Updated below.

Tina Brown made my day yesterday by referencing Rousseau in her column. She was writing in the context of the above commencement address to a graduating class, in which David McCullough told his pupils that they were not special. Once the video went viral, he found himself waiting for a television appearance in a green room with Paul Krugman. He reflects for Newsweek on the environment in which the Nobel Laureate will have acquired his genius and drive which have fuelled his staggering work ethic and achievements:

I suspect his wonderfulness was not celebrated when he had been something less than wonderful. I’ll guess neither his anxious mom nor a $100-an-hour tutor helped him with a lightly plagiarized 10th-grade Middlemarch paper; nor did his parents encourage him to pack his résumé with papier-mâché. He did not, I’ll bet, endure a six-week intensive SAT prep class or snort Adderall before sitting to take the test. Probably his parents did not hire a pricey consultant to shepherd him through the college-application process; nor did they lean on his teachers to let him retake tests on which he did poorly, or, better, to just change an unwelcome grade because the, um, cat died.

The first point is key for me: his wonderfulness was not celebrated when he had been something less than wonderful. And, no doubt, he was only celebrated once he was wonderful. I have a strong suspicion that he is right to think our culture lacks that today. Praise loses its value when it is dished out so lavishly.

And Brown, in employing the term amour propre, perhaps unknowingly connected McCullough’s main line to Rousseau’s Émile. Key to the latter’s education is that whenever he risks losing magnanimity by beginning to consider himself superior to all others, Rousseau’s teacher does something to knock him down a notch. He is publicly embarrassed through a trick, and taught he is good but not the best. And Rousseau’s point was that it was destructive and disingenuous for anyone to rank themselves higher than their fellow humans, and consider themselves of unparalleled worth. Much better to recognise the value of all humans, and take pride in doing well without necessarily topping lists. Which fits in nicely with McCullough’s finale:

I recognize my kids—like my students—are no more or less important than anyone else’s, no more or less deserving of happy, productive lives, lives that shake a joyous fist at mortality, lives that matter beyond themselves.

The more people think this way, the greater the chance that a better and fairer social ethos can be carved out.


Also compare McCullough:

[W]e have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.

And Rousseau:

[S]ocial man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him. Always asking others what we are, and never daring to ask ourselves, in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity and civilisation, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance.

Told you.


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