When I read coverage of the recent American Dream Essay Contest, referred to as the “Great American Essay Contest” in the Casper Star-Tribune’s article, I could not help but feel disappointed when I learned that the contest had James P. Owen’s “Cowboy Ethics” at its core.
The contest rules specified that each high school applicant was to write an essay that included a “focus on one of the ten Cowboy Ethics.” While the Star-Tribune’s description of the winning students’ essays made it clear that the students’ unique experiences and voices came through in their excellent writing, it is a shame that their expression was required to be tethered to the clichés of a motivational speaker’s business.
The ten principles promoted under the “Code of the West” of Cowboy Ethics are simple enough and universally appealing enough that your average person will find it hard not to recognize a great deal of how they like to think of themselves in the code’s tenets. It wraps generic values in a mythologized narrative about the cowboy, which is designed to appeal to in-group associations in western audiences. But we are not all cowboys in Wyoming. I write this as a Wyoming native who has shown a commitment to my community in a career of 18 years. I love the Wyoming outdoors, historical locations and sports such as shooting and photography as much as anyone, but I grow weary of efforts to sum up Wyoming residents under such shallow terms.
Our youth should be encouraged to express their own individuality with true authenticity, not tether their personal stories to tired, shallow clichés. We should encourage them to seek out diversity and live life in a way in which they act as dynamic individuals who are capable of significant growth, not just limited to reaching some mythologized cowboy ideal that, historically, is a dramatic oversimplification. Our youth are more diverse than that, more perceptive than that, and more creative than that. We need to do better at letting them be themselves and not have them jump through hoops to match someone else’s identity.