Tuesday, May 11, 2010


My sister has a theory that what is wrong with the world today is that we have been coddling children's self-esteem way too much. Everyone has to be a winner, which is a problem.

I was teaching "Death of a Salesman" last week, a play I don't really enjoy reading, but I think there's a lot in it that students can connect with. Where we got to last week was this line by Happy:

"It's the only dream you can have-to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I'm gonna win it for him."

What's wrong with this statement, I asked. And the students could see that it's impossible for everyone to be the "number-one man." We can't *all* share that dream. At one point towards the end, Biff says "I know who I am." He knows he's *not* special. And that's ok with him. It just isn't ok with Willy, and therefore it's not ok with Willy's enablers, Happy and Linda.

It's ok if not everyone is special.

And yet, there is still such resentment against those who are, well, superior in some ways. I've always hated The Incredibles because I think it is in love with the idea that some people *are* special, but the same people who love the movie for that reason still resist acknowledging those who are. But they don't resist acknowledging physical superiority. They resist acknowledging intellectual superiority.

I wonder why that is? Why is it ok to admit, Hey, I'm not as strong as Mike Tyson or as good a golfer as Tiger Woods, or as good at tennis as Roger Federer, but it's still problematic for people to admit they are not as smart as others?


Laura/Geekymom said...

Very interesting question. I think we have this idea that if we just work hard enough, we *will* be better than everyone else. Sometimes that's true. If you play a lot of golf or tennis or whatever, you get better at it. And sometimes you end up better than a lot of other people. But there are some things that a lot of practice isn't going to make you that much better at. Drawing comes to mind.

I have to say reaching middle age has really made me think about the things I won't be able to do because I either never developed the skill or because there's not enough time left or because it's physically demanding and I don't have the body of a 20 year old anymore. I'm okay with all of that, but it is kind of a blow. :)

Amy P said...

I think most people are willing to acknowledge that they aren't as smart as Stephen Hawking or Einstein or whomever. However, I think there's an entirely proper understanding that "smart" is area-specific, just as athletic ability is specific to sport (Michael Jordan wasn't that impressive a baseball player). It's kind of hackneyed and annoying to contrast book-smarts and street-smarts, but there really are different kinds of smart, and "smart" tends to be pretty specialized, with Renaissance men being rare exceptions these days, which they probably were in their own day, too. Bill Gates is a smart guy, but he has an awful record for putting together a good education initiative.

Anonymous said...

"But there are some things that a lot of practice isn't going to make you that much better at. Drawing comes to mind. "

Really not true, you know. Of course, some people are naturally talented, but people can certainly learn to draw. In fact, the art institute I'm taking classes at has posters that say "Artists are made, not born" everywhere, and all the teachers are certain that practice is what has made them good.


Anonymous said...

And, yes, I agree with Amy about "smart" versus "strong." The athletes win in specific rule-bound games, and they're at the peak because they won a particular bout or game. We only give them credit for that particular skill, as well (discussions about who is the best *athlete* are just as unresolvable as discussions about smartness). It's only about how ran the 100 meter dash the fastest on tuesday or who one the soccer match on Sunday that we have definitive answers to.

Talking about who is "smarter" is like arguing about who is the better athlete when the two people play entirely different games.