On the Celebration of Mediocrity

Something that’s been increasingly bothering me over the last few years— and more recently, these last few months— is this disturbing trend where mediocrity is applauded and celebrated. This celebration of mediocrity has resulted in a global culture where everyone is told how special they are, a culture where any kind of critical appraisal is increasingly considered inappropriate for fear of impropriety or hurt feelings. This has created a society where children and adults alike are handled gingerly, resulting in skewed sense of self-entitlement and self-appraisal of skill.

I don’t mean to suggest that we all be heartlessly frank with each other, which is another thing entirely, but that there are good ways and bad ways to provide feedback—and that honest and quality feedback is necessary. What I observe now is that people are increasingly being allowed to be mediocre and that this is tolerated without any consequences whatsoever. So these people are content, continue to believe they are adequate, and do not make any efforts to improve. The world we live in now is one where we are lauded simply for doing our jobs, and are tolerated when we fail to do even that.

Much academic research has been written about treating children in this delicate fashion and the consequences of this treatment on their ego. What I need to let out right now are the consequences this has on adults.

I have had a few disappointing interactions during our stay here in Italy with regard to people, who, without putting too blunt a point on it, should not be doing their job. To take a pop culture example, we laugh at those contestants on American Idol and X-Factor who are absolutely terrible and yet act so surprised when they are rejected. These misguided individuals then indignantly rage at the camera, seemingly asking “how do you not see how great I am?” I’ve seen that here, in Italy, in Rome, in LUISS even. I’ve made vague mention of it in one of the very first posts I’ve written upon first arriving Italy and have continued to feel its simmering effects to this day.

This is not a good situation in any location, but particularly in a university setting where you would expect everyone to be at least intelligent enough to accept their fallibility. When an ‘intelligent’ person performs their job in a deeply incompetent way but in a way in which they are convinced that it’s acceptable, this is troublesome. Because their ability to recognize their failing is apparently impaired, it is impossible for them to recognize their own weaknesses. To make matters worse, any feedback is perceived as an attack and we all know that once someone’s defenses are up we get nowhere. To make matters even worse, these people often have a veritable arsenal of excuses ranging from being overworked to medical issues to the bizarre. You know what I mean, we all know the type.

There is a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which contrasts the self-perception of skilled and unskilled persons. Dunning and Kruger’s research (1999) looks at the metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude and contrasts this with the skilled, whose competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding of themselves.

This cognitive bias can destroy the academe. Again, to be brutally honest, people who should not be doing their jobs are somehow keeping them through a combination of self-important inflation, justifications for incompetence, and a graduate degree that they likely should not have received— I’ll write more on this conflagration of academic degrees at a later date, it’s another topic worthy of examination.

My immediate concern is that having incompetent staff automatically degrades the quality of an institution, demoralizes its students, and depletes the quality of each and every degree.  If things continue in their current trajectory, whether here at LUISS or elsewhere in society, we will end up in a world where the truly skilled can no longer keep their head above the tide of mediocrity threatening to drown them. For LUISS in particular, as the purported best university for the social sciences in Italy, I worry that this inefficiency and mediocrity will lead it down the path that many formerly glorious universities have taken, and bring it to the point where excellence can no longer be recognized.

Personnel choice must be based on merit, not connections, and definitely not pity. Mediocrity should not be celebrated. Keeping one’s job requires passion and dedication. In the academe in particular, we need skill, passion, and intelligence among many other factors from students, staff, and faculty. Without this, we are in for a world of suffering.

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