“Individual” Achievement

Today’s New York Times had a story about a Long Island teenager named Samantha who made a scientific breakthrough important enough to land her on the list of semi-finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search. The young woman is impressive–very bright, very hard-working, exactly the sort of youngster most parents want to produce. It is likely that she will grow up to contribute significantly to the store of public knowledge on which civilizations build and advance.

But that wasn’t why the Times ran the article.

What made this one young woman’s achievement so noteworthy was the fact that she and her family had been hit hard during the recession. Her parents had also been badly injured in an automobile accident, and the family even experienced a period of homelessness. Until then, hers had been a pretty typical middle-class family, and what happened to them, unfortunately, could (and did) happen to other hard-working, self-sufficient families. Their story, and their daughter’s, is thus a cautionary tale on a number of levels.

America is a land that lauds individual achievement. And so we should–we all benefit from their contributions. But it is also important to recognize that no individual achieves in the absence of at least minimal social support. As the saying goes, we all stand on the shoulders of others. Usually, that bromide is taken to mean that each breakthrough in human understanding builds on discoveries that have come before–that science builds on previous scientific knowledge, for example. But it also expresses a deeper truth.

Congressman Steven Isaacs, who represents Long Island, took his high-achieving constituent to the State of the Union; according to the Times,  he wanted his Republican colleagues to pay attention, “since they are so determined to starve government programs, weaken the safety net and shun public investment in education and science, all while slashing rich people’s taxes. ‘How does a middle-class family with a daughter who’s a genius find themselves in a homeless shelter through no fault of their own?’ Mr. Israel said. ‘This isn’t just about a celebration of her tenacity.’”

One of the most damaging consequences of the rhetoric of the Right flows from the dogmatic insistence that achievement is a solitary activity, and that the social safety net is a “giveaway” to “them”–“them” being the assorted slackers eager to live off the largesse of “us” hardworking, productive folks. Conservative pundits constantly lecture that “they” need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, seemingly oblivious to the social supports, privileges and plain good luck that have enabled their own comfortable lives.

Here’s the deal: Without government support — public schools, state research institutions and the county shelter that kept her family safe — there is no way that Samantha, brilliant as she is, could have accomplished what she did. Her scientific discoveries will eventually benefit all of us. Those benefits are a return on our investment of tax dollars.

When America is no longer willing to invest in the infrastructure that makes achievement possible, Americans will no longer achieve.


  1. As in almost everything, the “correct answer” lies somewhere between the extremes, in this case totally “rugged individualism” on the far Right and total dependency on an all-knowing “nanny state” on the far Left. Nor wherever it may be at any given time, it almost never static, but needs to be reassessed and shifted one way or another as conditions change. I’m not optimistic that in the current polarized enviornment we have any clue as to how to do that, though.

  2. Ignoring both economic and societal dysfunctionality might be the reason we have country of roughly 40% conservatives, 40% in the middle, and 20% liberals.

    It’s not that people believing that there are limits to both money and behavior are “seemingly oblivious to social supports”, it’s that we can’t endlessly tax and spend our way to success without parameters, without borders, goals, limits, and expectations.

    60%+ in entitlements and 20%+ for defense- and our only solution is to cut defense, reduce doctor reimbursement, and tax the rich? Even if we hypothetically said that solution is logical and morally defendable- it doesn’t pay the accumulated debt, deficit, and financial obligations the United States has accumulated.

    Do we want any child, of any race, or any relative intelligence to not thrive? Of course not. But, if we do not open our doors to personally beckon all intelligent but needy children to thrive at our personal residence, how are we supposed to have the moral authority to dictate that the bulk scale of government somehow, magically, solve this (and all problems)- economic and behavioral reality be damned? When do we societally reacquire expectations of accountability and responsibility across the board, therefore incentivizing civil behavior, enabling better response to every deserving instance coming to our personal or governmental doorstep? When do we finally have “enough” with a single mother who has a repeated history of not keeping her child out of trouble with the police, as much as our outrage at oil spills when an inspector isn’t doing his job?

    We raise a child with special needs, volunteer at schools, donate to charities, vote, have spoken at the school board and city-council, try to promote civic participation, and believe a temporary hand-up as what we’re supposed to do as citizens. We’re not perfect parents, but have no sirens at the front door either.

    But, no more than we can afford military bases all across the world, banks “too big to fail” dictating their own financial “reform”, or unions and (both) political parties pre-occupied with self-preservation, nor can we fiscally, morally, and constitutionally believe government can be all things to all people.

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