McCullough criticized the kids who “build medical clinics in Guatemala” for school credit and self-aggrandizement, rather than performing an act of giving from their own intrinsic motivation. But don’t we sometimes acquire our moral values as a result of our actions, and not always the reverse? Isn’t building a medical clinic in Guatemala –even if the motivation was, as McCullough suggests, “What does it get me?” – better than not building one?
It’s too easy to write off another selfish “me generation” when the reality is more nuanced. Yes, we need to do a better job of teaching our children that they’re not the center of the universe. But we need to strike a balance and not just overcorrect. Eighteenth century rabbi Simcha Bunim may have had the best advice for this. To avoid becoming either conceited or despondent, he suggested every person carry two pieces of paper in his pocket with opposing advice from the Torah: “For my sake was the world created,” and “I am but dust and ashes.”
Adult life and the economic realities that young people face will wisen them up soon enough. In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget the upside of being special: it has undoubtedly given many young people a chance to reach for the stars.