In 1975, at my high school awards ceremony, in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, I received an award that made me uncomfortable. It was called “I Dare You” and the prize was not a scholarship, not a restaurant lunch with my favorite teacher but a privately published book written by one of St. Louis’ leading citizens, William Danforth. I didn’t know this at the time but he was then chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and had been promoted from vice chancellor of medical affairs to chancellor one year after his family foundation gave the University a $15mm gift.
The book’s theme is that people should challenge themselves to achieve their potential. Distributing these books to “promising” high school students was a way that William Danforth hoped to inspire young people to make the world a better place.
That sounds innocuous and at the time, I took a brief look at the book and put it away. I found it again as I continue to winnow the books on my shelves. This book’s fake embossed leather cover is decorated with a boyish male profile, clearly the author’s originally intended audience. The award was first given in 1941 and the language in my 1970s printing reads as if it had not been updated. The sexism in the writing is consistent with that cover – males do great things and a very few women do traditionally ‘feminine’ things in a heroic way. The tone of the Horatio Alger style booster-ism is Victorian, as evidenced by the drawings showing the contrast between erect male figures and slumping female figures. Looking online, it seems that the award is still being given. In the Google images that pop up, the recipients all appear to be white, proudly holding the same book with the same young male profile.
What does it take to keep such a flimsy exercise in self-promotion going for decades? Can anyone self-publish a worthless book and write to school administrators offering a copy and a certificate to students of the administrators’ choice? Or do you have to be the grandson of the founder of a large company with an ivy league pedigree? Do full-time employees work to keep this alive and are their salaries someone’s tax deduction?
At least, as a gift to humanity, William Danforth’s insipid inspirational campaign is less destructive than his brother’s work. John Danforth, who was Missouri’s attorney general and then a US Senator, helped elevate two notable proteges, Clarence Thomas and Josh Hawley, two corrupt men who are a Supreme Court Justice and US Senator, respectively. My high school discomfort was my spidey sense telling me that the Danforths are not my kind of folks