Something has gone wrong, horribly wrong, in this country. We’ve gone soft. Political correctness constrains us, throttles us, silences us. Rose-colored glasses and touchy-feely indulgences create an environment that Darwin would not recognize, the weakest thrive, the strongest perish or are vilified. We celebrate subpar performance, we give ribbons to children who finish last in races or who are the first ones eliminated from spelling bees, we make excuses for poor job or school performance by blaming the boss or the school system, and we elevate (even revere) dullards.
Our education system is medicroe if measured against that of other countries in Europe or Asia, our kids are learning less and perform at increasingly lower levels. Instead of responding by raising the bar for kids or helping them to meet the existing bar, we lower our standards, inflate grades, and molly-coddle them until they firmly believe that hooked on phonics* is the way to become literate (that’s a whole other rant) or that Ben Franklin was a president of the United States (after all, he was a significant figure, contributed a lot of . . . stuff, and isn’t it great that little Johnny has heard of Franklin? Can spell his name after a phonetically failed try? F-R-A-N-K-L-E-N?).
In resistance to pressure he felt from his department, a Harvard professor began listing two grades on his students’ papers: the one he felt they deserved and the one that they received. There was no small margin between the two: the deserved grade was often in the D or F range, and (are you sitting down?) the grade they received was almost always an A. There’s buzz that Harvard students never fail their courses, never get less than A grades. It’s not true, but it does illustrate my point. Harvard is an Ivy League school; top tier. It is from Harvard and her sister Six that many of our top political, technical, scientific, and medical professionals hail. And if Harvard is pumping out D students who believe they are A class . . . I shudder to think what might be happening at Joe’s Community College and Bait Shop.
Where does Simon Cowell fit into this diatribe? I’ll tell you. I watch American Idol (and I’m not ashamed to admit it; even people who can read and write need some form of brain candy.), and while watching it, I am constantly irritated by the audience, contestant, host, and fellow-judge response to Cowell. If he were mean for the sake of being mean (as it seems some people believe), I wouldn’t think a thing about it, but I don’t see it that way, I think that his feedback is mostly spot-on. It may sound harsh, but good grief, can everyone be the best? Unfortunately, we tell ourselves, our children, and each other that everyone can be the best, everyone IS the best. What, then, does “best” come to mean? The definition changes, Folks, “best” comes to mean “average, just like everyone else.”
Back to American Idol, yes, Paula Abdul is “nice,” but if you listen to her (through her giddiness and slurred speech), even she has trouble finding something positive to say on occasion. She’s told beaming contestants that they “really were true themselves” (huh?), that they “look amazing” (it’s a singing contest, right?), and that they were “better than last week” (when she told them they looked amazing). Instead of taking her to task for copping out, America and the contestants love her. She’s that teacher that gave you an A for effort — in college. You love her, sure, but do you learn anything? Are you a better singer for hearing that you look great or were true to yourself? Can you grow as a singer having heard that? I’d guess not.
Simon Cowell, though, shoots straight from the hip. He’s not Mr. Tactful, but we have Paula Abdul for that, right? He’ll tell you if you sound like a cruise ship act; what’s so wrong with having mid-level talent, anyway? I’d rather know that than have to decipher Paula’s empty cotton candy nonsense. They are both saying the same thing, but we hear it differently because we’ve gone soft. We think no one is bad at anything . . . until it matters. Do we want our doctors looking at our test results and telling us we look great and have been true to ourselves? Do we want our group telling us we’ve done innovative work that’s sure to win approval, and then as we take the pink slip from our boss and ask about our severance package, realize that it was all just so much smoke being blown up our . . . . . All that pussy footing around, false praise, and soft-handling makes people comfortable with their accomplishments (such as they may be); why get better if you’re not aware that there is room for improvement?
Simon Cowell isn’t warm and fuzzy; he’s not going to win any congeniality prizes, but he has my respect, and if I were to try singing, I would seek him out and listen to what he has to say. He’s one of the lone voices out there who is willing to tell it as he sees it, undiluted, no punches pulled, just straight talk. The old-fashioned kind, that honest evaluation that always made me try harder, strive to improve, work to be better [at whatever] than I am.
*”phonics” isn’t even spelled phonetically; how effective can it really be?
I wrote this one on March 26, 2006 and stand by it now