Understanding the future through our past

Understanding the future of individual accomplishment

There is an old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the oil; for those of you who are older, as I am, we remember that the high achieving students back when we were in school were rewarded with special rewards for their accomplishments. For some students, their abilities came into use in the school’s athletics departments, for others, it was being within the top 5% of their class, and for others, there were abilities within the fine and performing arts. There seemed to be some sort of unwritten code or understanding that not everyone could be a part of the various groups and for the most part, we learned how to deal with it. Normally the youth involved in those school programs had expended much more effort than the average student simply because they were driven to do all they could do to have the additional opportunities. Then came the mid-1990s and somehow, this reality of life became too difficult for the average student to tolerate. Instead of giving more opportunities to bring themselves up to a higher standard, those in authority began to limit the opportunities for those who were driven to excellence.

Little League baseball is probably the easiest target to discuss as everyone is now familiar with the mindset that every child who plays gets a trophy. Every child is entitled to recognition regardless of how much effort they put towards playing the game. The child who sits in the outfield picking dandelions now is awarded a trophy just like the child who gives every ounce of himself playing the game. For nearly ten years I have watched the erosion of individual accomplishment. College students approach classes with the sole desire to survive the course by doing the least amount of work possible. Employees find short cuts or ignore company policy so they can get by with doing the least amount of work possible. Instead of celebrating those who still view the Puritan work ethic as the guideline for the job they do, liberalism and the American Left focus on how it is unfair that anyone would seek to enrich themselves by devoting more time, effort, and energy into the things that they do.

Years ago, the valedictorian of anyone’s graduating class was seen as the paramount example of youth achievement and the student was considered as a role model for all others at the school. Up until the mid 1980s, a student’s entire life was examined before they were given the honor of being the valedictorian. Civic group involvement, where applicable, religious influences, home life, and even after-school job performance were all considered for any student seeking the honor. Up until the mid-1980s, teenage unwed mothers and fathers, although students and may have a sufficient grade point average, were not allowed to graduate with this honor because it was believed their character flaws excluded them from being adequate role models for the younger student body. Students with criminal records, disciplinary problems at school, and other issues were also excluded from being valedictorians since it was considered that a valedictorian had to be an honor student in all areas of life. By the late 1990s, this came to an end as it was deemed unfair to consider other factors that strictly the academic record of students; there were even a series of lawsuits by two students who were unwed mothers and were not allowed to be named as valedictorians in spite of their above average grade point averages. The courts, not the parents and not the school board, decided that a student’s academic record is the only criteria that can be considered for the honor of valedictorian. This does not raise the standard of those who seek this honor but actually serves to reduce its true and original meaning. Since that decision, there have been other attempts at redefining what a valedictorian is, such as this high school that decided to make the top 25% of the senior student body all valedictorians

With it seeming that personal achievement is under increasing attack and undergoing some sort of transitional redefining, I am increasingly concerned about the future of personal achievement. Already I have heard students in my college courses bemoan what they consider a failure of the higher educational system and not for the reasons why I believe it needs to be reformed. They believe that the structure is flawed – in the terms I have heard it described by the students – because it rewards those who have nothing better to do than to study and do the work. I have even heard local miners complain about new hires who are overly eager and energetic towards their job, claiming “if they (the new employee) doesn’t slow down, management will expect all of us to work that hard.” Again, the erosion of personal achievement is something that has not just happened in the last five or ten years, but has been occurring over the last century. Those with the extra drive to be high performers in the workplace have become the easy targets of ridicule in everything from movies aimed at the teenage group to family sitcoms.

Believing we are heading to another Dark Age, it is important to understand how personal achievement equated during that age. If you were a subject – (in Russia, a serf, the rest of Europe, a commoner), and dared to expand yourself above your birth origins, in some cases you could be jailed for disturbing the natural order of society. Very few would ever achieve the life-changing goals they set and then it was at a great personal risk. The best outcome one could hope for would to be noticed and socially elevated by a member of the aristocracy or nobility. Even then, it was highly unlikely that any social progress one would make would ever be passed down to the next generation with the exception of valor shown on the field of battle. As western society begins to slip into this new and modern Dark Age, it is already easy to see these all-too-familiar patterns already emerging to discourage individual achievement. 

Understanding the future of freedom of conscience

For me, this is the one development that I fear the most. Within the foundation of the nation was the belief that the average citizen needed to be free to worship their God according to the dictates of their heart with the understanding that this individual right ends with each of us. Within the early nineteenth century, there was a bitter fight and a defining of exactly the extent that freedom of conscience should extend during the period known as the Mormon Wars. What emerged from this series of battles in Missouri was the understanding that religion is an individual choice, protected by the Constitution of the United States, with the limits on religion being that one cannot compel or demand the greater population to adhere to their religious tenants. One of the reasons that the First Amendment contains the freedom of speech, religion, and the right to assemble is because all three are at the heart of having freedom of conscience. One cannot practice their faith in whatever deity worshiped if the freedoms of speech, religion, and the right to assembly are not absolute.

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Alan Simmons

Alan Simmons is an adjunct instructor of history at Henderson Community College. He has been teaching at the college/university level since 2004. Within the scope of his degrees, his areas of emphasis are U.S. foreign policy, public policy history, political history, and U.S. history.

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