View From the Hill
So you think you’re special? From specialness to sacrificeAlong these very lines, one piece of reading I did over the break certainly resonated with me as I ponder the future of education and the ever present question: how do we prepare the next generation to face the challenges of the rest of the century? Bernard Salt is a well-known commentator on all things contemporary and his piece in the Weekend Australian of June 24/5 reminded me of the importance of building responsibility, service and even sacrifice in ourselves and those we educate and nurture.
It’s nice to feel special, but it makes you ill-equipped to survive even the most rudimentary challenges of life.
What I’m about to say might upset some people. If you possess a delicate constitution, could I suggest that you move to another story on the website? I hear there are pretty pictures of unicorns up towards the back… but apparently you can only see them if you believe you can see them. Go, go chase your dreams and find those unicorns. I will stay here and deal with the present.
My confronting proposition is this. Neither you nor I are particularly special and in all probability neither is anyone we know. Think about it: if we’re all special, the bar is raised and then no one is special. In fact, most of us are destined to live ordinary lives in ordinary circumstances. I can already feel you railing at this logic – which might well apply to some people but surely not to you.
Because you are a dream chaser. You’re not some dreary worker bee damned to a life like everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before your talents are discovered, right? You’re like a Lotto ticket: eventually your numbers will come up and then you’ll have sublime vindication for all those years not of hard work but of self-belief.
Perhaps this specialness syndrome has always been part of the human condition. In previous eras we were inclined to believe in the concept of eternal salvation as some kind of divine recompense. Today we’re more interested in reward for our efforts (if not for our specialness) in this life, not the next. After all, the hereafter can wait; it’s the here and now that really matters.
But this tectonic shift not only delivers self-esteem but also anxiety. For most surely there comes a day of reckoning when special people realise in a moment of startling clarity that they’re not rich, they’re not famous, they’re not a celebrity; they’ve been lied to all their life. They are also inclined to believe that it’s all someone else’s fault. And from that moment forward a sullen mood settles upon these people, who feel they’ve been denied their special birthright.
How do you govern a people who think they’re special? How do you create a loving and cohesive society when everyone thinks they’re owed something “from the universe”? I know this is a crazy idea but what if we reversed this thinking? What if people focused on what they could contribute, not what they believed they were owed? What if human endeavour was measured and validated not by what could be withdrawn from society but by what could be added?
I am particularly concerned for young people. There is no job, enterprise or government department that will not be reimagined within the working lives of the next generation. Navigating this world will require the ability to fit in and adapt to whatever circumstances may be presented. But if you are special, and have been told as much by well-meaning parents and others, then you’ll wait for the world to fit in with you. Specialness syndrome makes people feel good in the moment but doesn’t equip them with the skills, let alone the resilience, needed to navigate a world of perpetual churn.
And as for the here and now, politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t pander to the insatiable demands of a special nation. What is required is a fundamental shift in the way we think and behave. Specialness is not our friend; it is a corrosive force weakening our resolve. It makes me wonder what society would look like if we swapped the ideal of specialness for the ideal of sacrifice.