Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When a "B+" Becomes an "A" (Evaluations, part two)

The Dogs--"A Decent Warning" (mp3)

I'm a B+ guy, maybe better than that in some areas, certainly worse in others. And I'm not talking about grades; I'm talking about the kinds of ratings, real or imagined, that come up in everyday life--marriage, friendship, work, etc.

For example, I'm pretty good at my job. B+ good. I might even be the best person at this moment to do my particular job, but I doubt it. And even if true, I'm still a B+. But I get told (in any number of ways that have nothing to do with salary) that I'm A good. You know, really, really, good. Indispensable. Vital cog in the machine and all that.

It isn't true. It's just what's convenient.

Certainly, I have enough self-awareness to be able to do a basic self-assessment. No false modesty necessary. I work at at B+ school full of B+ people. I'm one of those. I have more ideas than most, but not brilliant ideas, just seat-of-the-pants clever ideas. I can create something pretty workable at the last minute under pressure. I can rev up enough personality most days to make the school day more pleasant for our students. But that's it. I'm certainly not shaping pedagogy on a national scale or in a way that anyone should follow.

For whatever reason, we're none of us at the absolute top of our game. It may be institutional. A conservative, Southern school is simply not likely to be on the cutting edge of anything, and we're not. We're good, in some ways very good, but not great. That is no dis. Or it may be that for similar reasons, our school does not attract the absolute top candidates that are out there. It really doesn't matter, we make it work, and what I'm really after is for you to buy my basic point about the B+=A phenomenom that is going on, not my casual critique of where I work.

Are you really an A? Or are you a B+ like me? Are you super Dad or pretty good Dad? Are you great at your job or is it simply that whoever evaluates your performance doesn't want to get into the areas where you could stand to improve and that this lulls you into a sense of unsubstantiated self-satisfaction? To do otherwise is hard work, difficult work, threatening work. And that's my point: nobody wants to do that anymore.

Or is it that you are better than the people around you and that you are elevated beyond where you should be because of that knowledge? Are you a big fish in a small pond? Or do you have the power to keep anyone from really giving you a hard look? Either way, same result.

I'm deeply disturbed by this. This is another of those indicators, for me, of the decline of our country. How can we reform something as important as education when we can't take a hard look at what isn't working and when we can't have frank talks with each other about what we can do to get better? It's much easier to focus on logistics and pressing problems than it is to try to sweep an entire institution or country into major reform.

Because it isn't just education. We don't want to have to do the dirty work of evaluation anywhere. Politicians don't read bills. Citizens don't read politicians. We cede the argument, and therefore the evaluation, to whomever grabs the conch, to whomever gets control of the spin, to whomever owns the message. We listen to B+ music, celebrate B+ products, live B+ lives. If we can admit that even.

We have become so blunt as a society that the only kind of "evaluation" that we understand is winning and losing. We have reduced to a national language where things are either "awesome" or they "suck." The nuanced middle (my own brilliant analysis of "kinda suck" aside) is of little interest to anyone except a few remaining thoughtful journalists and the hosts of comedy news shows. And their voices are easily minimized or ignored.

And so, we want to believe that we are an "A" country when we are really a "B+." If we can win in whatever specific ways are currently important--wars, diplomacy, atomic dominance, technology, Christianity--then we can demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that we're still on top. God forbid that one of our politicians should suggest that we are not. That's not unAmerican, by the way. I'm certainly not claiming that there's a different "A" country out there. I'm just saying that we're no longer it.

Has there been in history anything that has been more dangerous than convincing a group of people, or even one person, that they are something that they are not?

I think there's a different kind of danger now. That a country, our country, that the world needs to play a powerful, positive role can no longer play that role because it is a diminished version of its former self, but it doesn't know it. I guarantee that if we are in that situation now, everyone else will figure it out before we do. We will be the last ones to see it. And rather than acknowledge it, we will look amongst ourselves to find out who we can blame. And because we think we are ''A"s, we won't be able to see our "B+"ness, will have to pin it all on those someone elses who didn't make the grade.


Billy said...

I know I keep screwing up No Comment November, but your post stirs me deeply.

I think it says a lot about us and our culture that, first, a B+ should be considered shameful or bad. In truth, most people I respect are B+ people who are unsatisfied with that self-imposed grade and constantly seeking to improve in one way or another.

The people I struggle to respect are the ones who think they deserve an A but come up with all the reasons why they get stuck with that B+. Their boss, their coworker, some parent, the President, Muslims, whatever their excuses.

We have created a culture where today's B+ is yesterday's C+. It's like a movie rating system where anything under 4.5/5 stars means the movie was shit. Unfortunately, no one seems willing to reset the system or change the scoring.

John said...

You're more than a B+ cook, Bob, fwiw.