Sorry kids, you can’t “be anything”.

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That being said, everyone can be something.

I realize I’m taking up a serious rhetorical challenge by taking the less-popular side of an argument. Reality checks are less popular than irrational exuberance and hypomania. By now, you must have noticed that’s kind of my thing. The point is:

The positive thinking, bright-eyed, self-esteem-first, “you can be anything” mentality in education has many significant drawbacks, and the worst is that it sets kids up for disappointment later in life.

Unrealistic messages of empowerment and infinite possibility do the opposite – they’re incredibly demotivating in the long run, since it is impossible not to fall short of them and be a sad panda as a result.

When too much is promised, reality can seem unacceptable in comparison, if and when finally encountered without a mediating layer of organized distortion (i.e. the larger-than-life virtual reality we build for children, with the best of intentions of course).

The reason this happens is probably in the psychology of transference in the teachers themselves – people who went into teaching for the wrong reasons trying to live their fantasies through students. That’s fun while it lasts, but it sets the students up for crushing disappointment, or continued search for surrogate authority figures to preserve the easy nonage they grew accustomed to.

This pattern is often also present in parents, who mourn their own childhoods and want to “protect” the kids from the world as long as possible – resulting in entrapped, deeply unhappy, sheltered kids bound to be traumatised in life, and a perpetuation of the cycle of immaturity.

Once the lustrous world of participation awards, you-can-be-anything-honey idealism and lavishly sponsored student conferences, where bright tomorrows are just beyond the fingertips is outgrown, many find the shock unbearable. It’s dunking them in cold water without any acclimation.

When that happens, the only question is whether the tension and frustration is internalized or externalized. The respective outcomes are:

1) Depression (internalization type 1, if disappointment is the dominant factor)
2) Regression (internalization type 2, if the desire to preserve delusion is dominant)
3) Rage (externalization, if the disappointment is blamed on others)

The last is by far the worst outcome. Romantic rage, at reason and reality. A toddler’s temper tantrum at the loss of solipsism and perceived omnipotence.

The idea that the entire gap between the ideal and the real is the fault of other people’s malice or stupidity is fucking dangerous. It makes aggression feel like defence and justifies the shittiest behaviour imaginable. It is impossible to be a good person with that outlook. That is exactly why idealism is the larval stage of totalitarianism, and the intermediate stage and, as it were, hatchery, is resentment. The sequence goes idealism -> frustration -> anger.

“The world is wrong, and I’m going to fix it.”

If you want to create a generation of angry, entitled political radicals, give them unrealistic expectations. Then watch them beach themselves on the rocks of the real world.

Where “unrealistic” doesn’t just mean “impractical under current socioeconomic arrangements” (which is their interpretation), but “impossible due to laws of nature”. We’re talking about limitations of nature, not culture.*

(*The tendency to think of children as arbitrarily programmable blank slates, and mistake limitations of nature (which are not allowed to exist) for limitations of nurture is of course fully consistent with the social lysenkoism currently rampaging through academia. Plays right into the messianic power fantasies of fundamentally impotent professors.)

There simply can’t be fifty million secretary generals of the UN, American presidents, founders of the next Google, astronauts, famous artists, celebrated intellectuals or olympic gold medalists.

And there’s more. The people who actually become these things are usually not the hopeful, bright-eyed young things from happy middle class households, groomed and beloved by the teachers, taking piano lessons and collecting girl scout badges, on all the right rails to success. The story of real success tends to be much more complicated.

Significant success often happens not through the education (indoctrination?) structures, but despite them, and in true per aspera ad astra manner, real roads to the stars usually begin with or at least take detours through the ashes. The deepened consciousness and mental acuity necessary to be a high-functioning adult is rarely achieved without a measure of pain. Protecting kids from all hardship behind physical and mental picket fences, with the best intentions of course, is protecting them from growth and consciousness.

Preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist isn’t helping that world to start existing, as is the hope of idealist teachers. It is deeply failing the students and setting them up for disappointment, failure and anger – and seething radicalism. Which might be part of the point – once you have the energy of youth sufficiently frustrated, direct it against your political enemies. (Which means everyone else, just minding their own business).

It’s a much better idea to be optimistically realistic:

You can be many things, but you can’t be most of them simultaneously. Tradeoffs are inevitable, you have to choose, and most things worth having are hard to get. It’s no good wishing harder without working harder, nor by trying to tilt the playing field if you live in a reasonably free society (which remains free precisely because infantile attempts to live in a fairytale at other people’s expense are usually successfully resisted). Nobody owes you anything, and if you want to receive, give first. Other people are sovereign ends, not means to your desires. Respect them as such, and you will be surprised how far this takes you.

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