Shielding From Folly

January 26, 2011

By Louis Avallone

As humans, we have a natural tendency to want to create order from chaos, buy perhaps sometimes, there’s no neat truth to be had. Nineteen people were shot, six of them fatally, during an open meeting U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding with members of her constituency in a supermarket parking lot Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz. The shooter was a 22-year-old student.

In 1999, it was at Columbine High School where two senior students opened ␣re on their classmates, killing 12 students and one teacher, injuring 21 others. Then there was the killing spree at Virginia Tech in 2007 in which a student killed 32 people, making it the deadliest college shooting attack in our nation’s history. And just last September, a student fired several shots from an AK-47 assault rifle inside a library at the University of Texas and then killed himself.

And while violence is not limited to a particular demographic and the impact of mental illness in our society must not be minimized, all of these terrible events were committed by people in their teens or early twenties whose desperation and hopelessness seemed palpable. These are folks who considered themselves victims and felt helpless and hopeless amidst a world that seems filled with setbacks, bad breaks and mean-spirited behavior from others.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and that’s the message to be had here. The irony is that without those setbacks, bad breaks and mean-spirited behavior from others, it’s difficult to acquire the mature coping skills necessary to empower one’s self and be filled with hopefulness, not despair.

Maybe there’s not a neat truth to be had here, but society seemingly has established a standard where it is more important to make children (and adults alike) feel good about themselves than to teach self-discipline, self-control, perseverance and dedication. While important, self-esteem alone does not lead to success in life.

Instead, we seemingly encourage children to believe the accolades for those who only try should be equal to those who actually achieve.

But that’s just not real.

Pressure and competition cannot be wished away. And the longer that it is, the more unprepared we all are for whatever challenges that are ahead. It is often said, “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”

For example, without diminishing their academic accomplishment, how many valedictorians does it take to be No. 1? At Jesuit High School in New Orleans, there were 10 valedictorians recognized at graduation last year. At Avoyelles High School in Moreauville, there were four valedictorians saluted. At Stratford High School just outside of Houston, there were 30 valedictorians. In fact, the dean of admission at Harvard University recently revealed he had heard of high schools with more than 100 valedictorians. Now, many schools are abandoning the recognition of valedictorian altogether because of how it makes the other students feel.

Many schools also won’t even post the honor roll any longer because of how it makes those students feel who do not qualify to be on the honor roll. In fact, some schools now have created the “effort honor roll.” This is the honor roll for students who want feel good about not making the honor roll. Of course, how about field day at your school? Everyone gets a ribbon, just for participating, right? And every child participating on a sports team seems to get a trophy, merely for participating. Yes, providing young children with rewards for participation is needed, but the trophies themselves should be saved for actual achievement, shouldn’t they?

This all leads us back to the desperation and hopelessness so many seem to feel in our society. If we shield our children from competition of life, how can they possibly best learn coping skills? How can we teach the concept of improving their performance, if they are shielded from the realities of their efforts?

There is no benefit to preparing any generation of Americans without the experience or lessons learned from competition. It does not minimize anyone’s humanity to suggest some folks work harder than others or that some are smarter than others. Some people are talented in math and sciences, while others are successfully athletic or social. We are all different with various gifts and abilities, and we have and will develop them at different paces.

But when everyone can jointly claim first place, the honor becomes meaningless. Perhaps it is this sense of meaninglessness, that is so pervasive in our society, that helps foster the desperation and hopelessness that may sometimes lead to acts of violence or more often abandoning great dreams yet unfulfilled.

Remember, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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