The impulse to downplay individual achievement must be catching. Two speakers at Indiana State University graduation ceremonies recently both echoed President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” admonition to those he deemed a little too proud of themselves.
Craig McKee, a U.S. District Court magistrate and a 1979 Indiana State alumnus, talked about Neil Armstrong’s acknowledgement that his achievement of walking on the moon involved relying on “a network of others” to enrich his individual success. The educated person “understands that individual success is not up to him or her only.”
And student speaker Brad Hobbes of Indianapolis reminded fellow graduates that family, friends, faculty and staff “have many times given you a shoulder to lean on, a hug when you’ve done well and possibly a kick in the butt when you need it most.”
Certainly we owe much to our networks of friends and loved ones and those who may be called institutional torch-passers, those who came before us and pave the way for the road ahead of us. When we succeed, it is usually because “somebody along the way” gave us some help, as President Obama said in his July speech in Roanoke.
And most of us are smart enough to realize that the individual and the group both matter. We have our own talents and efforts to thank for whatever we earn, but the seeds we plant grow in gardens that have been cultivated by previous generations and tended lovingly by millions of our neighbors.
But what we choose to emphasize speaks volumes. You may think an inclination to emphasize individual initiative marks one as a libertarian caveman Neanderthal, too selfish to think about what he should give back to the group. The increasing emphasis on the whole, however, is an invitation to tyranny or, at best, the mediocrity of group think.
What most of the “bow to your support group” types fail to realize is that all of us are both receivers and givers of aid and comfort. If we don’t celebrate our accomplishments, we don’t encourage others to celebrate theirs, ditto for them, and we spiral ever downward, slicing up smaller and smaller slices of a rapidly disappearing pie.
Such an emphasis is especially dangerous in America, a country founded on the single greatest political idea in history: Rights inhere in the individual. There are certain things we are entitled to just because we are human and alive, and we must never stop insisting on keeping them. In this country, the group owes far more respect to the individual than the individual owes to the group.