David McElroy has an interesting piece in which he laments the decline of general competence. As he points out, we are seeing this more and more. Being concerned about people misspelling words may seem a bit much, but what happens when even highly educated people are often misspelling words? What happens when school teachers and administrators misspell words or make errors such as using “could of”?
While there is a degree of carelessness and, worse, not caring, there is also a strong degree of miseducation and, even worse again, false confidence. Everyone thinks they can write and don’t need an editor. Except that, no one can write and literally everyone needs an editor–especially if you’re a regular writer (it’s simple math: the more you write, the more errors you’ll make; it’s also psychological: the more you write, the more confident you are, and the less likely you are to catch your own errors). Excellence matters, and it is precisely excellence which it being put aside throughout our culture.
The biggest problem is precisely the problem of false confidence. And it extends well beyond writing. While I have had former students insist they were good writers because their teachers loved their writing and told them they were good (I always told those students they should go back and sue those teachers), we see people insisting on competence in teaching when they have only graduated a year ago, we see people insisting they know how to fix the economy when they haven’t had a single course on economics, and we see people having opinions about cosmology and biology when they don’t know the first thing about either. In the U.S., math competency is among the lowest in the developed world, and math confidence is the highest.
But these are hardly the only small things. Etiquette is long gone. And so are manners. People are rude, they won’t hold open doors for you, they consider everyone an inconvenience–one could go one an done (and I invite you to include examples in the comments). It seems a small thing, but etiquette is the foundation of ethics. They show what kind of character you have. If morals are the rules that help us live together in social groups, then etiquette is the foundation of morals. Every time you’re rude or call someone a name or bully someone because of their world view, politics, religion, lifestyle, whatever else you want to think of that makes people different from you, then you are acting unethically. Each violation of etiquette is a violation of ethics.
So I think David McElroy is on to something in his pointing out the little things. The little things are the foundations of the big things. Chip away at a dam long enough, and it will break and release the flood waters.