I think the thing that finally made me feel old was the sense that society has passed me by. The ideals most important to me seem disregarded, mocked even, in much discourse today.
I see it in my daughter’s life, and I see it in the mental health industry that has grown up in support of supposed pathologies that a short time ago would never have been considered mental illnesses.
The ideals I see threatened: work and responsibility.
In my daughter’s life we’re beginning week seven of homeschooling due to the coronavirus shutdown. I’m learning I’m even worse at math than I thought and that I value the skill and effort of elementary school teachers in ways I never could have understood had I not been put in their shoes.
I’m also learning about the challenges of managing a big city school district.
Here in Philadelphia no on-line instruction of new material has yet taken place, and none is planned until May 4th. The city has a terrible problem with inequality, and district officials decided that it would not be fair to teach children who are internet supported and able while ignoring children who don’t have web access or hardware.
A noble goal. Inequality is a terrible thing we must work together to address. Equality of opportunity is crucial for society, and opportunity begins with a solid public education.
So the district paused to distribute chrome books to tens of thousands of students and work on connectivity. That was promised two weeks ago. Yet instruction has been delayed again.
All this time children with connectivity have been left behind as well. No one is learning. It seems the Philadelphia School District’s solution to the problem of inequality is to make every student equally fail.
The same race to the bottom is taking place in mental health. Today we have a medical diagnosis to excuse every bad behavior, and a DSM criterion for every inability to knuckle under to challenge and overcome life’s obstacles.
We’ve abdicated responsibility and many people have been left in lives where there is an incentive to not even try. The parallels between the school district and the mental health industry are ominous. They shout, “You’re not responsible for your own failure. Something, or someone else is.”
Because of this we’re all failing. Teachers undertake enormous efforts to help children excel in a system that views incredible challenge as a setback instead of an opportunity. Daily they fight the battle against a system that shaves off the most promising and teaches right at the middle, where everyone stays.
In mental health billions are spent on treatments for the worried well with their dubious diagnoses while the truly exceptional, the severely mentally ill, are left without recourse to care as the entire psychiatric establishment pivots toward forgiving every personal failure as a problem that needs a pill.
What does mental health delivery have to do with my local school district? They both aim at making people average and absolving them of any responsibility for their personal success.
I sound like an antique when I opine that we used to embrace obstacles in life and work like hell to overcome them, knowing that we would emerge better after the fight. Everybody was different, everybody took different routes to work toward success. Some failed. Some of them got up and tried again.
Everybody is still different, but such difference struggles in a school system and a mental health system that seek to keep everybody exactly the same, despite their challenges or their gifts.
Increasingly what we share in common is not our sacrifice and our effort, but the consensus that our failings are not our fault. Yes, some people, some of them disadvantaged students and some of the people with treatment resistant mental illness, face troubles for which they share absolutely no responsibility, especially in the current crisis. These people face obstacles that only the unjust would insist they face on their own.
Yet in the great scheme of things they are small groups, and we disable them further by expending so much effort on making everybody else feel deserving of special attention. Necessary resources are diverted from the truly needy to the great middle who have a large incentive to blame everybody else instead of taking responsibility for themselves and expending the effort necessary to get better.
We’re teaching people mediocrity and excusing them for not even trying.
In the words of Aristotle: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”
But no one studies the Greeks anymore. The school district and the mental health industry are safe in assuming there is one way we ought to be and one way we ought to be treated.
Difference, work and responsibility are lost as we offer everyone the opportunity to blame someone or something else for every outcome they face. In our push to diminish the individual as an actor in their own life we lose what is potentially exceptional in each of us. And we lose the rewards of working to discover that potential.
George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available now.