The Curse of the Participation Trophy

These days, I routinely hand out As to college kids for work that would’ve barely gotten me a C in junior high.  It’s not because I’m a softie — I’m forever on the verge of getting fired for failing half my classes, and my student evals are brutal.  It’s because the general educational level of high school graduates is so low that their “essays” read like Nintendo cut scenes from the mid-80s:


I’ve been everywhere from the bush leagues to the Ivy League, and I’m only exaggerating a little when I say that all you need to ace any liberal arts class, at any university in America, is a semi-coherent stab at answering the question, with cited facts and no glaring typos.

That’s a problem, obviously, but an even bigger problem is a second order effect of all those easy As.  What happens to the best of the rest?

It’s never the worst off who start revolutions.  They’re too busy trying to keep body and soul together.  Your paradigmatic revolutionary is a guy with enough on the ball to feel entitled to a nice middle-class life, but without enough on the ball to go out and earn it.  Guys like Lenin, Mao, et al would’ve happily lived out their lives playing make-believe in the faculty lounge, had their societies enough middle-class sinecures to accommodate them.  Being reduced to a prole was intolerable to them, but they had no upward mobility, so the only thing to do was overturn society.

Since the Sixties, our university system has seemingly dedicated itself to turning out exactly this type of guy.

It’s still possible to get a world-class education at an American university.  You just have to study a Right Answer subject.  Students who pass Calc II will have no problem getting a middle class job.  Students who attempt, but fail, Calc II will learn a lesson almost as valuable: They may be smart, but they don’t have the kind of smarts that really matter in a knowledge economy.

It’s those folks who can’t pass Calc II — and never try — that end up being the problem.  Thanks to the administration’s obsession with collecting Diversity Pokemon, it’s impossible to fail anyone who actually turns in the work.  So if “all your base are belong to us” is a D — and trust me, compared to the efforts of the typical Diversity Pokemon, it’s practically a B — what could A+ work possibly look like?  Again, I’m kidding, but I’m not joking: Recognizable English*, no typos, somewhat relevant, not obviously plagiarized… that’s an A, in pretty much any Liberal Arts class on any campus in America.

As recently as the early Aughts, it didn’t matter.  We could absorb all the fake As with the same prosperity that let us absorb all the Diversity Pokemon and their degrees — after all, that’s what HR staffs and Studies departments are for.  But now that prosperity is gone, and the kid who got an A for writing #BlackLivesMatter a hundred times on his term paper is nail-spitting furious that his fancy degree from Stanford can’t get him a part-time barista gig.

So he goes out and riots in the streets.  It’s going to get a lot, lot worse.



*A huge problem in itself.  As lots of American parents are finally starting to see the futility of college, schools are going all-in on recruiting rich foreign students who pay full freight.  Their English is nonexistent.  It’s such a joy.

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5 thoughts on “The Curse of the Participation Trophy

  1. nightfly

    Nothing pithy to add, so here’s a link to a brilliant shot-for-shot live-action reproduction of the intro to Zero Wing.


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