Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Timely wisdom for the entitled

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, addresses, sociology, advice

A couple of years ago David McCullough, Jr. spoke at the high school commencement of Wellesley, near Boston, Massachusetts. A repeated phrase from that speech became a theme that sent a video of it viral and evoked a demand for "more of the same". His answer is the new book You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements. (Emphasis is from the book jacket)

A proverb of mine has long been, "People don't want to be treated fairly, they want to be treated well." It seems a useful corollary might be, "…but they don't deserve special treatment and ought not expect it."

The author's original admonition was primarily to the students, with an aside or two to parents and teachers. A transcript is found in an Afterword, and takes up 8½ pages. The book is about 300 pages and contains more detail not only for the students but for parents and teachers and others that comprise a teen's world. His audience is children of privilege and their families, and the teachers in their schools. He taught at Punahou School in Hawaii (Alma Mater of a certain Barry Obama) and Wellesley High School near Boston, MA. It will require a person of very different background to address the concerns, both those that are similar and those that are very, very different, of the children of an urban or even ghetto background.

I marked only one selection to be quoted. Writing about education in several different ways, he stresses again and again the value of learning to think, as opposed to learning only to obey, to "do good work", and other supposed benefits of education. Whether the goals of the teachers, the administration and the school board are beneficial to the students is left for them to determine later, but think they must, as must we all. He writes, "You think, therefore you are. If you don't, you're not." To emphasize, if you think not, you are not.

There has been constant tension, some might call it eternal tension, between generations. The funny thing is, most kids turn into people much like their parents, even into people they'd have once hated. Thus in this same chapter, "Know Thyself", young people are urged to look more broadly, to realize that we don't get a do-over, as though life were a video game in which "death" is temporary and just loses you some points. He remarks that it would sure be nice if we got to rewind our lives to the start, just before our death arrives, to have a chance to do it all again with the benefit of our accumulated wisdom. I don't know about you, but the thought of an infant with the "wisdom" of an 80-year-old strikes me as somewhere between creepy and terrifying. So, we live once, whether we screw up few times or many. Short or long, the life we have won't be repeated. We can little afford to pass the time unreflected.

Much of what he writes can be summed up in a phrase I didn't find, a family proverb when I grew up, "Never assume anything." He does write "don't assume" this or that, and it is worth emphasizing. It is natural to assume that the environment in which you find yourself is normal and will not change. Thus we go into shock and cry when we are born (for most of us, the biggest trauma we'll ever experience), when we must relocate, when we leave one school for the next, and particularly if the family's economic circumstances take a sudden nosedive. "The only constant is change" is a proverb honored only in the breach.

The author has quite a lot to say to and about parents. "Helicopter parents" are but one of many detrimental varieties. Way too many adopt the "My kid couldn't be wrong, no matter what" attitude. Where's the notion I grew up with, that if the teacher punished me, my parents assumed I deserved it, and might add to it? A word to kids with more balanced parents, kids who were expected to learn from their mistakes and make them right, who were supported just the right amount. Count yourself lucky; you are going into the world much better prepared than the over-protected whiners the book was written for. You'll compete the hell out of them, at least until (if ever) they wise up!

The word "special" has two meanings. In formal educational circles, it is a euphemism for retarded or otherwise learning disabled. It refers to youngsters who need much greater care just to learn anything at all. In a less formal context, it refers to the assumption many have that they deserve to be coddled, to get "special treatment". They, or more tragically their parents, go to the teacher to contest every B+ that "should really" be an A or at least A–; they go into conniptions if their chances of getting into Brown or Harvard are at risk of being "ruined" because the grade in Chem or Trig or Civics is a C or, perish forbid, a D!

An aside: as a young Comp Sci professor some 35 years ago, I had a young woman show up at my office. She'd earned a midterm grade of A–. With a question or two I found it was the first non-A of her life. I explained that it had been well known from the beginning what was needed to earn an A or B or whatever. She offered me the use of her body. I was too naive to hide my shock, and she fled. Rather than suffer the "indignity" of a non-A, even on a midterm transcript, she withdrew and took the course again later, with another instructor. I hope she got her A, and got it honestly.

I also must report my 0.500 batting average for "attitude adjustment". Over several years I had two "F" students. They were very similar in their determination to fail. One came to every class, slept from bell to bell, turned in no homework, got a zero on most quizzes and well below 20% on the tests. I gave him an F at midterm, which evicted him from the class. It turned out he was attending on some kind of Social Security benefit because his mother was disabled. He had to keep a certain GPA or lose benefits. He barely scraped by. He re-took the class, again with me, stayed awake, did his work, and earned a solid B. The other F student came to class only when there was a quiz, presumably informed by her friends, failed every one, turned in no homework, and was also evicted at midterm with an F. She dropped out of school and I didn't hear of her since. By contrast, I can attest that the most wonderful sound to any teacher's ears, is from the back of the room, a quiet, "Oh!"

Back to the book. The author is not much enamored of current trends in education. He is also quite skeptical that going to an Ivy is much of a benefit over a solid State university, unless a student's ambition is to hit the top of a profession where a Harvard diploma is step one that particular ladder of success. I guess it depends on what success means. One student I know did it this way: Got into Wharton Business College at U Penn, borrowed about $150,000 by graduation time, then went to Singapore where he earned enough to pay off the loan in 2 years. Within 5 more years he had saved enough to get a much less demanding job, enough to live pretty well while his untouched investments earned enough for him to retire by age 45 or so. He's 35 and it looks like he'll make it. Another's: an athlete good enough to get a free ride at the school of his choice, then get a pro assignment for few years. Retired at age 30; now what does he do with his life? The lucky ones, and the author mentions a few, remake themselves for a career tolerant of their extra aches and pains.

I was tempted to title this post "advice for the second 1%", because the children of the top million or so richest families in America are beyond this author's reach. But the next 1% are probably also too rich. The third and fourth percents, from families earning between $250,000 and twice that or so, are probably the constituency of the two schools at which he's had experience. However, it is not far off to consider that any youngster whose parents can afford SAT tutoring at $150/hr or more, a different kind of $100 sneakers for each sport, an iPhone for each sibling (though more than 2 kids is a rare family in this earnings range), and cable TV with 500-1,000 channels, including every premium movie channel; such a child can be expected to feel entitled to things and treatment that most don't get. The message to them is, "No, you are NOT special, just lucky. Lucky won't cut it with a displeased boss or customer." Although I am disdainful of Eckankar and similar new-agey movements, the "haircut" administered by the Eck folk is at least salutary: "Don't expect to be thanked for doing what you are supposed to do. You get special thanks only when you surprise us with superior results, and you'll get well and thoroughly reamed for sub-par performance of your duties. Now get back to work."

I'd love to give a copy of this book to our son (late 20s), but I suspect he would not read it. His generation don't read much. Maybe if a version comes out as a smart phone app…

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