Lies People Tell Children

Ann Althouse has fun with a recent back-to-school speech delivered by President Obama:

President Obama’s back to school speech contained blatant lies…and if there were any students not bright enough to notice that they were hearing lies, the lies, in their particular cases, were, ironically, bigger lies. Check it out:

  • “Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that.”

If you believe that, you are so dumb that your chances of controlling your own destiny are especially small. But it’s absurd to tell kids that if only they dream big, work hard, and get an education, they can have anything they want. Do you know what kind of dream job kids today have?  A recent Marist poll showed that 32% would like to be an actor/actress. 29% want to be a professional athlete.  13% want to be President of the United States.  That’s not going to happen.

Even young people with more modest dreams — like getting a decent law job after getting good grades at an excellent law school — are not getting what they want. To say “nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach” is a blatant lie, and Barack Obama knows that very well…

…Does [Obama] look at a poor person and say, his life is what he made it? Of course not.

This type of rhetoric is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine. I recognize that the line “if you work hard, have some modicum of natural ability, are lucky, and nothing else terrible beyond your control happens, you have reasonably good odds of having a not-too-miserable career ,” doesn’t have quite the same rhetorical force, and I’m not proposing that commencement speakers follow the model of the Despair.com poster above, but the whole “you can be anything you want” line of encouragement bugs me.

First, I suppose, because it seems to presuppose that a successful career is one of the best markers of a well-lived life (I don’t think there is much correlation between the two), but also because the emphasis on our own efforts is a very flawed way to look at the world. We are not master of our own destinies – many people are born into unpleasant circumstances and have very few opportunities.  To be sure, we are not powerless, either, and hard work can be very helpful given favorable circumstances, but it strikes me as 1) an implicit insult to those who are not successful (did they just not want it or work hard enough?); and 2) somewhat self-congratulatory, when the professionally successful go on and on about how others can be anything they want. Certainly most of the people reading this have more opportunities for material prosperity than 95% of the people who have ever lived – and we should be thankful for that and work hard not to waste that gift – but we, most of us anyway, received that benefit rather than earned it.

13 Responses to Lies People Tell Children

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    The ideology of egalitarianism (we all have the same moral worth, but differ quite a lot in aptitude and interest) has massive opportunity and emotional costs – and not infrequently, just so some elite can feel good and morally superior.

    In education, for example, what if very easily observable differences in educational attainment (existing across time and environment, regardless of massive influxes of cash – go ahead and look into the Kansas City and New Jersey examples as particularly bad on that score) are due in no small measure to heredity? UH OH – thought crime. But then our whole educational system is a giant false pretence, with constant “innovation” to little avail. Better to have tracking and a revival of vocational training (combined with a massive lowering of immigration to keep wages from crashing).

    If, that is, our PC-addled stomachs can take it, which I seriously doubt.

    Once again, leftists and right-liberals: you care about the poor? Stop destroying their wages through the systematic decline of industry and the influx of labor. Cesar Chavez, a great hero of mine, understood this, but many of you seem much more interested in status posturing – after all, your job is not in jeopardy……

    /rant

  • Nate Wildermuth says:

    Interesting. The idea of ‘vocation’ is thrown quite out the window, isn’t it? When life only has a meaning that you choose, can it really have a meaning?

    Having said that, I believe intelligence is a very flexible trait. Not to mention wisdom.

  • I find myself conflicted about this kind of thing, in that, on the one hand, it’s demonstrably false that you can do anything if you try hard enough, believe, in yourself, etc.

    On the other hand, with sufficient effort one can often do a number of things which a given teacher, relative, mentor, etc. would not actually realize that you would be capable of doing. So while what you can do in life is certainly contrained by ability, there is a great deal one can do with sufficient effort.

