It’s a conversation I’ve had over and over again. Sometimes with my coworkers, sometimes with my classmates, sometimes with family and friends. It’s usually the result of hearing about a student complaining about receiving a B-minus, or when something as simple as a door-decorating contest results in multiple winners in multiple categories. The root of most of my complaints about the students I work with is this: they’ve all been raised to assume that they are the best at everything, that they should receive an A in every class, and that when they participate in something they should get a trophy just for putting forth effort. At times, it’s frustrating working with students that have this mentality, where possible mediocrity is masked by constant praise and shiny prizes.
A group of graduation high school seniors got a refreshing dose of reality in Massachusetts, where a faculty member gave a commencement speech stating, “you’re not special”. My favorite part of the speech (the entire thing can be found here), is the following bits:
You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless…
[W]e have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” …
It’s an epidemic…where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
Of course, I can’t say that to my students because I’m a financial aid counselor, not a faculty member, but I like the message behind it. It’s not a bad thing to get a B in a class. It’s certainly not a bad thing to get a B in a class when you put in an adequate (but not spectacular) amount of effort and miss a class or two. It’s not a bad thing to go trophy-less at field day. My class never won field day, that was okay! We didn’t have the most athletic kids, but we had fun. And we survived elementary school despite not having a trophy that essentially said “thanks for showing up”.
I’m worried for these young people as they go into the real world where only one person gets the promotion, and where, if you do a mediocre job on a project, your boss won’t say “but good job though, thanks for participating!”. In a world where kids have grown up with the need for constant positive reinforcement (down to the “likes” and comments received online), I’m concerned about how they’ll react when this steady stream of pats on the back run dry. Will they step up to the plate and succeed in this “cruel” world? Will they become leaders? If so, will they believe that the best way to go about leading is to give everyone awards for participation and thanking people for accomplishing the absolute bare minimum?
I hope not!