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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Got Talent? Leave. South Dakota Prefers Mediocrity

One of our state legislators has said something stupid. No, I'm not referring to compliments paid to Russell Olson upon his selection as Senate Majority Leader. I'm referring to the following quote reported by Bob Mercer:

A member of our Legislature took issue with a recent writeup on this blog regarding why election losers leave public service and sometimes leave South Dakota altogether. Regarding Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the fellow told me, “She’s got too much talent to stay here” [Bob Mercer, "She's Got Too Much Talent...," Pure Pierre Politics, 2010.11.13].

Too much talent... The statement itself makes no sense. There is no such thing as too much talent. No rational person ever says, "Gee, I wish I or my kids or my employees or my elected officials had less talent."

The unnamed legislator's comment could have come straight from "Harrison Bergeron." Does this unnamed legislator somehow believe that South Dakota doesn't deserve to have talented people in office? If so, I'd love to know who got this legislator's vote for party leadership this weekend. Would South Dakotans really choose less talented leaders over more talented leaders and accept years of drifting caretaker government and half-hearted initiatives that fall apart?

This legislator is perpetuating the South Dakota inferiority complex, that weird mix of perverse humility and anti-intellectualism that tells smart kids they are somehow un-South Dakotan. This legislator reminds me of Russell Olson, who has occasionally pointed out while campaigning here in District 8 that he didn't get the best grades in school. Generally, rational candidates say things they believe will make themselves look like better candidates. Granting that Olson is rational, I conclude that Olson thinks that emphasizing a lack of academic talent makes him look better among South Dakota voters. We're no good, so no one else should strive to be, because that would only make us feel more ashamed of ourselves.

What, then, do legislators with this anti-talent mindset really think about programs like Dakota Roots, the Sanford Homestake Lab, the Opportunity Scholarship, or education funding in general? These programs and others all seek to maintain and expand South Dakota's talent pool. If a legislator believes that individuals like Stephanie Herseth Sandlin have "too much talent" for South Dakota, then why would a legislator want to spend any tax dollars to recruit more talented workers or to encourage smart kids to go to college in state? Perhaps the Opportunity Scholarship needs a new ACT threshold: instead of a minimum score of 24 to qualify, we need a maximum score of 30: do better than that, and you're clearly too talented to go to SDSU. (By the way, Stephanie, what was your ACT score? And Kristi, how about you?)

There are other even less flattering ways to read this unnamed legislator's comment. Maybe this legislator thinks that a state full of mediocre thinkers and workers is easier to control and pay minimum wage. Maybe this legislator is a bitter Democrat (or one of the disaffected Republicans that my own unnamed sources say have no love for Kristi Noem) calling 48% of the electorate stupid. Maybe this legislator is just rationalizing our narrow rejection of Herseth Sandlin at the polls into a conscience-soothing compliment—"Nothing personal: we threw you out because you're so darned good! Now please go away, sweetie, and stop reminding us how dumb we are."

Whatever the beliefs motivating it, no good comes from this legislator's statement that Herseth Sandlin has "too much talent" for South Dakota. It says to our Fargens, our Buhls, our Venhuizens, and our Webers, "You don't belong here. Get out."

I do not believe South Dakota is a land of mediocrity. But legislators like the one talking to Bob Mercer will make us one.


  1. I never heard Russell Olson make a statement about his grades in school. However, if he did, I think it was to show that whether or not a student gets great grades in high school, it doesn't have to mean that he/she can't accomplish great things later in life. Many kids don't apply themselves in high school, but once in college, they are 4.0 students and go on to grad school and great jobs.

  2. Saying "too much talent" also acts as a deterrent for those working to push the expectation ceiling higher in SD. Let's get some vision and make this place a home for those with too much talent.

  3. We have wolf packs ready to go in, Cory. Just say the word.


  4. I have heard such comments, Linda, and they send a negative message to students of high and low academic ambition. There's no good spin to saying "I sloughed off in school, and now look at me! I'm a success!" There's evidence Olson spent college pre-occupied with extracurricular activities as well.

  5. It's not spin, Cory, and I am not advocating sloughing off in high school. But it is a fact with some kids, that's all. And I agree that extracurriculars do sometimes take precedence over academics for both students and parents, which is one reason for this fact. Another is that some kids are just not grown up and mature to realize the importance of studying and getting good grades in their future endeavors.

  6. No problem, Linda -- I retract any suggestion that you were spinning. I shouldn't let my ire at the ill-speaking legislator spill over on others. What you're saying about how kids are doing in school is accurate. My concern is that the unnamed legislator in the story (as well as Russ in his campaign statements) are sending messages that even after kids get their stuff together, we don't value the talent they work to develop.

    And on extracurricular activities, I've coached some that do as much good for kids as their classroom lessons, if not more. Russ's extracurricular activities—at least the ones I was thinking of—are not of that sort.


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