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When Everyone Gets a Trophy, No One Wins

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A friend's kids went to an elementary school where "Honor Student" awards were handed out alphabetically so that (as one of his daughter's teachers explained) "everybody gets the award, and there are no favorites: it's alphabetical!" When my friend pointed out that his daughter's last name meant she'd go last -- "and that's hardly fair," he said with his most worried/frustrated/grim face -- the teacher grew nervous, and stuttered through an alternative: "Maybe we could go boy-girl-boy-girl?"

The school stuck with the alphabet. The ceremony gave new meaning to the term "A student."

America's "everyone gets a trophy" syndrome has become a national joke. "A" grades, which once conveyed excellence, are now given to 43 percent of all college students, according to a study by grade-inflation gurus Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. This is an increase of a staggering 28 percentage points since 1960 and 12 percentage points since 1988. The study also reveals how easy it is to buy college credentials: a scandalous 86 percent of private school students, it turns out, get nothing lower than a "B."

In other words, the nation has become a self-parodic reflection of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon: thanks to collusion between parents and educators, the vast majority of all private school children are virtually guaranteed to be above average.

While their older siblings score good grades whether they deserve them or not, thousands of five-year-olds across Manhattan are busily "prepping" for tests they'll have to ace to qualify for a small number of what the New York Times calls, "gifted and talented kindergarten seats." (The city's Anderson School requires children to score in the 99th percentile on the tests, the Times reports; otherwise their parents aren't invited to the school's open houses.)

Some public schools refuse to allow anyone to get a grade below "C," so no student will ever fail! Explaining why two Kansas school districts favor this policy, a spokesman says it's just like the Army, where no one can "be left behind on the battlefield." Yes, yes: the playground is a battlefield.

Grade inflation promotes ego inflation, the opposite of healthy self-confidence. "We want to encourage effort, especially among young kids," says Jean M. Twenge, author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. "But the 'everybody gets a trophy' mentality basically says that you're going to get rewarded just for showing up. That won't build true self-esteem; instead, it builds this empty sense of 'I'm just fantastic, not because I did anything but just because I'm here.'"

Adults can be as seduced by the narcissistic con as their kids. For years, the fashion industry has engaged in a bizarre but calculated form of "downsizing," steadily lowering the bar on what used to be standard sizes for women's clothing. The Economist reports that in Britain, the average size-14 pair of women's pants is more than four inches wider at the waist than it was during the '70s; now it fits just like a former size 18. In the U.S., a size 10 is equivalent to a British 12 or 14. As consumers' waistbands inflate, they begin to believe what they want to believe -- that they still fit into their old sizes. Bigger spending and an obesity epidemic form a fat-uous circle.

Financial inflation has given ordinary Americans a distorted idea of their wealth, with devastating consequences. Before the current economic crisis, many 99 percenters felt richer and richer year after year as they earned more dollars (though prices soared commensurately) and found they could live in a "better neighborhood" without moving as the "value" of their homes apparently skyrocketed.

Now, with many millions unemployed and 11 million homes underwater, that illusion has been shattered. Today's hyper-low inflation only makes things worse for most of us, as mega-banks borrow from the Fed at zero percent, while human beings' savings earn virtually no interest. At the same time, corporate bigwigs bask in a variation of the Lake Wobegon effect, as boards ratchet up compensation packages (and golden parachutes) for CEOs without regard to merit.

Phony advocates for "democracy" like to give the impression that nobody's better than anyone else -- not on some abstract notion that we'll be treated equally before the law, but that "fairness" means we're all the same. "Every man a king," Louisiana Gov. Huey Long liked to say -- before he was dispatched to that very undemocratic utopia in the sky.