Happy New Year, and welcome to the week when we all resolve to make our brand, shiny new year better than the last — not a terribly high bar, I realize.
In that spirit, I am proposing a resolution that should be easy to keep. It will not require you to go to your health club three times a week through January and then feel guilty for quitting. It has nothing to do with your diet, how much you weigh or how much you donate to the “less fortunate.”
In fact, it’s about not doing something: Could we just stop making such a big deal over showing up?
I know our highly respected psychoanalyst Woody Allen supposedly said that 80 percent of life (or success) is showing up. But we have embraced what was supposed to be a joke as enthusiastically as we believe that Garrison Keillor is talking seriously about our own town when he concludes his tales from the fictional Lake Woebegon by saying, “All the children are above average.”
Sure, it’s nice to feel good about ourselves. It is a good and healthy thing for our children to know they are loved unconditionally. But there is a difference between love and unmerited praise or reward. Even the “inclusion” and “everybody’s special” advocates should be willing to admit by now that it’s gotten out of control.
Last week brought another reminder. College football bowl games have multiplied like rabbits, to the point where the majority have degenerated into meaningless mediocrity, which prompted a screed by a local sportswriter. It was well worth a screed, but it ain’t news. This kind of thing has been happening for decades.
It always starts with something that used to be pretty selective. In the case of postseason bowl games, you had to be among the few best teams in the country to play in one. Through most of the 1970s, there were just 11 of them, and most people knew their names — Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Peach, etc.
This year there are 39 — which we math geeks, using a smartphone app, can figure out is an increase of about 350 percent. That means 78 teams qualify.
It also means that superior performance is no longer part of the selection criteria; now teams with losing records can play in bowl games that feature corporate titles like TaxSlayer, Outback, Famous Idaho Potato, GoDaddy and Pinstripe.
We should all agree that such “bowl inflation” is absurd. Yet I’m sure there are people who will say that even this is not enough — that it will not be “fair” until every college football team gets to play in a bowl game. Otherwise, it will be yet another example of the worst, most corrosive sin of our modern world: inequality.
This should be no surprise to anybody who has been around for a few decades of the self-esteem movement.
I started noticing this trend way back when I was a weekly newspaper editor in a small town where, during about an eight-year stretch, we went from publishing a public school honor roll that had some semblance of credibility to printing a cartoonish reflection of Lake Woebegon. Somehow, just about all the children were above average.
We had to shrink the type size to keep the names of all the kids on the honor roll from spilling over onto several pages. The “slug” (a one- or two-word description of every item in the paper) became a sardonic reference to that: “Every Kid.”
It was almost that bad. You could be in the bottom 25 percent of your class academically and still make the “honor” roll.
The principal of the middle school back then had a slogan, “The sun always shines on our middle school,” which I thought was appropriate. It was as much a fantasy as the honor roll.
And, if anybody wonders about the roots of too many bowl games, all they have to do is look at the “evolution” of youth sports since the ’70s. My sons, who played youth soccer, accumulated more trophies than they could carry in their arms after about three years, because the philosophy changed from “everybody plays” to “everybody gets a trophy.”
The kids got wise to it quickly. The trophies went into a box in a closet. What’s so special about something everybody gets?
For a while, I collected other examples. There was the school system in a nearby community that had a Student of the Month award for a while. Then it was canceled. Parents had complained that it wasn’t fair unless every kid could be student of the month.
I noticed that some high schools no longer have a valedictorian, or have gone to naming anywhere from three to a half-dozen students as co-valedictorians, since it’s not fair for one person to get a distinction that excludes others.
And on and on.
It has been said before but bears repeating: When everybody is special, nobody is special. That’s why bowl games are nothing special anymore.
It would be better if they were actually a reflection of superior achievement, which could happen if everybody embraced my sensible resolution.
But I won’t be holding my breath. I expect soon to see the “Inclusion Bowl” added to the list — where both teams will win.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist who lives in Ipswich. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org