The Mediocre Inherit the Earth


I hated public school. It was hell for learners who were faster or slower than the norm. Even 40 years ago, it catered to the mediocre. The curriculum lumbered along like a brontosaurus, every subject belabored until Joe and Jane Average achieved mastery.

In sixth grade, we had a kid in our class named Sidney. He was at the opposite end of the learning curve from me. I was always bored, he perpetually perplexed. I was “weird” because I was brainy (the term “nerd” had not yet become common), and poor Sidney was mercilessly picked on because people thought he was stupid. They would shout at him as if he were hearing-impaired, mock the way he spoke, trip him up when he walked by, and just generally make his life miserable.

Even at the age of 11, I couldn’t figure out why a child deserved to be bullied because of something he couldn’t help. Had Sidney chosen his learning disability? Supposing I was weird already, so I might as well make the most of it, I befriended him. I was one of only a handful of kids, that whole year, who treated him like a human being.

I got through elementary school by believing that adulthood would be different — that in the grownup world of work, people would be nice to each other. This basically held true for the first 19 years of my working life, when I juggled duties at a small insurance agency. Then I moved into the big corporate arena, and found myself right back in sixth grade.

Big corporations don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees.

The all-American myth is that the business world rewards smarts and initiative. We’re told (or at least, we used to be) that even the Sidneys among us could get ahead if they worked hard, that the mediocre were constantly challenged to improve themselves, and that the brainy would lead them all. In reality, things are quite different.

Big corporations, many of which got where they are by lobbying the government to drive their competitors out of business, don’t even know what fair competition is. They’ve never had to practice it, and they do nothing to encourage excellence in their employees. Backbiting, conniving, bum-kissing, and total conformity are the tooth and claw needed to survive in this jungle. Truth has no currency; all that matters is what the bosses want to hear.

Employment in a large corporation is serfdom. It has little, if anything, to do with free enterprise. Everyone is terrified of originality and initiative. In every interview, a job applicant is asked the same inane questions. The right answers are not the truth, but what the interviewers want to hear.

“Do you have initiative?” Of course you do. “Are you a team player?” You’d better be. You certainly need to know where you see yourself in five years — in the hive, productively droning away.

Public schools prize conformity. They turn out good little drones. Young people graduate from them knowing nothing but how to be useful to the system — how to fit in. By the time they reach adulthood, any glimmer of originality has been bored or bullied out of them. Thus are they ready for the only function they are fit to perform: serving their corporate lords.

Sidney once walked several blocks from the store to my house balancing a watermelon on his head. He wanted to reward me for my friendship by bringing me something nice. Loyalty tends to be rewarded. But in corporate America, it is a commodity no longer prized. Instead of earning our trust, the new feudal order prefers to motivate us with fear.

I sometimes wonder what became of Sidney. Did he end up in the mailroom or the warehouse of some large company? He was capable of learning, if anyone had the patience to teach him. Apparently no one at our school did. Possibly he works in some charity-funded enterprise, but more likely he’s being taken care of by the government.

Big corporations are taken care of by the government; it follows that they want everybody around their fiefdoms to be taken care of in the same way. That is one reason, perhaps, why so many of their executives pay money to modern-liberal and “progressive” causes. Through taxation, inflation, the expensive misdirection of Medicare and Medicaid, and the exorbitant cost of socialized medicine, the state has gradually chiseled away at the edifice of protection that employers large and small used to afford their workers. As we are discouraged at every turn from taking care of ourselves, soon there will be nobody left to care for us but government. Which, I suspect, is exactly the plan.

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Jon Harrison

I have to agree with Lori's thesis, based on my 30 years of working for businesses large and small. There are exceptions to her rule, but as a generalization it's spot on.

I too remember the mind-numbing nature of public school. The elementary years weren't too bad, and there were programs like Great Books that provided some relief from classroom routine. But middle and high school (or at least grades 7-10) were awful. The fault lies, as Lori points out, in the purpose of education in our society: to turn out cogs for the corporate machine. I'm happy to say that nowadays up my way we have some interesting options for kids. In elementary school we have a "Challenge" program that allows some students to work one-on-one with a teacher on literary and intellectual projects. My daughter definitely profited from it. I home-schooled her in 6th and 7th grade, which was a nice break for her. She was allowed to continue with Challenge during that time. Additionally, as a Challenge student she had the opportunity to take college classes at the college here in town. She achieved a 3.5 GPA as a 13-year-old, taking freshman Cultural Anthropology and Introduction to Literature. The young kids receive no breaks from the instructors; they must do everything the freshmen do.

The high school in my village is not particularly outstanding, but there some excellent teachers. And the drama club is first rate. Overall, my daughter has had some good opportunities to make her mark outside of the mainstream. I credit this at least in part to the competition from home-schooling, charter schools, etc. that public education has had to face. Free enterprise and competition bring out the best in the best. Unfortunately, the duopoly of big government and big business tends to suppress free enterprise and healthy competition throughout our society.

Fred Mangels

Nice to see it pointed out that large businesses can have the same faults as government. However, I am a bit disturbed by choosing to describe them as corporations.

Yes, they are corporations. Nearly all businesses are organized legally as corporations. The problem is the word corporation is considered by many to be one of derision.

I prefer to call them businesses, or as the other Fred has done, companies. No big deal but it that's a more neutral term.

Lori Heine

I always welcome feedback from both Freds! I use the term "corporation" specifically because a corporation is a government-created entity. Its very existence is tangled up with tax legislation and regulation by the State.

"Companies" are entities that arise out of free enterprise. I like companies very much, and would like to see many, many more of them -- starting up, surviving and thriving.

I believe it's been the entanglement of government with business that has created a lot of the problems about which I write. The "derision" I express is directed not toward their desire to make money, or to serve the public by doing useful things or making beneficial products, but toward their coziness with big government.

Mega-government and mega-corporations are, I believe, two sides of the same coin. And ever-smaller corporations, to survive, are increasingly copying some of the worst behavior of the behemoths.

That is what Sidney, and I, and all of us, must contend with.

Fred Mora


I agree with many of your points, but I cannot follow you when you write "Big corporations... don’t even know what fair competition is."

I worked for a large multinational company for many years. I assure you that competition was very noticeable and destroyed several branches of the business, along with thousands of jobs (but other branches grew by selling competitively priced, quality products).

Now, during the 70s and early 80s, that same company was often accused of "unfair" competition. It did manage to dominate its market, but then it grew complacent and was trampled. The trade press commented that it had it coming.

I think your remark is applicable only to a small subset of large corporations, namely, telecom and cable companies that serve customers without an alternative.

But I might have misunderstood you. Care to comment?

Lori Heine

Fred, I always appreciate your comments. Big corporations are certainly fiercely competitive, but as for FAIR competition -- no, I do not believe they're too familiar with the concept.

The little guys are getting gobbled up by the big ones. This happens largely because they can't afford to comply with tax and regulatory burdens placed on them by the various levels of government.

My dad, who owned his own small insurance agency, used to complain that the government treated him as if he were Allstate. That all business owners were assumed to be "rich." All too often, those who really are rich are the only ones able to survive the burdens government places on them.

When my lefty friends wear their "Support your local independents" t-shirts, I always ask them why they aren't more supportive of policies that actually make it possible for more local independent businesses to survive.

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