Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 20, 2000
Gatekeeping rewards mediocrity
Imposition of standards more prone to blessing conformity than rewarding excellence
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
The great American novelist William Faulkner was a high-school dropout. Eventually permitted to enroll in some special courses at the University of Mississippi, he received a D in English and was rejected for membership in the university literary society.
Even after he had become an established writer with more than a dozen successful books under his belt, his hometown university voted against awarding Faulkner an honourary degree. It was only after he had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950 that the university reconsidered, but never got around to awarding the doctorate.
Their loss. I doubt that Faulkner ever lost any sleep over it.
I am always tickled to have my theory that 80 per cent (and I expect I am being excessively charitable here) of the arbitrary gatekeeping that is done in our culture is superficial bunkum. Some gatekeeping is necessary of course. It wouldn't do to have auto-didacts performing brain surgery or flying airliners.
However, in my observation, most gatekeeping is more in aid of justifying and perpetuating bureaucratic systems and exclusivity - not in evaluating genuine merit.
Not that I'm against standards, so long as they are adequately defined and objectively applied. Unfortunately, in practice, standards, what remains of them, have been drained of meaning by policies like "social promotions" in public schools, and the system of seniority rather than merit in organized labour.
Our gatekeeping systems are designed and administered to reward mediocre conformity so that the objective becomes putting in one's time and going through the motions, rather than identifying and nurturing native talent and ability.
American philosopher Richard Weaver dismissed modern public schools as "social centres and institutions for improving the personality," and modern colleges as "playgrounds for grown-up children were centres of vocationalism and professionalism."
I doubt Faulkner, who, incidentally, volunteered and served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force in the First World War, gave a hoot about being snubbed by gatekeepers of mediocrity.
Asked at a 1958 symposium on psychology while he was writer in residence at the University of Virginia whether he had any observations on the trend toward conformity and the loss of individualization in society, Faulkner replied: "I'm against belonging to anything."
Expanding further on that statement, he explained: "I think that one man may be first-rate but if you get one man and two second-rate men together, then he's not blind to be first-rate any longer, because the voice of that majority will be a second-rate voice, the behaviour of that majority will be second-rate."
Faulkner, whose favourite self-description was "literary carpenter," defined "first-rate man" as "a man that did the best he could with what talents he had to make something which wasn't there yesterday. . . .
"That he never harmed the week, practised honesty and courtesy, and tried to be as brave as he wanted to be whether he was always brave or not. I think that a man that held to those tenets wouldn't get very far if he were involved in a group of people that had relinquished their individuality to some one voice."
While Faulkner focused strongly on the problem of human evil in his writing, and incorporated ambiguously Christian themes and concepts in several of his novels, there is little to indicate that he was a believer, much less devout, although that is ultimately between him and God.
His background was Scots Presbyterian, and as someone wrote in a memoriam to Canadian novelist Human Clinton, who also had a rural Presbyterian background, it may have seemed to Faulkner that the "mean Calvinist God" seemed to offer little solace from human pain and alienation.
I expect also that the Church as Faulkner knew it appeared to him to be a concentration of second-rateism. His was the common tragedy of what psychiatrist-author Scott Peck describes as "principled, self-governing human beings who no longer depend on institutions for governance."
Peck notes that people at this stage of spiritual awareness are inclined to dismiss the majority of churchgoers as superstitious idiots, but also tend to be perplexed by a minority who seem to be scientific-minded, "and know how to write good footnotes, yet still somehow believe in this crazy God business."
Some of these intelligent skeptics eventually come to grasp that there actually is a kind of created cohesion beneath the surface of things, and are able to make their peace with the realization that the more mystery they solve, the more they will encounter.
They also grow to understand that while there are indeed many people in the Church who fall short of, say, Faulkner's definition of first-rate, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the supreme ultimate test, and all are equal at the foot of the cross. On this plane, through our free will, we become our own gatekeepers.
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