For the last ten years or so, I have regularly heard people give snowflake rants. They go something like this: “Kids these days aren’t used to working for grades. They’ve grown up in a culture in which everyone gets an ‘I’m Special’ trophy just for participating. They all think they are special snowflakes and are entitled to everything.”
In this post, I will refer to these kinds of conversations as Special Snowflake Rants.
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Underlying Assumptions of Special Snowflake Rants
I can certainly sympathize with the pain behind some of these statements. After all, I have had students over the years who wanted very high grades in exchange for very little effort and poor work. They were shocked when I did not agree with their view of the matter.
However, there seems to be several troubling underlying assumptions in Special Snowflake Rants:
Assumption #1: Thinking that you are special will necessarily destroy your character and your work ethic.
Assumption #2: What kids need today is to realize that they are not special and that they only earn the title of specialness by their achievements.
Assumption #3: If they don’t achieve anything, they don’t deserve to think they are special.
I believe that all of these assumptions are wrong. And I would also argue that they contribute to the very problem Snowflake Ranters claim they want solved.
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In order to explain why these assumptions are troublesome, I would like to pose three questions. And I will follow up each question with a brief discussion.
One: Does believing we are special destroy our work ethic and character?
I would argue it does not. On the contrary, believing we are special (that everyone is special) is crucial to our success. Of course, it is important here to explain what I mean by special.
Special does not mean we are better than everyone else. And special does not mean that we are not beholden to moral and community standards. In addition, special does not mean that everyone else must play by our rules.
So what does special mean? When I say that all of us are special, I mean that every single one of us carries a spark of the Divine. If you are not religious, you can think of this spark of the divine as the capacity for beautifying the world through our moral judgments.
Because of this, we are powerful.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant explains this well. He argues that every single human being is a bearer of the moral law. Therefore, as people act morally in their day-to-day decisions, they make visible the moral law in their corner of the world.*
The more we all do this, the more free and powerful we make ourselves and the world.
Here is another way to look at it.
Animals are awesome. But generally speaking, animals cannot respond to moral considerations. They are driven by instinct, rather than moral concerns. Humans, on the other hand, have the capacity to observe the world objectively. And they have the ability to figure out how to make it safer, more just, more beautiful, and more compassionate for everyone and everything.
This is what it means to be an ethical being.
So, we could say that our specialness lies in our capacity to beautify the world in our unique way.
And if this is so, then we can see why believing in our specialness (the way I have defined it) is actually essential for developing a good work ethic and character. When we realize that we are special in this way, we recognize that our unique vocation as human beings is to become fully ethical.
We also see we must work in meaningful ways to make the world more ethical.
If we don’t believe we are special in this way, we may believe that we don’t have the capacity to be a good person. Or we may doubt our ability to make a difference in the world or believe that all work is meaningless.
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Two: Why Do We Think Achievement is Equivalent to Specialness?
I have defined the term special as our ability to beautify the world through our moral judgments. Defined this way, we can say that every single human being is special.
We should also note that our specialness is separate from our achievements, although our specialness may result in certain achievements. That is because when we recognize that we are special in terms of moral worth, this often leads us to do good and even great things.
On the other hand, tying the label special specifically to achievements, and only some of them at that, does not strengthen our character and work ethic. It actually undermines it in the long run.
Here is what I mean. Let’s consider three achievements that are often considered special in our current cultural context. I will also discuss the problem with tying worth to this kind of specialness.
People who make a lot of money
Problem: While being rich does not necessarily undermine a person’s character, there are many wealthy people who have compromised their morals, their family life, and their health in order to gain wealth. In addition, some people inherit their money or have a stroke of luck with one song or one app they create. And they don’t really work hard ever again in their life. On the flip side, there are many people who are poor (i.e. who have not achieved a lot by this metric) who have excellent character and work ethic.
So, it is clear that being special in terms of wealth is not guarantor of character or work ethic.
People who are really beautiful according to a particular standard. (Like models or movie stars).
Problem: I don’t think I really need to explain this one in depth. We have plenty examples of people in life who meet cultural beauty standards but who have very poor character and work ethic.
So, it is clear that being special in terms of beauty is not guarantor of character or work ethic.
People who have high academic or athletic accomplishments.
Certainly, people who have high academic or athletic accomplishments must work to some degree to earn them. But it is also true that some people are so naturally gifted academically or athletically that they don’t have to work very hard to earn their achievements.
In addition, it is also clear that having significant academic or athletic accomplishments is no guarantor of ethical character. As an example, some very smart and athletic people misbehave badly.
The point of this is to suggest that when we tie our specialness to achievements like monetary success, beauty standards, or high academic or athletic achievements, we do not consistently rewarding a work ethic or good character. Rather, we often rewarding things like luck, genetics, and inheritance.
Three: Why do we think that people do not deserve to think they are special unless they achieve things?
Problem: I would suggest that the most important achievement tied to specialness is being moral and ethical. And this is something everyone can achieve. It is also who we are. We are special already, and that is why we can act morally.
Why “Special Snowflake Rants” and the Accompanying Mentality Undermine Us
When we think that people are only special if they have achievements like the ones mentioned above, we communicate that only a small handful of people matter in the world. We further communicate that only a handful of people deserve to be treated with dignity.
But it is essential we treat everyone with dignity. When we treat people with dignity, we recognize the specialness of their ethical capacities. And we do everything we can to nurture them. One of the ways we do this is by believing in people’s ability to develop these capacities. And that process requires a lot of trial and error and practice.
Therefore, if we want students (and people in general) to develop their character, the best thing we can do is to remind them of their specialness. And another excellent thing we can do is be cheerleaders of this quality through their failures and trial and error.
When we tie specialness to arbitrary standards like the ones above (that often have to do with luck, genes, etc.) we communicate to people that character and hard work doesn’t matter. And we further communicate to them that they either or are not special. We suggest that there isn’t really anything they can do anything about it.
This undermines the desire to work hard and develop character.
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But Aren’t There Entitled Students and People?
While Special Snowflake Rants are generally unhelpful and self-undermining, there is one thing they get right. There are indeed some people (and students, too) who believe that they are entitled to accomplishments, titles, grades, and salaries incommensurate with their work or accomplishments.
People behave like this for a lot of reasons. It may be that their mentors had very low expectations for them throughout their whole life. Or it may be that they were never encouraged to persist in hard work. There are certainly students like this who have never realized the potential they can achieve through consistent work and learning from their mistakes. And because of this, they expect a great deal But they don’t want to work hard to earn it.
In this case, it is certainly one of the jobs of teachers and college instructors is to help students understand what it takes to do excellent work in class and to teach them how to get there. And students certainly should not receive grades they haven’t earned.
But, it is important to note that students like this are not acting entitled because they have been taught that they are special in the way I am using the word special. In fact, one of the main problems, it appears, is that they have not yet learned they are special in the ethical sense of the term. And, in fact, they need to learn that they are special in this sense to overcome their problems with persistence.
So Special Snowflake Rants miss the most important point of all: that we are all special. And furthermore, Special Snowflake Rants miss the point that our specialness doesn’t have to do with achievement, per se. It has to do with our moral and ethical capabilities. And one of the most important things we can do is nurture our own and other people’s specialness.
In fact, if I had my way, everyone in the world would have a trophy emblazoned with Special just for being alive and being their unique selves in the world. And if I had my way, everyone’s primary goal would be to encourage and nurture each other’s ethical capacities so that we can create a more beautiful, just, and kind world for everyone.
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You are a Special Snowflake, Friend. So am I. Let’s make the world better together.
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