Op-Ed: We’re teaching kids to follow their dreams. Maybe teach them to be helpful instead

John F. Kennedy, JFK
President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address in Washington on Jan. 20, 1961. His rallying cry — “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” — was part of that address.
(Associated Press)

When I was in elementary school, we learned about prominent people from history by reading about them. This led to serious challenges, such as trying to get kids to think about someone besides themselves. Teachers now have solved this problem by having students don costumes and give speeches pretending they are the famous people. Many schools call such events a “living wax museum” because that is a slightly less horrifying name than “reanimated corpse show” and way less scary than “cultural appropriation complaint generator.”

When my son’s 4th-grade class had its version of a living wax museum, I figured I’d be able to go see his three-minute speech about John F. Kennedy and leave. But as soon as I entered the classroom, it became clear that I wasn’t going anywhere. This was one of those clubs where each comedian has to drag in two audience members to fill the house. Except there were no drinks, the chairs were designed for 10-year-olds and no one was cool about heckling.

Over the ensuing hours I discovered — as I have with all of my son Laszlo’s elementary school lessons — that I know far less than I think I do. I had never learned that three days after his PT boat sank, JFK and his crew of sailors swam to another deserted island where they found a crate of candy. I also discovered that try as you might, you cannot convince a kid who is nervous about public speaking to say, “We were in great dangah of stahving when we discahvahed 14 bags of Whoppahs and a Mahs bah.”

Grit has been perverted through America’s individualistic lens. It’s no longer a tool, but a goal in and of itself.

Laszlo had wanted to go as President Nixon or President Trump, but was told that he had to pick a person who was admirable. I tell you this only so that this column gets promoted tomorrow on Fox News.

Every child’s speech ended the same way. Whether the kid was supposed to be Renaissance painter Raphael, escaped-slave-turned-Civil War-spy Harriet Tubman, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau or child activist Malala Yousafzai, each famous person ended their speech by listing their “good qualities.” These were, universally, “determination,” “pursuing my dreams” and “never giving up on reaching my goals.” I began to suspect that parts of these speeches had been written by the teachers.

The longer I sat there — which again, was hours — the more these conclusions seemed off the mark. By the time a tiny Mahatma Gandhi walked up in his white tunic and dhoti, I was so incensed that I sat there quietly and peacefully resisting. Everything the child in front of me was saying was wrong. Gandhi didn’t go on a 21-day hunger strike so he could pursue his dream of being really, really hungry. His strengths were, in fact, about restraining himself from doing all the things he wanted to do, like punch British soldiers and eat dal.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not toil to be one of the first female Supreme Court justices; she fought to expand the rights of all women. That woman doctor who did something amazing that I somehow forgot five minutes later didn’t do that thing to reach her goals, but to save lives or prevent gangrene or maybe it was perfect blood transfusions. If Malala had actually been in that classroom listening to how she pursued her dream like some YouTube influencer, she would have rescinded the right of girls to go to this school.


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I get that if you’re a teacher, you want your students to finish their timelines of the Jurassic period, so it’s useful for Frida Kahlo to come back from the dead to tell them to show some pluck. The pedagogical theory of promoting effort over accomplishment that Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck made so popular through her 2007 book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” makes a lot of sense. It’s imported from Asia, where people of different abilities are encouraged to work hard to accomplish tasks together.

But grit has been perverted through America’s individualistic lens. It’s no longer a tool, but a goal in and of itself. Colleges stress that applicants show leadership, placing more emphasis on being in charge than creating or helping. Which makes it all the more confusing that his teachers wouldn’t let Laszlo be Nixon or Trump.

If we can’t stress to our kids the importance of helping other people while they are enacting stories about helping other people, we are in trouble. We’ll wind up with a nation of adults who only see others as obstacles. They will be asking not what can they do for their country, but rather what the country can do for them. That’s the only part I was actually listening to.

Joel Stein is the author of the forthcoming book “In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.”

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