental health is, as Albert Ellis writes, unconditional self-acceptance. The only perceiver in this instance is YOU.

  9. Hi, I just posted my comments again because sometimes when I'm really tired, I forget to push the "Post Comment" button!

    So, just in case...

  10. Daniel, you are a treasure. You understand me perfectly. :-)

  11. Hi, Paschano and welcome to my world!

    Do I have a set of moral standards that I wish to live by? No, not especially, though I try to behave as decently as I can, with as much kindness and consideration that I can muster. I do my best not to judge people. But I do not accept that we are all born with equal potential, I do not believe that whether one turns out to be a rocket scientist or a lavatory cleaner is all a question of nurture rather than nature.

    I take Plato’s position if you like, believing that some people are born with gold in the soul, that elites are a natural aristocracy which we fail to cultivate at our peril. In this country we have neglected the best in favour of the rest, even if it means continual dumbing down to the point where senior school qualifications become so much confetti. We have too many people with second rate qualifications pursuing an ever diminishing number of places at university. All balance has gone out of a system which somehow sees higher education as an end in itself.

    No, elitism does not guarantee happiness or contentment, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s about. It’s about personal fulfilment, about realising every natural ability that one has been born with. And I think there are plenty of people, people with little or nothing in the way of natural ability, who could be perfectly happy with a more humble calling in life, people who would be miserable out of their natural milieu.

    Yes, some people are born to be toilet cleaners, and no less valuable for that. The problem now is that we have fewer and fewer jobs for the unskilled, many kept half alive on public doles in awful social housing sectors, living lives of numbing sterility. There are worse things than a humble calling in life

    I rather think we did things better in the past; I rather think that they do things better elsewhere, particularly in places like Germany, where there is an early recognition that some people are academically inclined and others are not. Yes, I could accept self-actualisation, where people are given a realistic series of goals, goals matched to their particular aptitudes, no matter how modest.

    Excellence is the most important aspect of education, which is what my whole argument has been about. Love and compassion do indeed trump all other considerations but that is a different question altogether.

    I’m a conservative and I’m an elitist, which may make me morally suspect in your eyes. But all great societies, at their most vibrant, have been driven by elites. But adding Nietzsche’s view of history to my Platonic assumptions, all societies also reach a stage of senescence, where all sense of direction is gone, where mediocrity rises to dangerously destructive levels, where the lowest becomes the standard of the highest. The barbarians did not destroy Rome; Romans did. Here we are in Europe; here you are in the States, in the age of Honorius and Arcadius. Yes, I’m a conservative and an elitist, but I’m also a cultural pessimist. There is a certain inevitability to our historical condition.

    I hope you understand me a little better. I'll come and look at your blog in a bit.

  12. I can only say in defence of the great civil experiment, that it was conducted in vain hope we might all be poets, artists and philosophers one day. Sadly we’re a little off from that mark. Instead we’re a world of virtual gamers, VIP analysts and vigilant American sitcom watchers. I don’t understand how we lost the proverbial red thread along the garden path when it came to creating a less violent society. It’s a bit like the March Hare’s Tea Party, in which only the absurdities deserve attention, while the obvious is rewarded with everyone clamping their hands over their ears and howling to “stop it”, when Alice points out the obvious. Oh, well… In that case, I shall cease calling you Ana the Imp, and now refer to you simply as Alice the Imp, lost, not in wonderland, but in the 21st century.

  13. I can only say in defence of the great civil experiment, that it was conducted in vain hope we might all be poets, artists and philosophers one day. Sadly we’re a little off from that mark. Instead we’re a world of virtual gamers, VIP analysts and vigilant American sitcom watchers. I don’t understand how we lost the proverbial red thread along the garden path when it came to creating a less violent society. It’s a bit like the March Hare’s Tea Party, in which only the absurdities deserve attention, while the obvious is rewarded with everyone clamping their hands over their ears and howling to “stop it”, when Alice points out the obvious. Oh, well… In that case, I shall cease calling you Ana the Imp, and now refer to you simply as Alice the Imp, lost, not in wonderland, but in the 21st century.

  14. LOL! I couldn't help but notice your use of Courage Wolf. I recently created my own variation on Courage Wolf - his name is Don Courage Wolf. ;)

  15. But as for the article itself, you know I think there is some misunderstanding about precisely what real self-esteem is and how you get it. Real self-esteem is not created by being told you're special all the time - real self-esteem is created by actually going out and accomplishing something, by being responsible for things, by being relevant. And frankly, being "rescued" by people, even if in the form of giving everyone a trophy, does not contribute to real self-esteem. It detracts from it and creates people who see themselves as a slave of their environment, a master of nothing, something to be carted and pushed around.

