I taught school for the 35 years that saw the birth and explosion of “self-esteem” education: the belief that forcing students to acquire “mere knowledge” is cruel and unnecessary (not to mention difficult and time consuming) and that teaching students “how to think” (really pumping up their egos while marinating their minds in the agenda of the Democratic Party) is what education ought to be about.
When Barack Obama came on the scene, I recognized him as the perfect product of the post-1960’s American education system which gave us the obliviously ignorant but powerfully narcissistic elite university graduate. Decades ago, researchers reported on the highly skilled and knowledgeable Korean students who nonetheless were insecure about their abilities. At the same time, their American counterparts were woefully lacking in knowledge and skills while maintaining an incomparable level of self-esteem, which perfectly describes our current president.
Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Stephens sums up Obama and his acolytes in a piece addressed to “the class of 2012:
Dear Class of 2012:
Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you. Through exertions that—let’s be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree. Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm. Please spare us the self-pity about how tough it is to look for a job while living with your parents. They’re the ones who spent a fortune on your education only to get you back— return-to-sender, forwarding address unknown.
No doubt some of you have overcome real hardships or taken real degrees. A couple of years ago I hired a summer intern from West Point. She came to the office directly from weeks of field exercises in which she kept a bulletproof vest on at all times, even while sleeping. She writes brilliantly and is as self-effacing as she is accomplished. Now she’s in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.
If you’re like that intern, please feel free to feel sorry for yourself. Just remember she doesn’t.
Unfortunately, dear graduates, chances are you’re nothing like her. And since you’re no longer children, at least officially, it’s time someone tells you the facts of life. The other facts.
Fact One is that, in our “knowledge-based” economy, knowledge counts. Yet here you are, probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history.
A few months ago, I interviewed a young man with an astonishingly high GPA from an Ivy League university and aspirations to write about Middle East politics. We got on the subject of the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was vaguely familiar with it. But he didn’t know who was president of the United States in 1956. And he didn’t know who succeeded that president.
Pop quiz, Class of ’12: Do you?
Many of you have been reared on the cliché that the purpose of education isn’t to stuff your head with facts but to teach you how to think. Wrong. I routinely interview college students, mostly from top schools, and I notice that their brains are like old maps, with lots of blank spaces for the uncharted terrain. It’s not that they lack for motivation or IQ. It’s that they can’t connect the dots when they don’t know where the dots are in the first place…
When did puffery become the American way? Probably around the time Norman Mailer came out with “Advertisements for Myself.” But at least that was in the service of provoking an establishment that liked to cultivate an ideal of emotional restraint and public reserve.
To read through your CVs, dear graduates, is to be assaulted by endless Advertisements for Myself. Here you are, 21 or 22 years old, claiming to have accomplished feats in past summer internships or at your school newspaper that would be hard to credit in a biography of Walter Lippmann or Ernie Pyle.
If you’re not too bright, you may think this kind of nonsense goes undetected; if you’re a little brighter, you probably figure everyone does it so you must as well.
But the best of you don’t do this kind of thing at all. You have an innate sense of modesty. You’re confident that your résumé needs no embellishment. You understand that less is more.
In other words, you’re probably capable of thinking for yourself. And here’s… [another fact]: There will always be a market for people who can do that.
In every generation there’s a strong tendency for everyone to think like everyone else. But your generation has an especially bad case, because your mass conformism is masked by the appearance of mass nonconformism. It’s a point I learned from my West Point intern, when I asked her what it was like to lead such a uniformed existence.
Her answer stayed with me: Wearing a uniform, she said, helped her figure out what it was that really distinguished her as an individual.
Now she’s a second lieutenant, leading a life of meaning and honor, figuring out how to Think Different for the sake of a cause that counts. Not many of you will be able to follow in her precise footsteps, nor do you need to do so. But if you can just manage to tone down your egos, shape up your minds, and think unfashionable thoughts, you just might be able to do something worthy with your lives…
And here’s John Steele Gordon on our puffed-up president:
The new web ad being run by the Obama re-election campaign stars Bill Clinton. The copy is priceless, vintage Obama self-absorption. It starts off with the words on the screen, “The commander-in-chief gets one chance to make the right decision.” Then President Clinton comes on and says,
“Look, he knew what would happen. Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden. Suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him.”
Isn’t that great? The Navy SEALs risk death or imprisonment in some filthy Pakistani jail and Obama risks . . . . a bad headline.
It reminds me of a story about Harold Ross, the legendary founding editor of The New Yorker. James Thurber had written a profile on someone and it was scheduled to run in the next issue as the lead article. About half an hour before the magazine was to close, however, Thurber ran into Ross’s office and told him they would have to kill the profile because the subject had just died. Ross’s reaction? “Goddamnit! Why does everything have to happen to me?”
At least Harold Ross was a great editor.