Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Getting Over It

with 3 comments

First, to correct one thing–what William F. Buckley actually said was that he’d rather be ruled by the first three hundred names in the Cambridge telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard, not Yale–maybe not so small a point as it seems, given that Buckley himself was a Yalie.

And I don’t think he was acting like a yahoo when he said it–but then, Buckley almost never acted like a yahoo, and for most of my childhood he was the outstanding example of someone in the culture who wanted to uphold the standards of high culture and higher learning.

We forget sometimes that it was Democrats and  Liberals who were seen, in those days, as abandoning such standards and pandering to the mob–who were advocating dumbed down popular culture over high culture because high culture was “elitist.”

If William F. Buckley was still the face of American conservatism, I might be one.  If he was what the Republican Party presented to me of worthy of support, I might be a  Republican.  These days, though, the Republicans provide me instead with people whose biggest selling point seems to be “they’re just like you!  they’re just folks!” 

Cheryl asks why Americans “hold on” to the grudges of high school, and that takes a little more to answer.

First, let me say that I DIDN’T have a bad time in high school.  In fact, I loved high school, and I loved college, too.  I went to a Catholic girls’ school in which the nuns represented the first intellectual women I’d ever known, and it was absolutely wonderful.  Nor did I have any trouble at all with harassment from my fellow students. 

For me, the problematic years were late elementary school and junior high, especially junior high, which seemed to explode in animosities from one end to the other.  And, in my case, the wounds of that era are not gone and will never be gone simply because they have not stopped–some of my persecutors were related to me, and still are, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite break away and put an end to it.

But I think that the reason for why Americans are often wrapped up, and warped by, their experiences in school is complicated.

Start with this:  Americans seem to have a nearly infinite tolerance for inequalities of wealth, but absolutely no tolerance for inequalities of any other kind.

The undercurrent to almost everything we do here is a tacit refrain that goes:  you can be anything you want to be; as long as you work hard, you can be anything.

There are advantages to thinking like that, of course.  If we think we’re capable of doing something, we’re more likely to actually try it, and we can’t do anything we don’t try.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of advantage to cutting people off before they ever got started, on the assumption that they just don’t have what it takes.

Unfortunately, almost all of us don’t have what it takes to succeed at something or the other, and some of us don’t have what it takes to succeed at most things.  That’s a matter of heredity and largely beyond our control. 

But to admit that heredity plays a part in our talents and abilities seems–and I use the word intentionally–to imply that some of us are simple born better than others.  And since that is unacceptable, we put ever increasing stress on denying innate differences between individuals.

Schools are where this commitment to the innate equality of all people are put to the test, and schools are where we first learn that the idea is nonsense.   It takes maybe two weeks for most kids to figure out that there are some things they’re “just not good at,” and then the trick becomes learning to accept that while not actively and formerly challenging the school’s assumption that that is not, and cannot be, the case.

But denying reality is not cost free.  In order to do so, we must find an explanation for our failures that is not “I just wasn’t born with this talent.”  And there are a lot of explanations.  There is sexism/racixm/classicism (I’d be able to do it if you weren’t oppressing me because I’m a woman, or because I’m black, or because my father works in a vacuum cleaner factory), which is in vogue at the moment.  There is “parents don’t really understand how to raise children.”  There is “the people who are winning this fight are keeping me down deliberately.”   And, of course, there is the assertion that the standards aren’t really standards at all, they’re just made-up standards that are all subjective, and whatever it is I do is just as good as whatever it is you do, even if I’m drawing pumpkins that look like building blocks and you’re Michaelangelo.

More settled and traditional societies–and more self-consciously hierarchical ones–have this going for them:  they do not blame individuals for their failure to all reach the heights of everything.  In America, if you want to be a writer and you do everything you’re supposed to do to get you there, work like hell, produce books, submit things as asked, but still fail to get published–well, there must be something wrong with you.   You must be to blame somehow.  You can’t have really done all that work and still not have succeeded!

Other societies tend to go, “oh, well, didn’t get born with that.  So what?”  It is not a core underpinning of your very identity and self-worth if you were born with only middling intelligence, or nonexistant talent.  It is just a fact of life.

The philosophy of “anybody can do anything if they just work hard enough” is poisonous in some ways, because it encourages most people to blame themselves, to see themselves as internally and spiritually lesser, for the fact that they are in the majority by not being their generation’s Bill Gates of Stephen Speilberg.

School is where we go to find out that we’re not good enough.  It’s where we first encounter and cannot deny that we lack what it takes to “succeed” in any meaningful way.  It’s where we first erect structures to protect our position against those of the people around us who, simply by existing, make us feel inferior.

I think that is behind a great deal of the harassment directed at “smart” kids in American schools–those are the kids who do have the innate talent at just the kinds of things that can lead to “success” in the wider world. 

Or at least, it seems so in the context of the school.  The wider world is actually a lot more complicated. 

Still, for most students, graduating from high school and going on to Yale with a full scholarship or graduating to go on to Tunxis Community College says all anybody needs to about what those kids are going to be for the rest of their lives.

