04/27/2012 11:26 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Good Enough Does Not Lead to Greatness

I recently read a letter to the editor in a regional paper objecting to a tax increase to replace aging school buildings. The gist of the letter was that the old decaying school buildings were "good enough." While many public schools sorely need modern facilities, I am not arguing here for new school buildings. Rather, I am objecting to the letter writer's remarks as evidence of a "poverty of expectations." Too often, we fail to strive for excellence or greatness because we believe it is not probable, so why try? Or, we accept the status quo, even if it is mediocre or sub par. "Good enough" will not be adequate to solve the huge number of issues facing our nation.

Higher education claims to prepare students for the "real world." And that reality can be harsh for students who've never been encouraged to reach beyond their comfort zone. Colleges and universities would be negligent if they didn't set high standards and challenge students to achieve.

As a professor, I often encountered students who felt they deserved an "A" for what was merely "C" work -- it met all the requirements of the assignment in an average way. No doubt these same students were also the proud holders of "certificates of participation" for competitions in which "everyone is a winner because they tried." One student's mother even phoned me and said that if I failed her child, I would permanently damage their self-esteem. I did fail the student, but they recovered, buckled down and eventually graduated from Adams State College with an above average grade point.

Each fall literally one-half of new freshmen entering U.S. colleges and universities express the goal of becoming a doctor or lawyer. But many of these same students are not qualified for college level mathematics (a prerequisite for any pre-med curriculum and many pre-law sequences), because they failed to take a real math course in high school, opting for "consumer math" or "reality math." (Some studies show so-called "math anxiety" to be at a record level -- but "math avoidance" is a more realistic characterization). One-third of all college freshmen drop out before their second year. Among those who remain, only about 10 percent actually pursue a pre-law or pre-med course of study. This is a case of high expectations without accompanying preparation.

Call me an old fogey, but my observation is that our consumer society is peddling the false assumption that life has an "easy button." Immediate gratification is the norm and a college degree is one of many perks that are expected and deserved. It would follow that academic performance should be judged by effort or neediness, rather than by measures of quality. TV, movies and messages on such interactive web tools as Facebook consistently convey this notion of entitlement without commensurate effort. Hence, schools and faculty are pressured to inflate grades or pass poorly performing students.

Successful Adams State alumni say they owe it all to a particular professor who cared enough to demand their best, who wouldn't settle for "good enough." ASC 2008 Alumnus of the Year, Dr. Tommy White, recalls the influence legendary Coach and Professor Dr. Joe I. Vigil had on him and his teammates during the heyday of ASC cross country's Long Green Line. The late Ira Zuckerman, who founded a $250 million marketing firm, gives full credit to Dr. Lynn Weldon and other professors for mentoring him to his great personal success. The advice both men were given could be boiled down to this sentiment expressed by Oregon distance running coach Bill Bowerman: "Run/study as hard as you can, then kick it up a notch."

Sometimes clichés contain wisdom: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." Bill Porter, Adams State graduate and generous donor to the college, went on to found E*Trade after working his way through college for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. His job was to ensure crews were available when needed; to do so, he had to peddle his bike to wake up sleeping crew members, as in those days not everyone had a phone. After working all night, he would spend his days going to class, labs and studying, and sometimes peddling his bike downtown again to read aloud to aging former Governor Billy Adams. Porter had no car, no cell phone, and was paid poorly, but he succeeded enormously due to sheer hard work.

Tom Brokaw has written about America's Greatest Generation. That was the generation of my parents -- the great grandparents of today's college students. Their sacrifice and diligence created easier, more fulfilling lives for the subsequent generations of Baby Boomers and X-ers. America's Greatest Generation, by definition, was not satisfied with "good enough." Nor should we be.