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About Will Fitzhugh
Mr. Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review and Founder of the National History Club and the National Writing Board. He has an A.B. from Harvard College and an Ed.M. from Harvard Education School.

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You Can't Make Me!

Will Fitzhugh

March 31, 2010

Many 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 thirty.”


After all, in order to serve our students well, even educators should consider growing up after a while, shouldn’t they?

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