Expectations and Their Excesses

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In my ninth-grade Civilization class, students have been giving speeches–a sometimes daunting venture for them. At the tail end of class yesterday, a student delivered a trenchant speech on expectations. I won’t repeat it here—it was intended for the classroom and not the internet—but I will lay out some thoughts that it inspired.

Expectations are standards we set for the future: the things we hope (and sometimes demand) of a person or situation. They may be rigid or loose, low or high—but if they are not met, we experience some kind of disappointment—in others, ourselves, or the general state of things.

From every angle they whiz. Teenagers face expectations from teachers, parents, social media, peers, and themselves; adults vie with their own share. It isn’t just the number of expectations that matters; it’s the way they play out in our minds. (I say “our,” but I recognize that each person deals differently with expectations; it’s a private, often ineffable struggle.)

Children and teenagers may have the hardest time with expectations, because they often lack the authority to say “no” or to put others’ judgments in perspective. They (or many) want to be accepted, appreciated, approved, encouraged, and loved; at the same time they fear the conditions attached to these goods. Acceptance is exhilarating and menacing by turn: exhilarating because it seems a dream fulfilled, menacing because it demands a piece of the soul. Sometimes they (and not only they) break expectations just to show that they can—that is, to hollow out some room for themselves.

Adults have these pressures too, although in different ways. We donate doles of our lives to the workplace, which, no matter how congenial and humane, expects us to play a certain role. Outside or work, we have still more roles to play. They may all be genuine–but even so, they leave many of us wondering: are we allowed to be ourselves? Or is concealment the cardinal expectation?

Expectations can also enliven and refine us. Many teachers, principals, and other educators (myself included) believe, and have seen, that “high expectations,” articulated and supported properly, will bring good things out of their students. Yet even the most carefully articulated expectation is not always correct or appropriate: for instance, an essay-writing rubric can encourage and reward dull prose.

Yet if expectations seem wrongheaded at times, their absence is far worse. I have heard bitter stories of people whose talents went unnoticed, who were treated, early on, as though they had no prospects. Or else they were told that everything they did was great. Nobody pushed them; no one seemed to believe that they were capable of more. Expectations can make life more urgent and fruitful. So where do they go wrong?

Perhaps they go wrong when they lose their sense of liberty. I may see promise in another person. I may say or demonstrate this. But the other person chooses what to do with this–whether or not to pay attention to it, believe it, adjust it, act on it, etc. If I accept this liberty, then my expectations are well placed. But if I insist on my own will, the other person receives the message: Cease to exist, or at least pretend to cease.

They should also contain some humility, some acknowledgment of possible error. My expectations are not always right—in themselves or in context. If I know this, then I can respond to supposed failures more generously.

Even when the expectations carry respect and thoughtfulness, they can go wrong. For one thing, they accumulate. A person might not mind one or two. But eventually they become too much. We end up in situations where we’re bound to let someone down, possibly ourselves.

Also, they do not always translate correctly. Many of us imagine expectations that do not exist—or we misconstrue real ones. Some of us have a vague sense of letting others down no matter what we do; this might come from some past experience or from something in our character. Others seem blissfully unaware that others expect anything of them at all; or if they realize it, they do not seem to care much.

There is no final message here. Expectations can do good or harm; the difference lies in their source, intent, and quantity. But even the kindest and most generous expectations should step back at times. It does not hurt to ask: what am I asking for, and why? Do I dare to hear another person’s “no,” or even my own?

I took the photo in Veszprém, at the Davidikum Kollégium, where we stayed. Also, I revised this piece substantially after posting it.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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