Everyone Can't Do Everything
This piece in The New York Times details how Halloween and other holiday celebrations have been canceled at some public schools, under extremely vague equality terms. The best the article can muster is that this action has been taken in the spirit of “building equity, fostering inclusion, and building a sense of belonging throughout our schools.” It seems that because some kids come from families that don’t do Halloween - Jehovah’s Witnesses? I don’t know, the piece is bizarrely silent on the question - nobody should be able to do Halloween stuff at school. As New Jersey’s (Democrat) governor says, this sounds pretty fucking stupid! The small minority of kids who don’t do Halloween are watching Halloween stuff on YouTube and TikTok and Disney+, they’re seeing Halloween decorations in front of house after house, they’re aware of the Halloween displays in stores, they’re listening to their peers talk about their costumes and parties and trick or treating. They know about Halloween. They’re gonna be sad about not participating whether their 2nd grade class cancels their party or not. You have the right not to do Halloween in your family, but the resulting sadness for your kid is on you. Why deprive other kids?
I would really love to hear someone more fully articulate the point about equity and inclusion because as it stands it really seems completely senseless. Are Hanukkah celebrations out? The vast majority of kids don’t celebrate. Should we shut down any dreidel playing in public schools, under the identical logic that most kids will feel excluded? How about Eid? Barely more than 1% of Americans are Muslim, after all. Doesn’t that mean that recognition of Eid in the classroom is a matter of introducing a holiday that not every student celebrates? Or Indigenous People’s Day, given their percentage of the overall population? Ah, but of course the whole DEI thing only really applies to majority imposition on minority rights - the fact that Halloween is a secular holiday enjoyed by the vast majority of children perversely makes it more of a target for exclusion, not less. I suspect that this sort of thing is really a matter of fretful liberal bureaucrats who feel like they need to Do Something and found this Thing To Do. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the places that implement these policies quietly roll them back in the future. Who are you really serving, here?
Either way, the bigger issue remains: not everyone can do everything, and not everything is for everyone. The existence of the religious and cultural and national traditions that inspire holiday celebrations inevitably mean that those celebrations won’t be for everyone. Yet we’ve created this inescapable ideology that anything that’s for any child must be something for every child, and the related (and equally misguided) notion that any child can be or do anything. Canceling holidays is a different animal than specific children learning about their inevitable human limits, but the stated moral logic of these administrative actions stem from the same bad impulse - the thinking that says that if any kids can’t do something, this is an emotional setback they can’t overcome, rather than a simple reality of life. The basic human experience of not partaking in something other people enjoy becomes instead an error that has to be corrected. In our culture, if any individual kid can’t do something that other kids can do, that’s treated as injustice. That’s a check we can’t possibly cash.
The kid in the video at the top, who was at the time on a football team despite being blind, is of course as sympathetic and deserving a person as you’ll find. The effort to involve him is admirable and kind. I do have some safety concerns, but it’s true that this kid getting to fulfill his dream warms my heart. It’s also true that he isn’t playing football. He’s just not. That isn’t any kind of an insult, just an accurate observation that what he’s doing on the field is not football. Obviously, I’m not going to be running down to the sidelines to say that, and as he’s a child and adults are giving him the opportunity to enjoy participation in something he can’t accomplish in ordinary terms, there’s no harm here. What would constitute harm is if the pretense that he was playing football was advanced as literally true, by adults, as he aged into adolescence. If there was a concerted effort to convince this child that he could maintain aspirations to play football against real competition, that would be destructive. I’m sure that’s not happening here, to be clear. More to the point, I’m sure this kid is (or will grow to be) perfectly well aware of his limitations. The trouble is that we’ve created a larger cultural expectation that every child can grow to be absolutely anything, when that isn’t true. And while disability is involved in that, it’s really just one part of a broader addiction to telling our kids that they can have whatever they want.
When I got my first book contract, I thought for many long hours about what exactly I wanted to do with an opportunity that might never have come again. If I was only ever going to be allowed to publish one book, which seemed like a real possibility, I wanted to get some core values into it. And so the introduction to The Cult of Smart was about this exact observation: my time working in K-12 schools had left me shaking my head, again and again, at how relentlessly the “you can be anything you dream” ideology was pushed on kids. Everywhere you looked, there was another poster insisting that If You Believe, You Will Achieve! and related cliches. It was as close to a secular civic religion as I have encountered in 21st-century American life. And it seemed and seems pathological in a couple of dimensions. The first problem is that the kind of people who get up in front of crowds and say “I never gave up on my dreams, and I made it!” don’t understand survivorship bias - all the people who never gave up but nevertheless never make it don’t get invited to stand up in front of crowds and make speeches. The second is that, once we have misapprehended the nature of success in that way, the insistence that we should never give up becomes immensely cruel; it keeps people stuck pursuing kinds of success they will never achieve, and it tells them that if they eventually give up, that failure is their own fault.
