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“It is Our Collective Myths That Define Us”

In Sapiens, anthropologist Yuval Noah Harari examines the uniqueness of human development among other creatures. Many types of animals can communicate with one another, but only humans can communicate with specific language about what cannot be seen with the senses. Here’s an example:

“As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say. ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

One of my favorite books is Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I’m fascinated that myths from every part of the globe tell similar stories, like the hero’s journey and how humans do battle with higher powers. This book was a mainstay in my syllabus when I was teaching. I certainly didn’t expect “the power of myth” to come up in my work as an independent education consultant as often as it does.

While myths add much to our lives, they can lead us astray. It’s a myth to say “(fill in the blank) is a great school for everyone,” “(fill in the blank) is the best university,” or “(fill in the blank) is a terrible college.”

Most families understand the importance of fit in the college process, and it’s sad when the prestige myth pushes that knowledge aside. The myth of that “great school for everyone” may fall flat when it leads to anxiety for the shy introvert who prefers to hike and socialize in small groups. That myth is based on its brand, not on a college’s suitability for all. A few weeks ago, I pulled the curtain on the myths the USNWR weaves to market its prestige-focused rankings.

A currently-popular myth is that big state colleges with large percentages of Greek life and huge athletic cultures are perfect fits for all students, and every learning disabled student, those with emotional challenges, and those who thrive in smaller environments will figure it out and be happy when they get there. I work to dispel these myths with real information gleaned from my personal experiences, current students and alumni, or those of trusted colleagues.

Our myths sustain us by allowing us to believe that the unlikely (like admission to colleges with sub-10% admission rates) is possible. Let’s keep our good myths, but keep the misleading ones in perspective.


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