    If you really want your child to have real self-esteem, you don't tell him that everything he does is okay. You tell him that it's not okay, and he better shape up, and then you get him to fight and achieve and improve himself, the last of which is perhaps the greatest achievement of all. Even if he really is a lavatory cleaner, he can still be a good, true, righteous lavatory cleaner.

    That kind of self-righteous egoism you and (I believe) the columnist describe here is no more self-love then stalking a girl every waking moment of her day is true love, and frankly, the metaphor is even better when you think about it. Real self-love comes from the realization of precisely what you are, and how your actions really do effect yourself and others and how others do have, because of this, a very real right to retaliate and not accept work that frankly really does affect them, negatively. As the old saying goes, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

    To truly see yourself, sometimes you must borrow anothers eyes.

  16. Jeremy, it's good to see you back here. I always take comfort from your gentle wisdom.

  17. Hi Ana,

    Thanks for your reply. So we DO agree on many things! It is reassuring that you believe in each person’s chance for self-actualization.

    You wrote: “But I do not accept that we are all born with equal potential, I do not believe that whether one turns out to be a rocket scientist or a lavatory cleaner is all a question of nurture rather than nature”. I think that is exactly what I wrote, so on that point we are in complete agreement.

    I also agree that excellence in schools is critical. I’m witnessing the "dumbing down" of America and it distresses me. I believe that, the less educated the general population is, the easier it is for the “people in power” to take advantage of them. I also believe there are deliberate attempts by the right (at least in America) to weaken the school systems. We are not allocating enough money to this sector. Some may disagree, politically; however if it is the right or the left, a crime against humanity is being committed!

    Your argument seems to be that: if we build up the elite component, by protecting and supporting excellence in education, and making the elite stronger, by weeding out people who are “mediocre” and offering them more unskilled jobs, and by relying more on the elite, we will be better off as a people. Correct me if I’m wrong. If this is what you are proposing, then it seems to me to be just more of the same bad set of circumstances.

    Yes, there always has been an elite society at the top of power throughout history;
    However, by your own admission, it has been a history of eventual miserable failure. I, too, am pessimistic about the direction society and culture is taking. The solution, though, is not to put a few “excellent” elites in charge, but rather educate the masses so that they can govern themselves (especially when the elite class disintegrates)!

    Re: people on the dole—that is the downside of socialism, I think. In addition, it is more complicated than that…so many societal issues are gummed up into a morass of misery.

    Idealistically, your theory actually doesn’t sound bad, IF we could trust the elite to care genuinely about society, instead of turning to greed and corruption and bilking the masses. However, history has proven that despite the good intentions of some elite, they usually end up becoming drunk with greed and power and ruining the civilization. Therefore, history has proven that the people cannot trust the elite.

    You are right. “Rome is burning”. It’s a very scary realization. Will education be the answer? Will a “higher, stronger, more intelligent” ruling class be our salvation? Possibly, but only if the elites’ MORALITY is also “higher”. I can’t seem to separate one from the other when it comes to the issue of success in ruling societies.
    (to be continued...)

  18. In America, we have plenty of Universities and Colleges, and, therefore, places. However, the level of education varies greatly and the best schools cost too much for most people. (Private clubs and secret societies that pull many strings, that have their own agenda is also a huge issue!)

    In addition, we have expensive private schools. However, it is so easy to get a loan from the gov’t—and then spend 20 yrs or more trying to pay it off. This is just another way of the gov’t to find a way to “make” money—on the principle and on the interest.

    If we try to bring people up to their full capacity, we need to have more opportunities. If education is out of reach financially, those opportunities lessen for most people, leaving relatively few people as candidates to be in charge of a nation.

    Now I hear you saying something similar, that there are not enough places at Uni. That IS awful. Are you saying that the elite are becoming mediocre because of this? And/or because of your school system? If so, I think we need to go “deeper” into the issue. There are many societal problems underlying educational mediocrity. Fix those and the rest will follow.

    Many Americans are aware of and getting very fed up with our system. Ours was to be an experiment in true democracy. What did they do, those early “fathers”? They gave us a Republic! I understand the rational for this; however, it still leaves the few governing the many. If those few are corrupt, they create a miserable society. I think that is exactly what is happening.

    The elites are only concerned with their own agenda. They have lost empathy for the plebs. There is too much pandering, nepotism, and preferential treatment for politicians. That is corruption. (Ex: George W. Bush! It seemed like we were almost becoming a monarchy. ;0)

    I don’t know all the answers. I just believe strongly that the elite in America are draining us and destroying us, so the word “elite” is triggering for many others and me. Generally, we cannot trust them.

