Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Absurd Myth of the "Self-Made Man"



In Rudolf Erich Raspe's story The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the baron saves himself from drowning in a swamp by pulling himself out by his own hair. It's a ridiculous episode in a comic story about a character who notoriously weaves wondrous tales that are clearly untrue. 

We're amused by the absurdity of it, yet too many of us, in the real world, act as if we believe in the equally absurd myth of the "self-made man," this idea that success comes from the capacity to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps. It's a persistent and even harmful lie we tell ourselves about what it means to to succeed. Popular culture is full of Baron Munchausens, dressed up as solitary heroes. John Wayne made a career out of playing them in the movies, dodging the bullets that kill lesser soldiers or cowboys, defying all convention, applying his unique courage, vision, and grit to single-handedly saving the day. In the real world, of course, there are no Rambos or James Bonds. They are fictional characters as ridiculous in their way as Baron Munchausen. To believe in them outside of a fantasy world is to buy into a kind of Neo-Calvinism, where the degree to which we are doomed is the degree to which we have failed to pull hard enough on our bootstraps.

In preschool, we tend to emphasize such things as sharing and cooperation. After all, they are such wee ones that, naturally, they can't be expected to grapple with their own bootstraps, but once school starts in earnest, we increasingly caution them to "do their own work" and to keep their eyes on their own paper. When they seek help from anyone other than the teacher, we call it cheating. We grade, test, and rank them individually in the spirit of the self-made man myth without an inkling of the absurdity of it all.

Keen vision, self-motivation, and grit are all fine things, of course, traits that serve us in life, but in the real world, I've found, if we aren't relying on other people, we will, inevitably, fail. No surgeon saves a life on their own, for example, they require the cooperation and support of a vast network of her fellow humans. We don't pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps because it is an impossibility, and to insist that someone can is a cruel joke. Success in the world outside of fiction and school, involves pulling others up by their bootstraps (or hair) and in turn they pull us up by ours, taking turns being the one who helps and the one who needs help. It's called working together, teamwork, cooperation, which has always been the source of any human success. 

If we are truly in the business of preparing children for life we must start seeing the myth of bootstraps for what it is, an absurdity, and instead place projects of collaboration as the center of education, which is to say the collective creation of knowledge, because that is ultimately the greatness of humanity.

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