Monday, March 23, 2015

This Country Needs a Higher Level Of Mediocrity (12 Dec. 2013)

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien. "The better is the enemy of the good."
La Bégueule (1772) 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Other versions: 

                                                                                                                                             The perfect is the enemy of the good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The best is the enemy of the good.
   If I pull it off, this essay will bring together the truism "The perfect is the enemy of the good" — maybe even "The best is the enemy of the better" — and the related idea that "Good enough is good enough"; I'll throw in some other truisms, however, and get to my insistence that "This country," the USA in my case, "needs a higher level of mediocrity."

            For students of utopias, which I've been for much of my life, it's clear that seriously striving for perfection is a problem; it's certainly a problem when we get utopianism in real-world politics. "Utopia," as we utopists frequently point out, was Sir Thomas More's 1516 New-Latin coinage from eutopos (Good Place) and outopos (No Place). His Utopia is "The Good Place that Is No Place," or no place except on his pages, as a thought experiment. It is The or A Good Place, not a perfect place and maybe not even the best. Certainly not for More: Sir Thomas More is also Saint Thomas, if you're a Roman Catholic, or a variety of martyr if you're Anglican, and in any event a committed Christian. The perfect place is the highest Heaven, where the blessed can groove on the experience of God; and the best available place short of heaven is Paradise. To believe anything else is heresy, and Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, suppressed heresy and burned heretical books — and a handful of heretics.

            The historical Sir Thomas More had no illusions about any perfection in the actually-existing Roman Catholic Church; the Church Mystical, however, the Bride of Christ: that was a different matter. "The perfect is the enemy of the good" blatantly and often bloodily when you have idealistic fanatics preserving a status quo and far bloodier when you have idealists striving for not just a eutopian good place but for the perfection of a society: Mao Zedong's "Cultural Revolution" or Pol Pot's prelapsarian peasants' paradise or Adolf Hitler's pure-Aryan Thousand-Year Reich, for some of the higher-body-count examples.

            But the idea holds in more mundane, far less horrendous contexts.

            You know this if you've ever tried to get some nut-and-bolt-ish thing tightened just right, and one more little 1/8th turn will have it just perfect — until the porcelain cracks. Or if you're an artist or scholar or inventor and need one more revision to get your masterwork perfect: flawless, airtight, with not one thing in it a sane critic can complain about. Probably, you'll never finish. If you do finish, you may have a work without imperfection but also without much soul: the scholarly or artistic or whatever equivalent of cream of wheat: unobjectionable but bland.

            Indeed, one major scholar in one of my fields once said to me in conversation at a conference, "You know, Rich, I've never heard you say something I thought stupid; you need to take more risks."

            The perfect is a problem as well in terms of simple time and energy. Those perfecting "finishing touches" can take more time than any other part of the project, and cause a lot more frustration and heartache.

            So it is often a good idea to say, "Good enough is good enough," and not just because that's what the words mean.

            The problem is that too many people too much of the time find, "good enough" stuff that's nowhere near good enough.

            For a recent, personal example, but one that's grated on me, consider that I just paid a fair amount of money to have a carpenter install new hardware into a very handsome dresser I bought when I moved into my new place in 2007. It hadn't occurred to me to check out the runners for the drawers when I bought the piece because it was from a fancy-schmancy furniture store in the upscale part of Oxnard, CA, bordering or perhaps even in, snootier Ventura, and the exterior was really beautifully made. It just didn't cross my mind that within three years two of the six drawers would be barely working. For what? — maybe fifty bucks more, they could have installed decent runners that would last twenty years. "Good enough" for them was good enough to sell a pricey piece of furniture to a sucker like me, but not good enough by a long shot.

            Okay, my dresser is something personal and therefore, in the larger scheme of things, trivial; and as long as we're throwing truisms around, you might throw back at me, "You get what you pay for … if you're lucky." Indeed, but shoddiness is a more general problem and not trivial.

            It's always been the case, to throw in another truism, that "If you got money, you can save money." I learned this when I moved into a house with an old freezer in the garage and was finally earning enough money that I could on occasion buy meat in quantity — I was still eating mammal meat back then — and on sale. I had enough money to share with my bank ownership of a house and a garage and a freezer from the 1950s (still working when I left the house in 2006), and I could save money on food.

            The point on having/saving money was driven home when I bought myself the present of an old-fashioned shaving system: shaving brush and shaving-mug-like soap dish, with a high-quality safety razor (I'm not coordinated enough for a straight razor). Caswell Massey Apothecary (no shit: Apothecaries "since 1752") also sold soap for the soap dish, for $12 a pop at the time, currently $16. All right; $12 is absurd for what is basically — what is — a round bar of soap; but I was treating myself, so I included the shaving soap into my present for me and also bought a couple bars of bath soap. And I didn't have to buy any more soap for my body for nearly a year.

            Ivory Soap: It Floats! Yeah, because it's got a lot of air in it. Upscale soap, I learned, is heavier, and it can last a long time. Ivory, though, was "good enough," and an appropriate purchase during my years of genteel poverty between graduating high school and my first tenure-track teaching job. High quality may be be better in the long run, but most of the time good enough is good enough — allowing that "good enough" doesn't include shoddy; you and I and even non-genteelly poor people should be able to purchase products that are inexpensive but serviceable, decently made.

            Maybe even "Made in the USA" — but that will get us into other issues.

            One thing we do make in the US of A, a lot of, is entertainment materials, and I work on the fringes of one of the entertainment businesses: movies. I look at scripts, many script, and I'll repeat that "good enough" includes, thank you, at least running the bloody SpellCheck and getting someone literate to proofread. The good scripts circulating are often quite good; and the really bad scripts I get are relatively rare. Generally, though, what we need for scripts and movies and much else is that higher level of mediocrity.

            Most important — most central — we need a higher level of mediocrity in American education.

            Our best students and schools continue to do well, and we've at least recognized the problem of helping the least able and most disadvantaged. What we need far more work on is the group in the middle: by definition, the mediocre.

            The news this morning — hell, the Colbert Report! — carried yet another story of American teens doing poorly on international tests, and a very quick Google search turned up the 2012 results of the Program for International Student Assessment, which has US teens below international averages in math, reading, and science.

            Those teens very soon become US adults: workers, citizens, your neighbors — and voters. And these adult workers, citizens, neighbors, and voters become more experienced but don’t often become better informed or more intelligent than they were as kids.

            Good enough to get through American high schools is not good enough in terms of international competition; and if you think such rankings have, in the words of a former colleague, "all the intellectual respectability of a pecker contest" — and I agree with that assessment — even then there's a problem. Whatever our comparative ranking, the absolute quality required for American Mediocre is too damn low.

            We don't have American public education because Thomas Jefferson et al. were all that concerned about individual self-fulfillment or even US commercial advantage. Individual betterment and robust American commerce were and are good things, but the main justification of American education is preservation of the American Republic.

            To rule effectively, the Sovereign must be educated: critical thinking and some knowledge and all that. If the People are to rule themselves, more or less — we're a republic, not a democracy — the People (generally) have to be educated: the standard-issue pendejo on the street, the modal mediocre American, has got to have some competence in thinking and enough information to think effectively with.

            We in American need not be the best country on the planet, and God knows we shouldn't try to be perfect or even exceptional. But we do need to do better. Mostly, we need a far higher standard, a far higher standard, for "Eh, mediocre": good enough should indeed be good enough to do fairly well.

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