    I think we need to do away with our “electoral college” system of voting. However, I also think, in order for that to work, a good education should be available to everyone!

    Re: putting children into educational slots early, as they do in Germany, there are pros and cons. I have many relatives in Germany and am familiar with the educational system.

    Personally, I don’t like it because it takes away more freedom from the people to decide their own course in life; it puts too much pressure on young children; people that age don’t even know who they are much less what they WANT to do in life. What one is able to do and what one enjoys doing are not the same.

    The opportunities for people to go to university are minimized because there are relatively few “spaces” for them. Yeah, it’s great they pay for everything once you’re there, but the main question is: How much freedom are we willing to trade for security?

    With your knowledge of history, do you think that the fall of civilization was because the elite class was not participating enough? Or that the elites became depraved and corrupt—or even just “mediocre?

    In America, it is often said that the excellent people, the excellent minds do not enter politics. If that is true, and it seems so (and I don’t blame them because politics is such a nest of worms), then we have the trickle down of eventual societal destruction. So, perhaps we agree on this point for both our countries?

  19. Jeremy, interactions with other people always provide reflections of ourselves. That is so true!

    Self-esteem is important. What most people believe comprises self-esteem, however, will not be sufficient for a person to be differentiated and happy in the long run.

    Self-esteem is doing, unconditional self-regard or self-love, is being. It does take internal work to come to that point. Often it isn't easy, especially in abuse cases. However, without it our self-esteem will wax and wane depending on what we do and what others think of us.

    With unconditional self-love and acceptance, you can build a strong foundation for self-esteem. They are two separate concepts.

    If we only reward children or show our approval when they do what we think is right, they become "human doings" instead of "human beings". ;0)

    Everyone looks for approval and acceptance. Often they will do things against their teachings, their code, their conscience to gain that approval. Why? Because they don't love themselves enough. They didn't learn it as they should have from nurturing parents.

    I have counseled many very accomplished, good people who are miserable. They've "done" everything "right", so why are they unhappy?

    The Bible has wisdom in saying, "Love your neighbor as you love YOURSELF." It repeatedly assures us that God loves ALL his children (and there are no caveats, no conditions on that!).

    If God loves us unconditionally, don't you think that we should love ourselves the same way?

  20. Ah, Paschno, my friend, but our history moves in cycles and elites degenerate, lose all sense of direction. :-) Our civilization, yours and mine, is now passed the top of the wheel: the downward descent and the degeneracy gets ever faster.

    Do you know the work of Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian sociologist, particularly his theory of civilization, the theory of the lion and the theory of the fox? If not it’s worth looking at.

  21. Your contributions are excellent; your presence here valued.

  22. Thank you, Ana! I do enjoy blogging with you.

    Yes, yes! Our civilizations are on the downward slope and am afraid, because it is much easier to destroy than create, we are soon in for a very rude awakening.

    I haven't heard of Pareto. I shall keep your suggestion in mind.

  23. I read some information about Pareto. It was interesting! I trust that his histogram is based on cultures as he knew it then, mostly in the known western world and Asia?

    I remember reading several case studies involving "primitive" societies where wealth was very evenly distributed; so, I think there are holes in his theory.

    I would argue that, because something has always been so, it does not necessarily need to continue so. A flaw in his logic?

    Yet to recognize the percentages of inequities is notable. Maybe he took his facts a bit too far to the right, in his brand of idealism?

    I can see why he would be interesting to you with his conservative rhetoric and hierarchical beliefs.

    Of course, I certainly do not subscribe to his conclusions that democracy is a fraud and an illusion, just because he did not recognize its potential and power.

    Personally, as long as mankind does not improve his mental and moral health, we are doomed to continuously relive Pareto's discovery.

    I am not sure about the necessity of violence to change economic circumstances. Perhaps--but I hope not.

    You are right that there will always be those who have greater abilities in areas of knowledge and power; however, I think people overlook other worthy attributes of poorer people in their empathy, humility, and willingness to share.

    I say, we must find a way to look after our self-interests, but at a higher level. It seems to be in the interest of the elite that the plebs evolve and are kept fed and satisfied, so that the danger of rebellion is kept at bay.

    Thanks for the suggestion on Pareto!

  24. You are welcome. Please do not assume because I recommended him that I necessarily approve of everything he wrote. He's an exciting thinker, that's all. That's it - the subject for a future article!

    I've just submitted a review of a book by Ann Coulter for publication on Broowaha, the first of hers that I have ever read. She's philosophically crude but still quite challenging, at least on the level of raw polemic.