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.