    It seems to me that sometimes our development is spurred on by a bit of delusion. I look back at stuff I wrote in high school, which I honest thought was very good writing at the time, and I know it was just bad. Yet, if I’d been fully aware at the time how bad my writing was, I probalby would have simply quit. In similar form, a certain amount of “you can do anything with sufficient effort” kind of thinking may actually be helpful, even if it isn’t true. But if you have no idea of what your actual limits in ability are, and you really do spend fifteen years of your life trying to become an astronaut or an NFL star, when you pretty clearly just can’t, you’ll end up a pretty disappointed person.

    American culture seems fairly heavily based on the illusion that with sufficient hard work anyone can do anything — perhaps as much so as some traditional cultures were built on the idea that everyone was categorized by birth. I’m not sure what happens to American culture if we actualy admitted on a widespread level that many people don’t actually have the ability to “rise to the top” even if they work hard.

  • RR says:

    It’s a balancing act. I’ve been discouraged from doing things I’ve been told I wouldn’t excel at but looking back my only obstacle was the discouragement. I’ve also been encouraged to do things I’ve failed at miserably. It’s good to pursue big dreams but it’s equally important to assess our chances of success realistically and take measures to hedge our risk of failure.

  • Foxfier says:

    ….How many folks stick with what they wanted to do in high school? (Well, TECHNICALLY I’m being paid to write, but I don’t think that Amazon’s Mechanical Turk would even be recognizable to me. ^.^ I’ll still never be able to write the stories I dream of, any more than I’ll paint the images I dream, or be a great singer.)

    I can’t stand the “you can be anything you put your mind to”– although I like its cousin, “work hard and you can succeed.” It may not be the success you were thinking of, and the work may be in more places than you ever imagined, but hey.

    An odd association popped up: how many dang times in the Bible does God pull his little joke of giving folks things in ways they never thought of?

  • c matt says:

    I can’t remember who said it (W.C.Fields or Will Rogers?) but I always loved this advice:

    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. After that, move on – there’s no sense in being a dang fool about it.

  • Art Deco says:

    I think Christopher Lasch offered that early 19th century writings on the subject of coming into adult life did not typically incorporate notions of upward mobility, but of each man having a ‘competence’. The difficulty with that at this time is that contemporary division of labor leaves a large fraction of the labor force with service jobs for which the level of skill and capacity for acquiring it is severely limited. One salutary social adjustment is having such employment nearly universal for people at a given point in their life cycle and another is having such employment as a pragmatic supplement to family income. Still, you have a large fraction of the labor force who do this sort of work all their lives and have to look outside their work for aught but minor satisfactions.

  • Mike Petrik says:

    I can’t speak for other eras, but all my 50+ years I have observed that most people work for money. They very seldom have jobs that they would confuse with their avocations, and those that do are mightily blessed. Fathers work in jobs they do not particularly enjoy as an expression of love for their families. I doubt this is new. There is risk in the ubiquitous admonishment “Find your passion!” We have tens of thousands of 20- and 30-somethings in this country who live at home waiting for an occupation to surface that suits their passion or interest. This is not to say that no passion seeker ever succeeds — just that it is a very risky strategy. My observation is that those who embark on this strategy successfully usually do so from a posture of family comfort. A trustafarian can more rationally try to align his work-life with his interests than most of us.

  • bearing says:

    The part of the message that is true, and ought to be repeated is this:

    Nobody knows what you can do until you work at it for a while.

    But “you can do anything if you put your mind to it” is simply false. It also sends an extremely bad message (as does the french fry poster), that certain kinds of work is to be sneered at, that workers who toil at those kinds of work are “people who didn’t put their mind to it,” and that the purpose of work is self-satisfaction and pride.

    Which it’s not.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    As in most things there needs to be a balance between “You can do absolutely ANYTHING if you try hard enough” vs. “You are nothing but a helpless victim of circumstance and it doesn’t matter what you do.” Perhaps the first attitude is an overreaction to the latter, or vice versa.

    Although perfection cannot be achieved in this world, there is a value in setting the bar pretty high. Another favorite quote of mine from Mere Christianity: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”; aim at earth and you will get neither.”

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