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When Great is Bad

At the end of my last post, I was denouncing the state of education in America. While we don’t put nearly as high a premium on education in this country as they do in other countries, the thing that I can’t get out of my mind is the fact that nearly 20% of people don’t want to learn about something they don’t understand. Even in cases where there may not be an immediate application, what could possibly be a reason NOT to learn something?

The best explanation I’ve found so far is, “Some people interpret new information as threatening to their identity. These people have a very narrow tolerance for what information they are willing to learn. They can only tolerate new information if it is very similar to their pre-existing biases.”

Wow! There’s confirmation bias rearing its ugly, comfortable-like-an-old-shoe head again. But is that really what’s going on? Why do people in other countries learn their country’s language and history and our country’s language and history when 50% of the people in our country don’t know when or why the Civil War took place?

To put this into perspective, we’re outranked by Slovakia and the Czech Republic. (Most of you reading this can’t identify those countries on a world map. Not judging, just stating a fact.)

Why is this happening? Why are other countries better learners than us?

We have a few theories, but the most overarching explanation is that, when you’re constantly told you’re “great,” there is no motivation to improve. America’s Trophy Communism has contributed to this decline. “A” grades, which once conveyed achievement, are now given to 43 percent of all college students, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988.

Herein lies a large part of the problem, one I hope we’ll quantify in my lifetime. (Don’t even get me started on private school trends and the real cost of influence. Perhaps another blog post is in order.)

I remember when Little Miss Sunshine won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay in 2007. Alan Arkin won for his role as “grandpa” in the film. Abigail Breslin was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at 11 years old. She didn’t win. Alan Arkin was under a lot of scrutiny for saying, “I hope she loses. What, next year she is going to get the Nobel Prize?”

His point, which I believe was lost on the media and hence, the public, was that she would have nowhere to go; no achievement could possibly compare to that one, so in this case, winning would potentially deplete the engine its drive. This is a little different from the current “everyone-gets-a-trophy” orthodoxy, but the psychological impact is the same: it creates a kind of malaise that permeates mediocrity and says average is as good as great because it’s more about showing up than anything else. This is when great becomes bad; when it is average, recognized, rewarded, and celebrated as great.

Steve Jobs articulated it best when he said, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. He’s telling people to have a want, an unfulfilled need, and to always need to feel like what you have right now isn’t all there is. He believed you can always create something better. Notions like “that isn’t possible” or “no one’s ever done that so we can’t” should be something you ignore because that kind of thinking isn’t how you change things but instead how you maintain the status quo.

If our kids are constantly being told they’re great regardless of their performance and America is constantly being touted as the greatest country in the world (inside of its borders), then aside from the debilitating dangers of confirmation bias, what’s the drive to ever improve?

It’s no accident then, when you look at the reputation of the U.S. on a global platform, you can begin to understand how “Make America Great Again” is resonating with a little less than half of the country’s population.

A 2016 Forbes report on The World’s Most Reputable Countries shows that the U.S. ranks 28th. Without getting into all of the criteria that aggregates to this ranking, the fact that America is in the double-digits should be enough cause for alarm.

So, we seem to have cultivated a sense of nationalism to a point where we believe how great we are so there’s no need to improve. However, what’s happened is we’ve declined – in educational rankings, in global reputation, and our own sense of well-being.

The Gallup Well-Being Index measures global perceptions of respondents’ lives and their daily experiences through five interrelated elements that make up well-being: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical health. The U.S. doesn’t make the Top 10 of countries which are thriving in three or more elements of well-being.

Arguably, there are many individual data points that alone are cause to celebrate America as “the greatest country in the world.” But, when you consider all the data, and not just the data that confirms what we believe (and have been told), there’s a lot of room for improvement, regardless of how many trophies we give ourselves.

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