Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Graduation Speech. Yeah, that one.

The topic is "You're not special."

Like thirty million other bloggers, I'm sure I have something Special to say about it.  Jumping on the sound-byte of the minute bandwagon.  Blast it, I just did that and here I am doing it again.

The speech.  Here it is.  12 minutes-plus on yahoo video, just so you know.

I can agree with so much of what he said, and still think he said nothing new or important.  Is he terribly innovative for finger-pointing at a society in which every participant gets a trophy and every student gets a "Great Kid!" bumper sticker at McDonald's even if he/she didn't qualify for his school's actual Student of the Month, which started the whole sticker mess?

Not really.  True, he pulls out the wit and a little bit of the insight.  And true, he says in the middle of the speech that "Everybody's special so nobody is" and then redeems that at the end with "[Recognize that] you're not special, because everybody is" which is more like my philosophy.

He's OK at seeing that the patient is sick, but not very good at diagnosing the problem and therefore even worse at offering a cure.  These kids do indeed need to find a different source of inner fulfillment, and learn that it really is more important to see the world than to have the world see you.  He says some good stuff.   The self-esteem-movement generation might have a harder time shifting to a deeper focus than will later generations, who will be raised with what we've learned from the trophies-for-all silliness.

(The first of which is that the kids know exactly how meaningless something everybody gets is.  So it's not like getting it actually strokes their egos much. Does anybody think most kids can't figure out when adults are being patronizing?)

I'm more inclined to critique the whole phenomenon of contempt for a product -- that product being the kids raised in the self-esteem bubble --  that we've worked so bloody hard to create.

I too hate the attitudes he complains about:  the entitlement, the carefully created (BY parents, teachers and product-pushers)  attitude that kids have to do and work for and achieve nothing and should have accolades anyway;

that a kid needs to never, ever, feel less-than, even when s/he absolutely has done less than another kid;

that hurt feelings, when the other kid gets a ribbon or an honor, are actually harmful to any child who didn't earn one herself.  Not an impetus to try harder, set goals, blahblah, but a psychic wound at a deep level that risks making her just crawl under the bed and suck her thumb till she's thirty.

The over-use of awards and honors comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about self-worth.  Very few people have been taught the difference between "what I do" and "who I am."  Very few people realize that the embarrassment or grieving experienced by a kid who lost the trophy is NOT causing a lack of self-worth.  It is, and should be, a cause of feeling that s/he didn't try hard enough, didn't learn the task well enough, or in some cases is not really talented enough to get as far in the field as another kid.  If he hasn't been raised to have true self-worth, then sure, losing an honor will pluck that string, but losing is the pick, not the string.

Accepting that the other kid who's a champion swimmer is just built better for swimming doesn't blast a child's sense of self to smithereens.  Those tears are gutwrenching to watch, but are just part of learning who he really is and growing into his individual powers.

The trick is to know, and then to teach the child, that "You're not as good a swimmer" and "You're not a good enough person" are two radically different things. It's about something you do, not about who you are.  It's the same knowledge that needs to be applied to mistakes and even to deliberate naughtiness.  "You did something wrong."  Not "You are bad."

What this has to do with the speech is that:

(1)  If this diploma is actually another meaningless thing that everybody gets, then he's indicting the school a whole lot more than he's indicting the kids who navigated a system they didn't create.

If the school is a reputable one, then I suspect this graduation is a real achievement.  Likening these graduates to those of violent, deteriorating schools from which students graduate barely able to spell is probably plain inaccurate, and those gold tassels for higher achievement mean something, too.  He makes much of numbers, but numbers shouldn't alone devalue effort.  The definition of ordinary can change.  Up or down.

(2)  The importance of instilling good self-esteem is not fundamentally wrong.  It just needs to be done with the aforementioned knowledge of what true self-worth really is, and that hurt feelings and disappointment do not necessarily indicate damaged self-worth. Sometimes they're a lesson to try harder and sometimes they're a lesson to try something else. Feeling the discomfort of contrast is a crucial part of learning.

(3)  The kids didn't make the bad award rules or riot and throw Molotov cocktails demanding trophies and stickers.  They took the direction, and the stickers, that they were given.  To show contempt for them, after this ignorant system processed them into the Everybody's Special corral, is ridiculous.

"You're special!"
"I am?  All I did was show up."
"That's special!  You're special!"
"Cool! I'm special!"
"No, you're a little slacker nothing."

is Theatre of the Absurd.  Hello, grownups?  Who made the rules?

And you did it with good intentions.
And in ignorance.
Now do it better.

1 comment:

ronnie said...

A very insightful post. I especially liked your last point - the adults made the rules of the game and are now scolding and mocking the kids for accepting them.

Meanwhile, on a related note, an Edmonton teacher who was suspended for giving out 0s for unsubmitted work has recently become a cause celebre in Canada. So the battle continues.