The other day one of my conservative friends shared this YouTube video on Facebook:
That video — a monologue from renowned liberal Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom — has tens of millions of views, likes, and shares. It is almost universally appreciated by liberals and conservatives alike. It is, on some level anyway, a more intelligent version of the the old guy mentality satirized by Dana Carvey. It is that old guy who says, “Back in my day, we walked to three miles to school, blah blah, we took hold of our bootstraps, blah blah, we didn’t whine and complain, blah blah…and that’s the way it was and we liked it!”
Or is it? It’s easy to laugh at and dismiss ideas like the ones in Jeff Daniel’s speech as being backward looking, nostalgic, cheesy, and naive. If you’re one of those people, I challenge you to think again.
I inherited a book from my great aunt that’s called Required Poetry for Memorizing and it’s for grades 7th through 8th. It is copyrighted 1925. Eight-seven years ago kids were memorizing poetry. Not sure when they stopped. My father, who had only a high school education, could recite Poe’s The Raven. All of it. My youngest kid is about to graduate high school. She can’t do long division in her head, is still a little fuzzy on her multiplication tables, and does not know how to read or write in cursive. She’s on the honor roll and has a 3.5 grade average.
I was talking to a new acquaintance recently and some of my hobbies started coming to light. I think Sara thought my modesty was false when I said that I was ashamed that my knowledge of French extended to reading but not to conversation. This is pretty common, people thinking I’m being falsely modest when I say I’m disappointed in my achievements.
But it’s true. I’m ashamed of the fact that after two years of high school French and four semesters in college, I still can’t speak the language. I’m ashamed of the fact that I only have a handful of martial arts trophies, that I’ve never exhibited my artwork in a gallery, that I haven’t won a short story contest since high school, that all six books I have to my credit are self-published, that not a single person has ever told me that one of my books is his or her favorite book. I don’t want to be good — I want to be excellent. Outstanding. Remarkable. Not because I want to be recognized or make a lot of money, but because I want to create wonderful, beautiful things. Because I think it’s important to expect only the best of oneself.
My daughter Morgan wants to be amazing too, and she is. She has that desire. Her art is breathtaking, and she has the patience and vision to make inspirational works. I’m proud of her 3.5 GPA, but wouldn’t it be better to send her out into the world with an even stronger educational base? She is capable of learning and doing anything. Can’t we expect more?
Also in my collection of books you’ll find the Foxfire series. These books are a compilation of articles that catalog the lifeways of Appalachian hill folk. In the 1960s a high school teacher named Eliot Wigginton tasked his kids with interviewing their parents and grandparents. He guided them to record skills, information, and knowledge that were at risk of being lost to the mists of time. Part sociology, part how-to, and part history, in them you will find country people creating amazing things — log cabins, split oak baskets, quilts, you name it. You can’t believe your eyes. One of the things that stands out is how smart and clean these people are. Many of them are standing in homes with dirt floors, but there they are in starched and ironed clothes, groomed and shined like newly minted copper pennies. One look at these people and you know they give a shit. Eliot Wigginton gave two shits, and he expected his kids to also give two shits. The result? A series of twelve books that are an absolutely priceless resource, an incredible contribution to the field of history and folkloric research. But a teacher and his kids couldn’t do that today. They’d be too busy getting ready for standardized tests like the SOLs so that the kids could graduate and the teachers could keep their jobs.
When I watch that video of Jeff Daniel’s monologue, what I think about is how we just expect so much less of ourselves than our parents and grandparents did. Our predecessors were far from perfect. They were bigoted, they were polluters, they stole a whole country from the indigenous people who were here first, and so on. But, collectively at least, they expected that we would get better. They sure didn’t expect that we’d try to reverse Roe v. Wade or start attempting to tear down the Voting Rights Act. They expected that we’d learn from our mistakes and keep improving. They expected that we’d never go backwards.
We can be great. But in order to do that we’re going to have to raise the bar.