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The Magnet of Mediocrity

“The magnet of mediocrity”: that’s what a former president of my university once called it: the tendency to drag creative, energetic people down to the level of the status quo; the disapproval of anything that “pushes the envelope” of excellence.

One finds the tendency in many institutions, especially those with a stifling bureaucracy, but it is especially frustrating to find it in educational institutions, including some Catholic high schools.

I can’t begin to tell you how many bright, eager, energetic young people I’ve known over the years who wanted to serve society and the Church by teaching in a Catholic high school, but left after a year or two.

The story you’ll often hear is this: These eager, idealistic young people got into the classroom and hit the brick wall of reality. They just weren’t ready to deal with the kids. That’s not the story I hear.

What I hear time after time is this: The kids were fine. I never expected them to be saints. I was in high school; I saw what high school classrooms were like. What I didn’t expect, was the constant harassment I would get from administrators and parents, insisting: “Don’t push the kids too hard.” The story I hear again and again is that it was the parents and principals who hounded out the teachers who challenged status quo and their students.

There are, of course, some parents who seek out the good teachers and make sure their children get in their classes. Sometimes they even go by the classroom and lend words of support, encouragement, and thanks. They are water in the desert, manna from heaven.

There are, however, I’m told, an increasing number of anti-Catholic parents and students who seem to view Catholic secondary schools as the cheapest alternative to failed, unsafe public schools.

What shocked my friends was how many parents were essentially demanding: “Stop educating my child.” They didn’t say this, of course, but it was what they were demanding in effect when they were constantly complaining: “Less reading!” “No homework!” “These books are too hard!” “You can’t expect this level of work from a high school student!” “This is college-level work.”

As a college professor, I’m often amused at the pitiful amount of reading some people imagine is “college-level” work. It’s less amusing when my college students complain I’ve assigned them “graduate-level” work. I tell them about one student who came back from medical school to thank us for assigning so much reading: “It helped prepare me; now I read in a week what we used to read in a month.”

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And we haven’t even gotten yet to religion. “Theology is not supposed to be such a burden.” “You are endangering the faith of my child.” Reading Ratzinger, John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is endangering the faith of your child? Astounding. If this child is anything like most teens I teach, he or she likely hasn’t the slightest idea what his or her faith is. Say the word “Pentecost,” and you’ll get blank stares, even from students who assure you they don’t need a class on “Teachings of the Catholic Church” because they’ve had twelve years of Catholic education.

I’m pretty sure I understand by now why they know so little. There are people who aren’t interested in their knowing more. They tear down teachers interested in inspiring the desire for excellence. They criticize everything that goes beyond the mediocre status quo. And most infuriating is how often they pose as acting out of concern for the students when in reality they are crippling them.

There are few things more exasperating than teachers and administrators who talk (ceaselessly) about how important the students are, but then don’t care enough to do what’s needed; who talk endlessly about caring for students but who never expend the time and energy to make sure they achieve. “Accompanying them” is the latest administrative buzzword being forced on teachers, to excuse them from actually teaching.

“This level of work is too hard,” parents and principals say. “Sure, it is now. But not for long. Not on my watch.” Then the criticism starts, and you feel the magnet of mediocrity dragging you down. “Stop. . .doing. . .so. . .much. Accept the status quo; the rest of us have.” The result is the “snowflake generation” of kids we now see entering college demanding that they be coddled and protected.

In an article published recently in this space, I suggested that “Education is increasingly seen not as a means for developing meaningful skills, cultivating prudence, or broadening one’s moral outlook. It is simply another ‘system’ to be gamed. . . .Students know they need something called a ‘degree,’ but it represents nothing more than a ticket to something else.” Now where would they have gotten this idea? Perhaps from their parents – whose attitude is: “Don’t educate my child; just get him or her through with high grades so that he or she can get on to Harvard.”

The number of Catholic schools kids who think they’re headed off to the Ivy League never ceases to amaze me – about as many as the number of tolerably good high school football players who think they have a shot at the NFL. It’s delusional, even if you think either goal worth aspiring to. How about instead setting the goal of a lifetime of sports, exercise, and learning? School isn’t a ticket you punch; it provides access to a cultural world you inhabit. It’s not about gaining a certain lifestyle; it’s about getting a life. There’s a difference.

Oh, and for the record, theology is supposed to be hard, like anything else worth doing particularly since it concerns eternal life. If you want a public-school education for your child, then make your public schools better. But don’t flee to the local Catholic high school and complain that it’s “too hard” – and too Catholic.

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Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.



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