The Man in the Beige Hat

You probably won’t have heard of this man.  He’s David Wottle, and he’s had a long, successful career (according to ye olde Wikipædia) as the Dean of Admissions at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.  Before that, however, he was an Olympic runner, and on September 2, 1972, he won the 800-meter gold medal with a spectacular rush over the last quarter of the race to nose out Soviet runner Yevgeni Arzhanov, as seen below.

Don’t fret about the video quality; you’ll pick out Mr. Wottle very easily, as he’s wearing a freakin’ ball cap.

(tip of the running cap to Sippican Cottage)

What I found fascinating in reading the Wiki entry is that, when he was a boy, Wottle was a slight and sickly child.  His family took him to the pediatrician, and instead of giving him every manner of nostrum, the doctor gave advice: get him out and active.  He held a share of the world record time for the 800-meter, so it’s safe to say it worked.

Mr. Cottage, in his blog, notes a different benefit to getting out there: to wit, testing oneself against others who have no obligation but to be better at you than something.  That’s always excellent medicine.  You push yourself to achieve all you can.  Very few of us are capable of running 800 meters in anything approaching two minutes, so the end result isn’t gold medals and a tattered ball cap that gets its own exhibit in the US Track and Field Hall of Fame… but nearly all of us are capable of something much more mundane, yet much more valuable – awareness.  We learn the value of initiative and discipline, what we can and can’t do, what we love and loathe, we learn how to lose well and win graciously, we learn how to arbitrate disputes sensibly, and we toughen up a little.

One thing I note, among those of the generation following mine: they don’t do this all that well.  It’s often because they don’t have to at all; so much of their play is either in front of a screen, alone*; or else structured and organized by folks who, in the name of fairness and kindness, remove all sorts of learning opportunities that kids in a sandlot would master in a month.

* Much of the rest of life is going this way as well; yet homeschooling is supposed to be the big problem?

It’s been a long time to get there, step by step.  Folks of my parents’ generation fretted endlessly about my generation’s self-esteem.  In the name of making sure nobody felt bad about lack of achievement, those who achieved were discouraged.  I don’t mean that they were openly told that doing well was wrong – at least not at first – but they learned nonetheless, the same way they used to learn sportsmanship and skills.  They saw that the focus of things was no longer in keeping score, nor in the game itself and how well it was played; the focus was in how people felt afterwards, and it was Wrong to make others feel Bad.

Of course kids will bully each other, and winning at something is a convenient angle to work.  But instead of ending the bullying, the adults worked to end the winning.  And to that end, they themsleves stopped making distinctions based on objective things like “who answered more questions correctly” and “who scored more points,” and began to make sure that everyone was affirmed and praised and valued.

Many people will say that this was a good idea, that kids need encouragement.  I agree – but encouragement to do what?  If you tell them they’re fine as-is, does that encourage them to improve?  Well, encouragement at the “important stuff” I mentioned before – fair play and give-and-take and resolving disputes.  Again, I agree – but again, the current approach is terrible at this, and for the same reason.  They’re fine as-is, they’re encouraged to feel great regardless, and never bother to go beyond what they already are, having been told by those they trust that there isn’t any point to it.

So we have more bullying than ever.  The problem is so explosive now (in some cases, literally) that laws are passed trying to combat it.  Problem is that in many cases, the tool of choice for the job is the same shovel that dug us into this hole.  The sad truth is, bullies have plenty of self-esteem; giving them more without question or discernment is stupid.  What they lack is everything else.  And by making everyone a prince among princes in the Kingdom of Self, we’ve done nothing but give those bullies more potential victims than ever before.  The rebellious, we will always have with us – the budding delinquent isn’t going to give a rip about the mewling about other kids’ feelings, and they’re not going to go along with authority when they prize participation and skill-building and cooperation above all else.  They’re still in it to win, and crush the other kid… and that other kid is now no longer encouraged to develop his skills to their fullest in response to this challenge.  He learns no discipline or perserverance, and has no concept of his own capabilities.  He’s still trying to play by the new rules, which say that beating others will make them feel bad and cause them to lash out – and when they do, it’s not their fault, we need to reach out to them with understanding.

They’d lash out less if it wasn’t so effective.  And it would be a hell of a lot less effective if their chosen targets could stand up for themselves without feeling guilty for it.  It is nothing less than cruelty to render these children defenseless in this manner.  It’s even cruel to the bullies.  The confident self-sufficiency of healthy kids (of which self-esteem is a pale mockery) helps to keep bad behavior in check.  Many a bully never graduates to the criminal class because they get taken down a few pegs by people who have a real confidence in themselves, earned through hard work, testing and experience.  That helps a lot of the bullies finally realize that esteem isn’t enough.  Parental authority is not effective by itself, because these kids are already blowing off Mom and Dad and teacher, in favor of being the Big Thing in the peer group.  But it’s impossible to avoid the truth when it follows you into the peer group, and the bully is thwarted by that pipsqueak who has learned how to handle himself, or by the nice girls who won’t give him the time of day… that’s when the light goes off for a lot of them.  Then – ONLY THEN – can reaching out to them get anywhere.  They commit to acting like people and not little savages, and find that other people are more than willing to get along with them.

Or, you know, you can keep on “understanding” them, and remarkably fail to understand why they’re burning down London.

There’s a paradox at work here: aim for testing your limits, and mastering your skills, and you by necessity learn to master yourself.  You understand yourself more completely and have a lasting self-worth based on that knowledge.  Aim for the esteem and understanding instead, and you not only lose the skills and the initiative, you lose the esteem and understanding.


2 thoughts on “The Man in the Beige Hat

  1. Mr. Bingley September 1, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Dave was one of my heroes when I was very into running in the 70s.

  2. Mr. Bingley September 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    His painter’s cap started a trend amongst distance runners way back then.

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