The achievement ethos is built on an idealistic premise: There is, at the core of each human being, a wonderful destiny waiting to be realized. It is not just the talented few who have great potentialities lurking within. Each person has a noble destiny that can be realized, given the right output of effort, discretion, and support. Each person was born with promise, and each has a God-given right to a chance to achieve the fullest of his or her capacities.
Not all societies give such prominence to this belief. In some civilizations, people are more inclined to seek the harmony that comes with total submission to God's will. Others are built on the love for the nurturing presence of loved ones and community. It is better to stay home with one's kin than to venture forth in search of achievement and success. But American civilization encourages us to strive to realize our best self. Our identity, we often assume, is formed not only by where we are born or who are ancestors are. Our identity is defined by what we do and accomplish. Each of us has a gift to offer the world. Just as Marx wrote that "Milton produced Paradise Lost as the silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature," so each of us has some contribution, if only we can find it, to offer our fellows.
We tell ourselves and our children that the purpose of life is not merely to achieve worldly success--money, fame, prestige. Then we assign them a curriculum of self-improvement that makes mere worldly success look as easy as kindergarten. For example, Anna Quindlen, the novelist and Newsweek columnist, recently gave a commencement address at Villanova University that offered the students the sort of advice we are always giving the young and each other: "Get a life," she said. "A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house."
She assigned a few tasks:
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water . Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love and who love you. And remember that life is not leisure, it is work . Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at azaleas . Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister. Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby's ear . Just keep your eyes and ears open. Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is everywhere.
That's good advice. But consider how arduous it is. "It is so easy to exist instead of live," Quindlen said. You can rest assured that her listeners won't renounce their career goals. Nor did she say they should. She was invited to address the crowd precisely because she herself has had such a phenomenally successful career. The destitute are rarely asked to give commencement addresses. Yet she is asking us to pile on goodness on top of plenty, patience on top of hustle, tranquility on top of aspiration. When does Anna Quindlen expect us to sleep?
This is the culture of upwardly mobile childhood. And when you look at the frantic strivings of young meritocrats, what you are seeing is the latest and maybe most fevered version of a long line of American strivings. It was the early settlers who established the code that life is a pilgrimage toward perfection. Jonathan Edwards told his flock never to be content with their virtues, never to feel satisfied. "The endeavor to make progress," in developing one's character, he declared, "ought not to be attended to as a thing by the bye, but all Christians should make a business of it. They should look upon it as their daily business."
Benjamin Franklin more or less invented the mode of childhood we see around us today. He was the original enterprising boy. "It was about this time," he wrote somewhat ironically of his childhood ambitions, "that I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." Franklin made a little scorecard of the thirteen virtues such as industry ("Lose not time. Be always employed at something useful") and temperance ("Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation"). Then he gave himself daily performance reviews, marking his scorecard when he found something guilty of imperfection.
One of the first outstanding American sociologists, Lester Ward, described "this all-pervading spirit of improvement" that marks American life. The constellation of American stock characters is dotted with young people on the make: the Horatio Algers, the Sammy Glicks, the ambitious immigrant kids, the gangsters trying to rise from obscurity to success, the politicians ascending from log cabin to White House. There is no real testing spot. "It is provided in the essence of things," Walt Whitman acknowledged, "that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a struggle necessary."
Take one of these young meritocratic kids raised on Mozart for Babies, tutored at age six, coached at age eight, honed and molded and improved and enlightened every day of his life, and imagine telling him at some point in middle adulthood that the ascent is over. All his dreams have been realized. There is no more need to exert himself. Do you think he'd be happy? Of course not. Inertia would reduce him to the gravest misery. He is bred to want more and better and deeper, to ceaselessly reform and improve himself. He has become, for better or for worse, an American.