There is a difference between prestigious accomplishments and admirable ones. We can talk about both.

As the trees start to bud and the daffodils bloom, we begin the annual tradition of celebrating students’ successes and congratulating our graduates.  It is a wonderful time of year, and it’s more welcome than ever after all the challenges we have faced and the losses we have endured throughout the pandemic.

I want to make a relatively simple request about the stories of success that we tell about our students and ourselves: Can we do a better job telling “normal stories” about people’s accomplishments?

My concern here is about confusing prestigious accomplishments with admirable ones. That is, when the stories that we tell mostly focus on impressive accomplishments that are by their very nature inaccessible to the majority of us (in part because if they were more available, they be less prestigious), we grossly distort our notion of what it means to be a successful student, a successful employee, even a successful person. 

We frequently hear about the corrosive effects of social media – especially on young people – and of its capacity to cultivate both an incessant fear of missing out (FOMO) and distorted perceptions of the apparent great success of everyone around us. Then, we inevitably fall short when we try to measure up against those thrilling experiences and tremendous successes everyone else seems to be having. 

Celebratory narratives are both distortive and undermining of deeply held values and goals. For example, historians and science studies scholars have described the way in which an overemphasis on extraordinary historical figures undermines efforts to increase diversity.  Perhaps the most notable example of this is Marie Curie, the two-time Nobel Prize winner. Her tremendous contributions to science set a bar for the expectations of women in science that actually hindered the recruitment of women into science.  One of the best explorations of this I have found was written by an undergraduate at Lake Forest College.

Prestigious accomplishments deserve recognition. So do admirable ones. So, let’s tell more normal stories. 

Let’s tell more stories about people who work and strive and accomplish things that mean a lot to them. Let’s start telling stories about people finishing their degrees, finding love, discovering their talents, or helping others get things done. This is not to invoke the image of the mythical Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average) or to excite social critics (who worry about the negative consequences when “every child gets a trophy”).  Rather, I simply want us to recognize that relatively common accomplishments typically take a lot of hard work, attention, and support from others. That’s normal… and quite admirable.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.