Some are born mediocre, others have it thrust upon them, while still others ooze into it. One does not have to be above average to recognize excellence in others. The honest mediocrity can define talent and make positive use of its products despite being ordinary himself. While there is an obvious price to near universal mediocrity, there is also an upside – see below. An aside, any group classified as an elite is by necessity mediocre.
The mediocre have long since inherited the earth. In fact, the world was created for them. Indeed, It could not function without them. They lead their lessers and co-opt their betters. Almost every institution is impossible without the mediocre, consider a few.
Start with the military. They’ve been around the longest. Ants and chimps, among others, have them. Humans embraced the institution right after Cain killed Abel. There’s a hoary saying in the military that the crap rises to the top. That’s a little harsh, though it does a embrace a kernel of truth – especially if we’re viewing the troops from the vantage point of peacetime. When there’s a war the good commander seems a genius compared to the mediocrities that surround him. The great general appears other worldly. When the battlefield is quiet the careerist triumphs.
The medical corps has a few gifted doctors, at about the same proportion as is found in civilian practice. They start their military career as captains and if they stay in uniform rise to the rank of colonel at a rapid and prescribed pace. If a military doctor wishes to become a general officer he must do things that detract from useful medical activities such as jumping out of airplanes and going to the war college, or other exercises which the military sees as essential for advancement to its highest echelons even though jumping from planes and the rest has no application to medical practice.
A flag officer in the military is an administrator. By both necessity and definition he no longer sees patients, does research, or teaches. As such, even if he was gifted in the crafts of his profession, he is sucked into an ever expanding bureaucracy which fills his time with activities that yield little that is useful. He then becomes an ideal candidate for a high level administrative position at a medical school. Which brings me to the next center of concentrated mediocrity – the academy.
While not as old as the military, the university and its forebears go back about two and a half millennia. The cloistered halls of learning have always been a sanctuary for the well schooled hack. But for most of its history the university has been reserved for a few listless louts. Only since the day before yesterday has advanced, and often purposeless, education been offered to the masses. The result, predictably, has been an increase in those who profess to special knowledge accompanied by an exponential growth in those who care for the buildings and grounds; these non-teaching accretions also set arcane rules for the conduct and disposition of dilute teaching. Four years of college has become a super expensive “year abroad” stretched to four or more. It’s akin to getting your ticket punched while reading a politically charged comic book. Learning anything useful is accidental, solitary, or postponed to another course of instruction which could have been pursued without the prolonged interval of regimented inadvertence which is needlessly required for entrance to a professional school.
Then there’s the contagion problem. Spending 5 to 10% of your life when most vulnerable to crackpot ideation while simultaneously exposed to erudite nonsense is likely to induce chronic variants of mediocrity which can never be erased. Such infestations are most prevalent in residential colleges; a local community college is somewhat safer. Not all university departments have the same mediocrity density. English and psychology are the most heavily infected save for the identity variants created to encourage diversity which would be laughable by any group that had not banned humor.
Expensive and stupid as undergraduate mediocrity training may be, there’s an upside to reenforcing the trait; though mediocre work can be done with just a high school education. The next monstrous mediocre mess dwarfs all the rest combined.
If you guessed the antagonymically named healthcare you may be dangerously well informed and subject to sanction – you’re own your own as to which meaning to assign that last word. This monster of mediocrity is almost entirely the creation of the government. Thus, it is fitting that the masters of the mediocre look to the government to fix a system that marches to the regimental band of bureaucrats.
I’ve already explained as best I can how we got into this macédoine, a system so complex and ponderous that a bloat of hippos seems dainty in the pairing. Only a politician or a demagogue, assuming there’s a difference, pretends to understand how it works – or doesn’t work. The best of my former students now well into their professional careers are dragged by the mediocre current that dictates almost everything they do. They perform as best they can to protect their patients, but we may be approaching the time when the only safety, parlous as it may be, is Christian Science. Today any practitioner in the grove of Aesculapius will be mandated remedial reeducation, assigned the death of 1000 forms, and poleaxed by the electronic medical record as the price of putting MD after his name.
The current pandemic and our response to it can only be explained by the combination of the mediocre medical mind with that of the autocratic politician – a deadly medley. The virologists in their relatively unscathed labs were allowed to develop vaccines in record time, but not fast enough to prevent that mayhem that their epidemiological colleagues perpetrated. The logistics of delivering an effective vaccine never received much thought, much less serious planning. Now everyone is a transportation, delivery, and inoculation critic and expert. The mediocre defined the problem, the intelligent few came up with a solution, and now the mediocre will have to take charge again.
There’s only one remaining major modern sphere of human endeavor – the information industry. The modern version of this business was the offspring of a few really bright minds and needed both imagination and dexterity to succeed. So successful have these new endeavors become that they are bigger than the government and more powerful in their reach.
Here is where we need the mediocre to save us. As the gifted innovators are bored or sated by their success they will leave the scene to successors who are ordinary. Their business model will be encumbered by inept management and the government will regulate them as they do the utility industry. This is just a restatement of Schumpeter’s creative destruction. In other words, the mediocre will save us from the talented and we’ll muddle through until the next new thing appears.
It may be an unpleasant realization, but mediocrity is a definitional reality. It’s what most of us are. We can’t survive without it. So bitter is this gargantuan pill that every generation proposes a utopian solution to the quotidian that, to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, has no limit to the number of eggs it’s willing to break to make the omelet that will realize the ideal. If there were a cure for mediocrity Homo neanderthalensis would have found it before the last ice age. Life is tough and complicated. Mediocrity is what allows us to survive.