March 31, 2010
educators greatly admire the wide range of human achievements over the
millennia and want their students to know about them. However, there are
those, like the Dean of the Education School at a major east coast
university, who told me that: "The myth of individual greatness is a
myth.” Translated, I suppose that might be rendered: "Individual
greatness is a myth (squared).”
Why is it that so many of our teachers
and others in education are, as it were, in the "clay feet” business,
anxious to have our students know that human beings who accomplished
wonderful things also had flaws, like the rest of us? As they emphasize
the flaws, trying to encourage students to believe that they are just
fine the way they are now, with their self-esteem and perhaps a couple
of the multiple intelligences, they seem to teach that there is no need
for them to seek out challenges or to emulate the great men and women
who have gone before.
One of the first major problems with
this, apart from its essential mendacity, is that it deprives students
of the knowledge and understanding of what these people have
accomplished in spite of their human failings. So that helps students
remain ignorant as well as with less ambition.
It is undeniable, of course, that
Washington had false teeth, sometimes lost his temper, and wanted to be
a leader (sin of ambition). Jefferson, in addition to his
accomplishments, including the Declaration of Independence, the
University of Virginia, the Louisiana Purchase and some other things,
may or may not have been too close to his wife’s half-sister after his
wife died. Hamilton, while he may have helped get the nation on its
feet, loved a woman or women to whom he was not married, and it is
rumored that nice old world-class scientist Benjamin Franklin was also
fond of women (shocking!).
The volume of information about the large
and small failings is great, almost enough to allow educators so
inclined to spend enough time on them almost to exclude an equal
quantity of magnificent individual achievements. Perhaps for an educator
who was in the bottom of his graduating class, it may be some comfort to
focus on the faults of great individuals, so that his own modest
accomplishments may grow in comparison?
In any case, even the new national
standards for reading include only short "informational texts” which
pretty much guarantees for the students of educators who follow them
that they will have very little understanding of the difficulties
overcome and the greatness achieved by so many of their fellow human
beings over time.
Alfred North Whitehead wrote that: "Moral
education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.”
What Education School did he go to, I wonder?
Peter Gibbon, author of a book on heroes,
regularly visits our high schools in an effort to counter this mania for
the denigration of wonderful human beings, past and present.
Surely it would be worth our while to
look again at the advantages of teaching our students of history about
the many many people worthy of their admiration, however small their
instructor may appear by comparison.
Malvolio was seriously misled in his take
on the meaning of the message he was given, that: "Some are born great,
some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them,” but
his author, the greatest playwright in the English language, surely
deserves, as do thousands of others, the attention of our students, even
if he did leave the second-best bed to his wife in his will.
Let us give some thought to the
motivation and competence of those among our educators who, whether they
are leftovers of the American Red Guards of the 1960s or not, wish to
advise our students of history especially, not to "trust anyone over
in order to serve our students well, even educators should consider
growing up after a while, shouldn’t they?