Pundits write commentaries about newsworthy events that have occurred over the past 12 months. These appear for local and regional events as well as for those of national import. Occasionally there will be a piece highlighting events that are mediocre, wasteful or result in unwanted consequences. Over the past year a number of these in Columbia have left average citizens puzzled. They call to mind a saying by the great writer of the early 20th century G. K. Chesterton. As he took note of the really dumb events taking place in England at the time, he observed, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” In Columbia there were many things worth doing, and some of them were done badly. All of them are too numerous to mention but there are four that should not be ignored.
Chief among these things was the utter failure of the YouZeum, the health science facility. Although it was conceived and created prior to 2009, the extent of its folly only became evident during the past year. A community attraction must possess three basic elements. It must feature something of interest not readily available elsewhere, it must have the potential to attract a large number of viewers or participants, and it must enjoy widespread community support. The YouZeum possessed none of these, and low attendance at the facility was both costly and embarrassing. The information in it could easily be found by anyone with access to a computer. And its only community support was from a small group of high-profile elites.
The tyranny of the bicycle was worse than YouZeum because it affected more people on a daily basis. When children get their first two-wheeler, the first thing parents drum into their heads is only to ride on the sidewalk or, when necessary, the far right side of the street. It is part of the socialization process of childhood. Yet the city spent thousands of dollars painting lines along the right side of thoroughfares with arrows and quirky symbols of bicycles. Why spend money on something people already know? If letters to the editor and comments to call-in radio programs are any measure of community concerns, it was a bad decision. In addition, the convoluted bicycle-automobile pavement signage at some street intersections defies understanding.
A pattern has arisen in the past several decades to both praise and reward mediocrity. The line between average performance and excellence has become blurred. An egregious example of the celebration and praise of mediocrity was the salary increase given to Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel. College football is one of those areas of human endeavor where success and excellence can be measured quantitatively by win-loss records and the quality of opponents that have been played. Yet even with an early schedule padded with inferior opponents, Pinkel’s record has been slightly above average, and his teams have lost to many second-tier opponents. Still, his mediocre performance has been rewarded with extraordinarily generous salary increases. We’ve gone from rewarding excellence to rewarding mediocrity.
One wonders if Columbia’s transportation planners purposely set about to make drivers in the central city angry by instituting angle parking on Ash Street and by questionable lane shifting on other thoroughfares. Downtown drivers can choose from three parking modes. They can parallel park, angle park with front end to the curb or angle park with rear end to the curb. On some streets there is confusion because the lane suddenly shifts, or it disappears. The intent to facilitate traffic flow is a laudable one, but it has turned into a good idea done badly.
It is beyond the scope of this commentary to offer explanations as to why society in general and Columbia in particular recognizes, rewards or praises activities or performances that are merely average. One possibility suggests itself. In a city of more than 100,000 residents, there are thousands of people with high intelligence and judgment ability. Yet when decisions are to be made that affect the larger community, it appears that a small group of high-profile individuals keeps getting selected to make them. A mechanism could easily be put in place to expand participation whereby non-elites are given the opportunity to participate in significant community decisions.
In the absence of that, Chesterton may have gotten it right. Columbia wants to do good things, but just does them badly.
Roland Meinert is a retired academic and wannabe pundit.