I don’t know a better way than meritocracy to order the world.  I do know we never seem to face up to its drawbacks.

Written by janeh

February 2nd, 2010 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Getting Over It'

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  1. I’ve always absolutely hated the admonition to ‘just get over it!’ I know that’s exactly what I have to do, but it always seems to arrive in a infuriatingly smug tone at just the point at which I’m in full flight of fury at the injustice of whatever it was and in no mood whatsoever to deal in sweet reason and psychological healing. I tried to avoid saying that outright in my last post, while dealing with the issue.

    And I didn’t go to junior high; it hadn’t been invented. We had “elementary” (in bigger centres, further subdivided into “elementary” and “primary”) and, on the further sides of a pair of doors, “high school” (grades 9,10 and 11). That neatly split the 8s and 9s. No grade 12 then, either. But I taught junior high, and it’s the worst of the worst. Personally, I blamed all those new hormones that the kids don’t quite know what to do with.

    I got burned by “anybody can do anything if they just work hard enough”, but it was after high school. Failure is tough. I don’t think I resorted to picking on others who did succeed where I failed, though.

    There’s another aspect as well – how do you define the worth of the individual? If your entire self-concept is tied up in your income level, or the status awarded to your work, you’re going to react far more destructively to the failure of your ambitions than if you see yourself as a child of God who can do any task, however menial, to the glory of God. Or as a mother or father who simply uses work and any related indignities to fund what’s really important – raising children. There’s also charity or social or community groups. Amateur sports. Hobbies. It’s not necessary for the only important thing about a person to be their salary and job title. Maybet that’s something that’s hard for a lot of people to accept.


    2 Feb 10 at 11:30 am

  2. “Student Government Types.” It took me days to get back into the school days frame of mind and remember the term. Not terribly smart: Not stupid in any obvious way, but nowhere near as smart as they thought they were. No one’s a smart as these kids thought they were.
    They’d generally read a book or two which agreed with them, and they’re exactly the sort of person meant by the adage “beware of the man of one book.” They loved power, and they were intolerable when they had any. Nothing was too petty for them to be concerned with, and their ability to lecture about their own virtue and wisdom in mandatory meetings approached Castro’s level. Spending my money on their project of the day–guest lecturer who agreed with them or film they wanted to see–was just another instance of their manifold virtues.
    And I don’t know why I used the past tense. It’s not as though they went away. Every high school and college student government is chock full of them, and the ones too old for student government are either in real government or lecturing in the fuzz sciences. Not teaching, mind you: just lecturing interminably.

    If Jane and her political allies think conservative jocks will be tormenting them in the locker rooms again, conservatives know that the only way to deal with these parasites is to keep them so far from government they have to have real jobs. Otherwise, they’ll take our last hour of time and call it “volunteer work” and steal our last dollar–for the children, of course. They will never go away, and they’ll never let us live our own lives. And we have a lot more evidence to support our fears.

    If a politician wants my vote, not sounding like one of those pseudointellectual blowhards is a good place to start. Buckley, bless him, never did, but there is a long line of people with half his wisdom and erudition whining that conservatives won’t vote for them because conservatives are in love with stupidity.

    Drop a smart kid in a dumpster? Oh, come on: I was the smart kid. But drop a student government type in a dumpster? If I’d known what they’d grow up to be, I’d have dropped them in trash compactors.


    2 Feb 10 at 5:21 pm

  3. OK, I’m calmer now. The whole “people hate intelligence/people love stupidity” bit always sets me off. Six presidential elections in a row won by men with Ivy League degrees, but it’s not enough, because not all the winners campaigned in the approved manner. Would that our rulers were as wise as they are diplomaed.

    Meritocracy. If you tell children they can do anything if they try really hard, you’re lying to them, and there will be consequences. Just be grateful the kids didn’t jump out a window and flap their arms really fast.

    The correct formula is “in a meritocracy, you can go as far as your abilities permit.” Not will, mind you: can. If you slack off, you will not go as far as your abilities permit. But you will not be stopped by your sex or color or by who your parents were–given that these are irrelevant to where you’re trying to go. They mostly are. Franklin wrote that in Europe they asked of a man “who are his parents?” and in America “what can he do?” Not strictly true even then, but the very definition of meritocracy.

    But of course it will have issues at the margins. We have every right to see our children get “a good start.” We have public schools and dozens of welfare programs to see that everyone gets some sort of start, but the child whose parents have books in the home will still have an edge over the child whose parents do not, and private tutors and “elite” schools can hone that edge a little. Short of state-run nurseries, this one isn’t going away. We can improve the floor, but no one wants to build a ceiling.

    The Yale and Tunxis question is more interesting. The Yalie, of course, is inclined to think the race is now over, and he’s won. Many would agree with him. The Tunxis graduate may think this is confusing intelligence and education with the prestige of the degree, and demand a recount. I tend to side with Tunxis in this. Possession of a “good” degree suggests both education and intelligence, but it’s not proof of either. Let those who would dispute me contemplate my first paragraph.


    2 Feb 10 at 6:40 pm

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