The Dweeb Shall Inherit the Earth

I just got home from eighth grade promotion, and boy, do I feel sorry for the slackers.

There was a time when I clung to my GPA as my only tangible indicator of self-worth. I got lots of As! That meant I was smart! It's good to be smart! Actually, it only meant that to a certain extent, as grades award diligence as much as they do intelligence. But it's good to be diligent! Grades also award certain innate abilities that some of us are lucky enough to inherit. It's good to have innate abilities that produce good grades!

Yes, all of those things are good, useful, and excellent predictors of future academic success and, just maybe, success in the workplace. And in my youth, especially at my high school, these were things that were, for the most part, under-recognized. I went to a school that was nuts about sports, that had a "coach culture" that actually prevented me, with the highest GPA in the school, from belonging to the Honor Society because I hadn't demonstrated "leadership"--interpreted to mean participation in a competitive sport.

Such an imbalance of public recognition reflects a dysfunctional academic environment. I felt cheated. It got my French Canadian/Scottish hackles up. And I just happened to be an editor on the school paper; in fact, I ran the editorial page. So I wrote an editorial with the title, borrowed from my mother, "Are Our Brains In Our Feet?" It created quite an uproar. I got a ton of hate mail, personal attacks in the letters box that I published in the following issue and ridiculed in rebuttals. It got completely out of hand. It took three issues of the paper for the heated tempers on both sides of the issue to cool. And then an amazing thing happened: the academic teachers at Philomath High School decided to correct the imbalance by having an academic awards night--and yes, I came home with an armload. And the Honor Society, which I had taken to calling the "Smart Lettermen's Club," voted me into its membership. Apparently raising a stink in the school paper could also be considered "leadership."

Did I feel vindicated? Of course I did. Did it ultimately mean anything to me?

Not really.

If you are my Facebook friend, you know that my partner and I spend a lot of time engaged in extreme outdoor activity. No, it's not "X-Games" extreme; but we do enjoy climbing mountains, taking extended bike rides (we're hoping to manage a century by the end of the summer), snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and doing some of these things in harsh conditions. We went to Utah in August, for example, hiking in the desert during the hottest month of the year. We regularly participate in a weight-lifting class called Body Pump, and I must say I pride myself in squatting more iron than I've seen any other person do in that class. In my thirties, I completed seven marathons. For someone who used to complain about how athletes got more recognition than they deserved, I've really altered my attitude toward the sporting life.

In fact, I've come to regret much about my youthful intellectual elitism. In retrospect, I came to realize it was grounded in physical laziness: I didn't like to sweat. On top of that, I received a regular dose of motherly scorn around all issues athletic. My father was an outdoorsman and naturalist, but growing up, his enthusiasm for such activities was severely dampened by my mother's distaste for physical activity, and as the dominant parent, she projected that disdain onto all of her sons. It was only once we moved out on our own that we came to explore physical disciplines: running, cycling, skiing, swimming. As a runner, I knew I could never be an elite. I was just too big.

An easy way to an A for me was writing. I had a knack for it, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that, next to reading, it was my favorite pastime. I know there were many classes I aced simply by writing well. In fact, by the time I graduated from high school, I had come to look down on my writing talent as something that came too easily. I craved a challenge. So at Willamette, I chose music education and math as my twin foci. After a year of very nearly flunking out of calculus, I dropped math, but I stuck with music. I struggled with many of my music classes, gradually getting a handhold on the skills I would eventually master. I did best at music history, probably because there was a great deal of writing involved. And there was nothing quite as frustrating as going into Dr. Behnke's office to have him review my progress in conducting, and have him talk instead about how well I had written my critique of a concert I had attended. "How am I doing as a conductor?" "You write so well!" It was the same way in graduate school, and then in seminary: I could write my way into a high grade in almost any course in which research papers were heavily weighted; and the writing side of ministry was a snap. But when it came to the part that really mattered, visitation, I stumbled badly.

As a music teacher, I daily exercise skills acquired by hard work and experience. I learned by doing to be a rehearsal technician and expressive conductor, to hear the tiny mistakes my players and singers are making and to know exactly how to correct them. I have also learned techniques for managing unruly rehearsals, mostly through experience. I am still learning things about selecting music appropriate to the ability level of my musicians. None of this came naturally for me. The things I do on the piano are self-taught, through decades of trial-and-error and digging into something I loved; but I certainly was not born a keyboard improviser.

It's tempting, listening to the same few names being called at a promotion or graduation, to think, "Yes, these are the ones who should be recognized, who should be encouraged to pursue leadership positions, to be mayors and governors and presidents." And in fact, they often do become the rulers of our world, whether they are heading up governments, denominations, or corporations. To a large extent, meritocracy runs the world.

But here's the problem with that: democracy is better.

Thomas Jefferson advocated public education, not because he believed every child had a shot at becoming president, but because he believed there was a natural elite that, with education, would rise like cream to the top of the national milk bottle. The radical part of this belief was that he did not restrict it to the gentry; rather, he believed all men (and yes, he meant that in the exclusive masculine sense) could be born with the talent to excel, regardless of parentage, but that without a proper education, much of that talent would be wasted. Educate everyone, and the elite will assume leadership of this nation.

In fact, natural talent has taken a lot of geniuses to the top. Unfortunately, the results have been mixed. Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Castro, Chavez were all smart people, brilliant in some ways; and all, more or less, became despots. The problem with being a genius is that you know what is best for everyone else. Take a look at my previous post on group process: democracy can be so damned inefficient. It would be so much nicer to just decide things the way you know they need to be decided. Think how much better Obamacare could have been if the President hadn't had to run it through Congress, if there hadn't been all those town meetings, if the Tea Party hadn't given voice to the collective outrage of the lowest common denominator when confronted with someone who really does know more than you do.

That's why democracy is the worst way to run a country--except for all the other ways. There are times when democracy sucks. We're living in such a time. We have an incredibly intelligent President who can't get anything done because the inmates have taken over the asylum. And the most infuriating part of it is that's exactly how it's supposed to work. The legislative branch is supposed to be a check on the power of the executive branch. The President himself admitted that, thanks to the War Powers Act passed under his predecessor, he really does have too much power when it comes to killing terrorists.

This check on Presidential power can lead to times of legislative malaise, but over time, it protects us from tyranny. And it cuts both ways: Congress can pass the most stupid legislation imaginable, and our smart President can simply veto it.

I often hear Bill Maher railing against the stupidity of Americans. Sometimes I think he's right. Mostly, though, I'm glad to live in a country in which leaders have to have the approval of the majority, even if that majority consists mostly of C students, before it can make major changes in the economy, the culture, foreign policy, or anything else that matters on a national or global scale. It forces leaders to do a better job of selling their ideas, of boiling them down to the nugget that makes sense. And it keeps them from becoming monsters. Smart monsters, but monsters just the same.

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