Mark Shields: The ‘revenge’ of Garrison Keillor

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Garrison Keillor is rightly known as an American author, storyteller and humorist who hosts the weekly radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion,” in which he gives his fictional hometown report from Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

Obviously, all children are not above average. But you would not know that from our national habit of awarding a trophy to every child — irrespective of effort or contribution — who simply shows up, however irregularly, for any sports team. Keillor’s influence has reached all the way to the elite precincts of Harvard Yard, where the dean of undergraduate education has publicly admitted that the median grade (half the students score above it, and half score below it) awarded to Crimson students is an A-minus and that “the most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”

When fixed standards are devalued or, worse, abandoned, we should expect the sort of national calamity we now collectively face in the next three weeks. Look at the TV schedule. Barely a generation ago, the country got by with just a handful of college football bowl games — Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar come to mind — but America has experienced unchecked bowl inflation, to the point where we now have 40, count ’em, bowl games being played and televised.

You can be forgiven for not knowing all about the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl in Phoenix or the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, or even the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — formerly the Humanitarian Bowl (now sponsored, logically, by the Idaho Potato Commission) — in Boise.

Once, in order to be invited to a postseason bowl game, the college team needed to have had a successful season, with just one or perhaps two defeats. That is no longer the case in Lake Wobegon America. In the AutoNation Cure Bowl, scheduled for Dec. 19 in Orlando, Florida, the San Jose State Spartans, who won five and lost seven games in 2015, will square off against the Georgia State Panthers, who lost as many games — six — as they won. The Nebraska Cornhuskers’ 5-7 season record was rewarded with an invitation to Santa Clara, California, to play UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers, another 5-7 team, will escape that state’s arctic winter and travel to sunny Detroit to tangle with the Central Michigan Chippewas (seven wins, five losses) in the Quick Lane Bowl.

It used to be, when even semi-fixed standards prevailed, that a coach who had a less-than-mediocre 5-7 record immediately set about pursuing “other professional interests” because he could expect to be fired. In today’s everybody-gets-a-trophy culture, such a coach can instead point to his team’s being honored with a “major” bowl invitation.

When everybody gets an award, the awards become meaningless. Unearned public recognition and undeserved praise do not build character or prepare anyone for a competitive life. The continuing proliferation of college bowl games with teams that don’t deserve to play in them — all for national TV appearances and an elusive payday — is just further proof of the havoc Garrison Keillor has wrought with his dangerous throwaway line that “all the children are above average.”

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