A healthy and kind culture would instead say “you should reach for the things you want, but wanting and not getting is what adult life is all about, and you must learn to live with disappointment and failure.” We would bake in a constant set of reminders that we have limitations, weaknesses, and problems that we can’t always overcome. Part of the problem with the recent refusal to give kids bad grades or otherwise note their academic struggles is that there’s no opportunity to make them understand themselves in a critical and realistic way. Honestly, athletics is one of the few places in our society where young people regularly encounter the knowledge that they can’t succeed in a given field. If I had decided to be a champion sprinter at four years old, and had worked as hard as I possibly could for the next decade, by high school I would still have found myself getting dusted at every meet by kids who actually have athletic gifts. That’s painful but sobering and ultimately healthy. Getting cut from the football team hurts, but when coaches do it they’re at least reflecting some basic reality about a given kid’s ability and forcing that kid to consider their limitations. Unfortunately, because academic and artistic skills are harder to quantify, so many people with intellectual or artistic aspirations never encounter their limits until they’ve invested an immense amount of their lives into them.
With disability specifically… I don’t know. I recently wrote a review of Amy Lutz’s excellent Chasing the Intact Mind. In the book, Lutz discusses the myriad problems with the recent politicized refusal to accept the limitations of the profoundly autistic. As she points out, the activist-led effort to treat all autistic people as fully autonomous and self-directed people leaves the most disabled at the mercy of people who would exploit and harm them. There’s also the broad and vexing question of what accommodations can and should be extended to people given their various disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act’s standard of requiring any reasonable accommodation is an elegant and just one, but of course what exactly is reasonable will remain permanently controversial. In particular, the question of the degree to which existing buildings should be required to retrofit to meet ADA compliance is vexing - in theory, such construction is entirely appropriate, but in practice, undertaking that effort nationally would be ruinously expensive. Personally, I have to side with expanding access and enforcing the law. But as a practical matter, there are (to pick an example) hundreds of New York City apartment buildings without wheelchair access, and on any realistic timeline, there are going to be some places that those with certain disabilities just can’t access.
With such questions of physical access there are at least obvious fixes, if not easy or cheap ones. But of course there are also things that we have no ability to fix by manipulating the built environment. Blind people can’t fly planes. One-armed people can make amazing music, but they can’t play guitar in the traditional manner. And people with severe cognitive disabilities from cerebral palsy or another disorder are prevented from engaging in all kinds of human activities. I know that people with disabilities understand the limitations that they labor under better than anyone. What I hope we’ll avoid doing, though, is to let the American religion of “you can be anything” intersect with the understandable desire to help disabled kids realize their dreams in a way that amounts to a denial of our inevitable human limits. For those people with disabilities or any other. What happens to a kid who’s been told that they can be anything, after the world makes it punishingly clear that that isn’t really true?
When I first found myself learning about disability activism, it was common to say that condescension is one of the worst things to deal with as a person with a disability. I don’t hear much of that anymore, in the new world of disability activism where stigma is taken to be the single greatest enemy, but there was profound wisdom to that attitude. Adults deserve respect in multiple dimensions - respecting their equal value and right to strive for what they want, and also the respect to be honest about what they can’t do.
Look, people are forever exceeding our expectations. That’s why I’ve always been opposed to hard tracking in schools - that is, placing students on different curricular paths that they and their parents can’t choose - despite my overall ideas about education. Individuals can and do beat whatever trend. We just have to remember that the trend remains the trend. People with Down Syndrome have defied expectations about what they’re capable of again and again, with some of the highest-functioning among them proving to be capable of living on their own, holding down jobs, and having adult relationships. It’s also true, though, that there are people with Down Syndrome who are disabled to the point that they need constant supervision and will never be able to live without such support. It’s additionally true that, at present, it seems unlikely that a person with Down Syndrome will ever become a research physicist. The thing I’ve been trying to make clear to people for the past three years is that we’re all limited in this way, ultimately, that none of us have truly limitless potential. I am very happy to tell you that I have had exactly zero chance of becoming a research physicist in my life; that’s just not a future that ever fit within my own very-real limitations. As long as we entertain the fiction that such limitations don’t exist, we’re harming our young people.
When I first moved to Brooklyn I quickly found myself broke. I had spent the past couple months without a job, as I had finished grad school, and had to spend money on a couple UHaul rentals, on a place to stay before I was ready to move to New York, and on the absurdly expensive combination of first month’s rent, security deposit, and broker’s fee. Everything was so expensive, and the paycheck that seemed so crazy big after six years of school had come to seem very small once I was actually living on it. So I applied to sell my sperm at a clinic. I was running very low on cash and I didn’t have any other good ideas. When the people at the clinic saw that I’m over six feet tall, white, and have a PhD, they were very motivated to sign me up. And then during the screening, when they learned that I have bipolar disorder, they shook my hand and said no thanks. I guess there was some part of me that wanted to be offended. But bipolar disorder has a major genetic component, and their decision was perfectly defensible. Obviously, not being able to make money at a sperm bank is no great injustice, but equally obviously, there are other, more serious things that my disorder has prevented me from doing. It doesn’t feel good. But then, that’s life.