A new school year is beginning all across America and children are pouring into their classrooms to start, or continue, their journey toward knowledge and a good life. One of the standard pieces of advice given in schools is “You can be anything you want to be.”
Hillary Clinton has set a new goal now that she is running for president and has a good chance of winning. She posted on Twitter To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want—even president.
The trouble with telling children they can do anything is that it’s just not true. Strangely enough, we have a popular movie out this month with an example of the limitation of
dreams. Florence Foster Jenkins chronicles the story of a woman whose dream was to be a concert singer. Because she was wealthy, she was able to achieve her desire to give concerts. But no one would say that she had achieved her dream of being a great singer. One of the attractions that brought audiences to hear her is that she simply could not sing and many people found pleasure in watching her fall short.
Jenkins was lucky to have been able to cushion the failure of her achievement because she had money, love, and friends. Many other people discover that they have to move on to new dreams. The boy who dreams of becoming a major league pitcher, discovers his throwing arm will never get him beyond the tryouts. That’s when the real test of the dream occurs. Some people sink into bitterness making their lives, and the lives of their families and friends, dismal. Others use their athletic prowess to become great gym teachers and coaches. And a dream of making your high school team the state champions is not a bad one to follow.
Most people’s lives take many twists and turns. You start out with one dream, switch to another, and move on sometimes to find far more success and happiness than you had expected. Sergei Diaghilev, the world famous producer and founder of the Ballets Russes, was a man with many dreams. Born in 1872, he grew up under the czarist regime in Russia. When he was a teenager, his father went bankrupt, so Sergei had to help support his family. His first love was music and he dreamed of being a composer. He studied composition, but was told by his teacher (the famous composer Rimsky-Korsakov) that he lacked the talent to compose music.
Unlike Florence Jenkins, Diaghilev decided to give up his first dream and to pursue his interest in the arts and dance. He started a magazine to publish Russian writers and later
founded the innovative dance company the Ballet Russes. With the ballet company, Diaghilev toured France and other European countries. He worked with famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie and Claude Debussy to produce unforgettable ballets, using modern music and modern artistic sets. His innovations revolutionized the dance world. He seemed to have a hand in all of the artistic ferment of 1920s Europe. If you want to read a good biography, you can’t do better than try Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen.
The trouble with telling children they can become “anything they want to be” is that, when they don’t reach that goal, it seems as though they fail. But no one is a failure because she, or he, doesn’t become President. In fact, it is a mathematical impossibility for every child to become President, or for every child to win a gold medal at the Olympics. So why do we tell them they can all reach these impossible dreams?
Perhaps we should be honest with children. Instead of telling them “you can achieve anything” we should tell them the truth: “you can dream and build a good life if you are willing to stay flexible and let your dreams change and grow.” Perhaps we ought to encourage them not to have one dream, but to have a bouquet of dreams. If one dream wilts and dies, another will take its place. Happiness is usually found not by holding onto one unchanging dream for a lifetime, but by being open to new dreams and new hopes and being willing to work to reach them.
Much of my attention this week has been focused on the Olympics in Rio. They are quite a relief from the two political conventions we just watched because in the Olympics, people keep moving instead of talking and we can see for ourselves who is winning. There is no need for lengthy commentary about who said what and who scored points against an opponent. There is something very satisfying about a clear cut win like Katie Ledecky’s brilliant 800-meter swim that smashed the world record and won her another gold medal.
Women weren’t always so prominent in the Olympic Games. In the ancient games, of course, only men were allowed to compete and when the games were reinstated in 1896, the organizers thought it would be foolish to allow women to compete. Four years later, however, a few women managed to participate in the 1900 games in Paris—22 women out of a field of 997 athletes.
The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—the only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate. Almost everyone who took part was an American and a true amateur; many signed up at the last minute without training or knowledge about how to compete.
As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not
allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards. The UK women’s team won the medals that year.
What women athletes wear has always been an issue at the Olympics. This year, for the first time, all of the countries that have Olympic Committees have sent both men and women to the Games. For the first time, women from Saudi Arabia have been allowed to participate. This means that some of the Muslim women have competed while wearing outfits that look quite different from many of their European and American counterparts.
It is a pleasure to see the freedom women have finally found, being able to wear gear that makes them comfortable while competing on even terms with all participants. Three cheers for freedom of choice!