The Trophy Syndrome

The School Board of Fairfax County, Va.-a suburb of Washington, D.C.-had a problem: complaints from high-school students and principals that class rankings were unfair. On a grade scale of 0 to 4, a majority of students had averages of 3.0 (B) or better. Yet many students were naturally ranked in the lower half of the class. The solution: eliminate rankings.

We inhabit a self-congratulatory society in which we constantly reassure each other how well we're doing. You can't tell anyone anymore that they're no good-or less good than their peers. We devise artful titles to create the impression that everyone occupies a position of respect and responsibility. The New Yorker once ran a cartoon of a man pouring out his woes to a bartender. "I don't know, Al," he says. "On the one hand, there's no doubt that it's a make-work, dead-end job, but, on the other hand, it's also a vice presidency."

My son Michael, 6, plays in a soccer league. The highlight of the fall and spring seasons is the same: the trophies. Every team gets trophies. Everyone on every team gets trophies. It doesn't matter whether you finish 9-0 or 0-9. It doesn't matter how well you play or even whether you play. Just show up for the last game, when trophies are distributed. (I can't write "awarded.") Michael has four.

Titles? In Standard & Poor's, I flip to Comerica, Inc., a medium-size bank holding company. It lists one chairman, two vice chairmen, two executive vice presidents, 24 senior vice presidents and 22 first vice presidents. The press excels at title pollution. Consider NEWSWEEK. We have an editor-in-chief, an editor, a managing editor, four assistant managing editors, 15 senior editors, 20 senior writers, 23 general editors and 17 associate editors. Many "editors" don't edit. They write; some don't do that. All the titles are meant to sound impressive, even at the expense of honesty. I'm one of 10 contributing editors, though I don't edit anything, and some even doubt whether I contribute.

One way to view this rampaging flattery is as constructive hypocrisy: hypocrisy, because we know it's false; constructive, because the pretense does us good. Not everyone can win every game, so we devise consolation prizes that make the losers feel better without hurting the winners.

After all, my son plays in games where score is kept. Who cares if losers get trophies, too? (For the record, Michael's team-the Big Birds-finished 5-2-2.) Not every rising manager can be CEO. So what if the also-rans proliferate into vice presidents? Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman of Columbia University reports that the United States now has roughly 3,000 major scientific prizes, five times as many as 20 years ago. But she doubts that work effort or the ardor for discovery have suffered just because prizes are easier to win.

In a recent book, economist Robert Frank of Cornell University argued that many of these accommodations make perfect sense.* People value status, and we find new ways to create it or to keep content those who have less of it. Fancy job titles provide psychic income. The welfare state enables those on top to stay there by making life on the bottom a little more tolerable.

Vicious competitiveness, unless checked, can be ugly and socially destructive. Do we really want a country of John McEnroes? The reasoning that persuaded the Fairfax School Board to allow schools to drop class rankings was simple. Many grades were bunched together. Rankings were artificial (students with similar grades might have wildly divergent ranks) and, therefore, were unfair. Low ranks were hurting students in college admissions.

"Kids shy away from demanding courses or demanding teachers, because it will affect class rank," says principal Joseph Arangio of Langley High School. A student in a neighboring county told The Washington Post: "I know people who sat down and cried when they got their rank. They said, 'I worked so hard, and this is what I have to show for it.' People flip out over these things."

Up to a point, all this rings true. But perhaps you suspect (as I do) that things have gotten out of hand. Competition can be nasty, but it's often useful. "No pain, no gain" is usually true. Even before cliches like this, Edison wrote: "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." The tendency to tell everyone that everything is OK-everyone gets a trophy-may temporarily lower stress but it relaxes the pressure to do our best, which may be better than we thought we could do.

People suppress bad news. By now, it is well known that U.S. students score poorly in many international comparisons-but rate themselves near the top. Doubtlessly, the executives who mismanaged General Motors convinced themselves that they were doing fine. One reason class rank may now make less sense than in the past is grade inflation. In 1966, 15 percent of college freshmen had A averages in high school. By 1991, that was 24 percent.

This sort of socially acceptable self-deceit is designed to spare hurt feelings and puff up our self-esteem. But it's harmful when the truth ultimately intrudes, as it usually does. It did at GM. Schools can end rankings and give everyone A's. But they can't create more openings at elite colleges to which their students aspire. Students who expect to get in won't. Handling disappointment-and going on from it-is one of life's lessons. It is taught by experience, not denial. Too much self-satisfaction tempts us to treat disappointment as somebody else's fault. Because we're OK, blame for our misfortune must lie elsewhere.

It's also clear that constructive hypocrisy is often plain old hypocrisy. It breeds cynicism and waste. Too many vice presidents create bureaucratic bloat. The cavalier use of inflated titles substitutes for imaginative management that enables people to make genuine contributions. Making high-school and college degrees easier to get causes many people to differentiate themselves by pursuing less common "higher" degrees. Hence, the growth of "credentialing": an explosion of masters' and professional degrees, many of dubious value.

Everyone likes praise. At the age of 6, an extra pat on the back is helpful. A few trophies are no big deal. Our problem is that we perpetuate childish customs. Praise given too easily or too lavishly is worse than none. Trophies are worth something only if they are earned, not bestowed. ..L1.-

*"Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status." 306 pages. Oxford University Press. 1985.