What A Brilliant Idea!

BooksEvery once in a while we encounter an idea so brilliant that we are inclined to shout, as did the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, “Eureka!” (Of course, prudence dictates we not run naked through the streets while shouting it, as he reportedly did.)

I’m excited to say I just had such an encounter. It came in the form of a news story from Hudson Falls in upstate NY. It seems nine-year-old Tyler Weaver has won a library reading contest for the fifth year in a row, this time finishing 63 books in a little over five summer weeks.

You might think the librarian would have been thrilled. After all, book readers keep librarians in business. (As far as I know there is no substance to the rumor that librarians are never happier than when all the books are safely on the shelves.)

But that is not what happened in this case. Instead, the librarian reportedly expressed sympathy for the other students who read only 23 or 12 or even zero books. She went so far as to accuse Tyler of “hogging” the contest and urged him to drop out of the competition.

Then she made a further suggestion—that henceforth contest winners be chosen by drawing names from a hat. That is the idea that made me shout “Eureka!”

The idea of drawing names from a hat could be the solution to one of America’s oldest and most serious problems—the trauma experienced by the millions of people who are forced to watch as others are rewarded for achievement.

Think about it. In Tyler Weaver’s case, there was one winner and perhaps fifty losers. In other cases, the situation is even worse. At every graduation there is one valedictorian but several hundred losers. In every amateur and professional sport a small number of individuals are selected while thousands are rejected. In international spelling bees there is a single winner but hundreds who were disqualified along the way and tens of thousands who never were allowed to compete simply because their applications were filled with misspelled words.

Where achievement is the measure, there are always more losers than winners, and that is grossly unfair. In reality, people differ in their capacity to achieve. Why compound the inequity by giving trophies to people who merely happened to have won the genetic pool? Yet that is what we have historically done.

Some would object that Tyler’s reward did not hurt other students but simply recognized his reading accomplishment. The problem is that such recognition implies that reading is preferable to other activities—for example, listening to gangsta rap, playing violent video games, or just sitting on a park bench practicing flatulence and making disparaging remarks about passersby. Who is to say that those activities are any less meaningful than reading books? If we really respect diversity, we should value all activities equally.

But I am excited about the librarian’s idea not just because of its wisdom but also because its potential application is so wide.

  • If athletic teams from high school and college to the Olympics and professional sports were determined by drawing names from a hat, the tyranny of the coordinated would end and the athletically challenged would exult. Moreover, if athletic contests consisted of putting on uniforms and running around a court or field for a period of time—without keeping any kind of score—no one would lose. And everyone would leave the events not only healthier (for the exercise) but also happier.
  • If teachers and professors drew grades from a hat, all students would have an equal chance of success. No one would be able to vault ahead of his neighbor by putting his nose in a book. The present caste system of winners and losers in academe would be over, and no graduate would have an unfair advantage after graduation in the workplace. Doctors, accountants, engineers, and airline pilots, among others, would be able to pursue their chosen occupations without suffering from the feelings of inferiority that result from failing grades.
  • If winners of film and music awards were picked from a hat, hundreds of losers would be spared the indignity of groveling or bootlicking in vain and then having to pretend pleasure at seeing despised rivals utter banalities while shedding false tears. And film/music critics would not have to spend months prior to the event offering generally mistaken prognostications.
  • If Nobel laureates in literature were picked from a hat, third-rate bloggers would have as good a chance at being honored as the third-world authors of unreadable political diatribes who typically win. And members of the Nobel committee would no longer have to suffer the hypocrisy of searching out the least known, most radical authors while pretending to identify the brightest, most deserving ones.
  • If government officials were chosen by drawing from a hat rather than by election, conscientious voters would be able to save considerable time comparing candidates’ voting records and determining which person would do the best job. Tax dollars would no longer be used to pay for campaigns. Affluent citizens would no longer feel obligated to make contributions to one or both campaigners to ensure favorable treatment after the election.

Finally, and not insignificantly, candidates would not have to spend time and effort determining what voters want to hear and having slick writers put it in their campaign speeches. Instead, candidates could speak their minds freely, knowing that nothing they say will affect the election. Such candor would also spare the public the effort of wondering which candidate is the bigger liar.

In short, if picking names from a hat were to replace careful selection of individuals on the basis of worthiness, America would quickly reach a point where most people give up the pursuit of excellence and simply hope for the luck of the draw. Admittedly, the thrill of victory might lose its meaning, but the agony of defeat would be much easier to bear.

The Hudson Falls NY librarian is sure to have more than her share of scoffers and detractors, as every creative thinker does. But I, for one, can only say Bravo, madam librarian—you have struck a powerful blow for mediocrity.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved