Saturday, June 28, 2008


I'm really not sure about the Atlantic Monthly. I think its a moderate, intellectual magazine that has view points from both sides of the political aisle. I'm tempted to think it's actually a slightly conservative magazine, which I think captures my political tendencies pretty well.

Anyway, here's a really great article about the downfalls of feminism at least in practice in America and in the world, and the benefits for women to just stay home...

This issue is of course complicated. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, and definitely some can make the very fine argument that men could just as easily stay home while the woman brings home the bacon. Sure.

But this article just focuses on the more narrow argument of why the mandate for women to work is not necessarily a good mandate to make. I think its the classical overreach of the women's feminism movement.

By the way, maybe I should just stop blogging and just link the Atlantic from here...

I apologize for my recent trend of just linking in Atlantic articles... I'm working on a few essays but I haven't had time or energy lately to really work on them.

Hopefully soon....

Anyway, find the article here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If Everyone is Incredible, Nobody Is

Recognize that quote? It's from "The Incredibles", that absolutely entertaining kids movie that was released a few years back. I'm sure you've seen it. It's about a world with superheroes, except the superheroes are forced to go underground because they were taking too many liberties: too many people were getting hurt, or people were getting saved that didn't want to be saved. Well, the bad guy of the movie, was spurned by the main character, Mr. Incredible, and so he goes on an inventing spree and develops this incredibly invincible robotic monster that knocks off each incredible one after another. His main goal is to rid the world of incredibles, mass market these super weapons so that everyone can be incredible, because in his words, "if every one is incredible, nobody is".

But that's not the way I see it. Because truly, we are all incredible, or at least we have incredibleness embedded in our DNA just waiting to come out. We all sell ourselves way too short, and its easy to do. Life is hard, full of setbacks and missteps. We struggle through ultimately just hoping to provide food, clothing, and shelter for our families over our precarious lifetimes, always feeling slightly on the edge, like one wrong move, and things could slip away. At least that is how I sometimes feel, doesn't everyone else? But even when we feel secure in our most basic needs, tapping into our incredibleness genes is still an incredibly tricky thing to do, there are so many barriers. We have to be absolutely honest with ourselves and our own abilities and talents. We need to be brave, willing to forge our own independent paths, learning from others, sure, but also willing to be fiercely independent in our goals and direction. We also have to be strong and disciplined, able to shed ourselves of the infinite distractions society throws at us, and we have to be willing to tap into the personal inspiration of deity, being willing to tap into a power much bigger than ourselves. All of this is possible for every last one of us, but so few really recognize it and have the confidence to step up to it.

But its true, our world is filled with true blue Incredibles. And I think this is the beauty of democracy and a truly free market. Where the individual has all the opportunity in the world to produce products other people desire. Where the government is run and controlled more by the people at large than by a few selected elite. At least that's the theory. The real world is not so clean. In reality, you tend to have a handful of super stars making all the money, doing all the heavy lifting, and the rest of us are way too dependent of the decisions those folks make.

Some of this is just plain a reality. There are some superbly gifted people out there, while the rest of us toil away with our lives. Only a few people, relatively speaking, are required to churn out Facebook or Google, while the rest of us are just happy consumers. And the economy is based largely on this. Rather than uniquely architected custom homes, most of us are more than content with some half baked template that gets duplicated over and over again. They throw in a few thrills, some archways, some big gothic pillars, some vaulted ceilings. Then they mass produce, and we consume happy to get something so nice, so cheap, and so new.

But it seems like things are starting to turn a little bit. The internet evens the playing field some. It used to be only the small minority could really contribute to the nationwide conversation, those lucky folks working for our newspapers, publishing books selected by the major publishing companies. But right now, I'm publishing my essays for all the world to see, no matter if only five loving readers are actually taking advantage of my generous offerings. But not just me, millions of others are publishing every day of all kinds of quality, some of it quite good. The fact is so many people are contributing, producing, and they are doing it for love and not for money. Intellectual commodities are flooding the market at dirt cheap prices.

And it seems, for some reason, society at large is making a shift. It used to be that a high school education was all that was required, but now advanced degrees are now almost becoming as necessary as high school degrees once were. The strangest jobs are now requiring people who work in them to study Shakespeare and Thoreau, and then to write deep essays on them.

Read this essay. Really, read it. It's absolutely fascinating. The author teaches English at a junior college in the evenings on the side largely to working professionals who are required to get more credits for their jobs.

Consider this quote where the author talks about the possibilities that seem at the taking for each class member as they begin their course work:

Class time passes in a flash—for me, anyway, if not always for my students. I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel when he or she nails a point. When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood—generally, early in the semester—the room crackles with positive energy. Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in the class, to read and love the great books, to explore potent themes, to write well.

The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.

And I can really relate to that. I remember enrolling in a class with an exciting, interesting sounding subject, stepping into class with my text books in hand, clean white notebooks, and an enthusiastic motivated spirit. And for a while, I'm keeping up. But subjects are always harder than they appear. The process of learning something is very tedious, the work is arduous, and those times where I'm not fully prepared with the prerequisite knowledge, or if I just simply doze off one too many lectures, I fall behind, and I'm forever, hopelessly lost, until through my own sheer force of will, manage to catch up (usually when a midterm looms).

For the students of this professor's class, however, the situation is much more dire. These students are so thoroughly unprepared for college, and they lack the time or the means to really catch up. The professor talks about how he just can't pass these students, how he's forced to fail a large percentage of them. Here's another quote:

There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.

Or consider this quote about a student of his who just couldn't cut it writing a term paper:

Her deficits don’t make her a bad person or even unintelligent or unusual. Many people cannot write a research paper, and few have to do so in their workaday life. But let’s be frank: she wasn’t working at anything resembling a college level.

But should our society be so widely educated?

There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy”? Such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold. But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.

I like the point he makes further on (unquoted), that its purely an American idea to provide the highest level of education to anyone in society who wants it. To democratize knowledge is America's legacy to the world.

But for those folks in this professor's class, it is a struggle:

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

And really what is college for? I'm not really sure I guess. For so many of us, its just a way to get the door open a little wider for a more lucrative career. I went to engineering school, which is largely, nothing more than a souped up technical college experience. I barely did any writing in college. I took my required English 101/102 courses as a freshman and that was it until I had to take one credit hour (one hour/week) course on technical writing the last semester of my degree. We only had to take to the bare minimum number of humanities courses to give us a "well rounded" education. Largely our course load was filled with math, science, and engineering courses, and nothing more. And even much of this has not been directly useful to my day to day work activities. There are definitely plenty of successful programmers out there who have never set foot on a college campus.

But, what about those jobs referred to in the article I'm so heavily quoting? Why would a hotel manager need a college degree? Or a police officer?

Well, its because Democracy demands it, I suppose. If we are to really, truly to realize the ideal of democracy and of capitalism, we need to democratize brilliance. Despite what this teacher has experienced, I think we have in the large view, a growing sense of this democratization. Just one example, in the old days, there were the superstar poets that everyone knew, those we all studied in school, Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, I'm sure there were other less talented poets during those days that nobody remembers now, but surely the sheer quantity of poetry writing and publishing now is exponentially larger than was found then. And the quality is better now too. At least thats what I've read.

But, as noted in the article, we have a long way to go before we have reached the ideal. And I think the ideal, the dream, is to make genius ubiquitous. If the market can be flooded with brilliant craftsman, artists, architects, programmers, musicians, actors, scientists, doctors, and nurses, the salaries of those professions would most certainly go down, but then we would all have free or cheap access to it. My dream would be to hire out an architect to custom design my home, have skilled carpenters construct it, have interior designers decorate it and fill it with really nice furniture. Right now, this kind of thing is only reserved for the wealthy. But if labor costs were cheap because talented people were buzzing around like flies, anybody would be able to afford to do this.

In fact, this sort of thing seems to be happening right now to some extent in NY City, my sister lives there, and she is always telling me about how she has attended some local theater production and the talent of the actors were amazing because amazing actors are simply everywhere over there, all congregating in NY City trying to catch a break. She's told me a professional jazz pianists accompanies her daughter's ballet class. And my sister is not rich, its just that this kind of stuff is available to almost anyone who wants it.

So an educated and talented workforce generates wealth, and as this talent is distributed in a relative equal level throughout the citizenry, you would expect wealth to be distributed equally as well. Consider this quote from the book Development As Freedom:

"This approach goes against - and to a great extent undermines - the belief that has been so dominant in many policy circles that 'human development' (as the process of expanding education, health care and other conditions of human life is often called) is really a kind of luxury that only rich countries can afford. Perhaps the most important impact of the type of success that the East Asian economies, beginning with Japan, have had is the total undermining of that implicit prejudice. These economies went comparatively early for massive expansion of education, and later also of health care, and this they did, in many cases, before they broke the restraints of general poverty." (p 41)

And further, the author compares the developmental effects in India and China:

"The contrast between India and China has some illustrative importance in this context. The governments of both China and India have been making efforts for some time now (China from 1979 and India from 1991) to move toward a more open, internationally active, market-oriented economy. While Indian efforts have slowly met with some success, the kind of massive results that China has seen has failed to occur in India. An important factor in this contrast lies in the fact that from the standpoint of social preparedness, China is a great deal ahead of India in being able to make use of the market economy. While pre-reform China was deeply skeptical of markets, it was not skeptical of basic education and widely shared health care. When China turned to marketization in1979, it already had a highly literate people, especially the young, with good schooling facilities across the bulk of the country. In this respect, China was not very far from the basic educational situation in South Korea or Taiwan, where too an educated population had played a major role in seizing the economic opportunities offered by a supportive market system. In contrast, India had a half-literate adult population when it turned to marketization in 1991, and the situation is not much improved today." (p 42)

There has been a ton of discussion (myself included) in how to improve our health care system and educational system, but it should not be difficult. Consider this one final quote form Development as Freedom:

"Surprise may well be expressed about the possibility of financing support-led processes in poor countries, since resources are surely needed to expand public services, including health care and education. In fact, the need for resources is frequently presented as an argument for postponing socially important investments until a country is already richer. Where (as the famous rhetorical question goes) are the poor countries going to find the means for 'supporting' these services? This is indeed a good question, but it also has a good answer, which lies very considerably in the economics of relative costs. The viability of this support-led process is dependent on the fact that the relevant social services (such as health care and basic education) are very labor intensive, and thus are relatively inexpensive in poor- and low-wage - economies. A poor economy may have less money to spend on health care and education, but it also needs less money to spend to provide the same services, which would cost much more in the richer countries. Relative prices and costs are important parameters in determining what a country can afford. Given an appropriate social commitment, the need to take note of the variability of relative costs is particularly important for social services in health and education."

Slight political digression here. Our country is doing well, when compared to many developing countries, in providing general education and health care to its population, and we are doing well, in my view, in educating the population as a whole when compared to any other country in the world. But in health care, we are falling painfully short. Health care costs have risen drastically over the past few years when compared to other goods and services. This shouldn't be, and its directly a result of a system and political failure in our country that must be addressed, and I hope will be addressed once we get a new president.

But the point is, a talented, healthy and motivated population produces wealth.

I do have some more to say on the importance of personal education and the impact we have as smart consumers and not just producers. An intelligent consumer is someone who pays more for quality and thus rewards smart producers. Consuming smart takes about as much skill, effort, and talent as producing smart. Its simply almost as difficult. Smart poets produce great poetry, but how much better would our society be if we had a nation of poetry readers. Great symphonies come from many people willing to spend a lifetime sacrificing their time to hone their talents, but its all for naught, if nobody is around to listen and appreciate it.

In contrast, how much skill does it really take to post naked pictures on the internet. But pornography is a huge industry, but sadly only enslaves those who consume it into painful addictions and often broken families. A prime example where both the producers and the consumers act to make our country poorer.

It's for this and other reasons that the value of an individual sacrificing years to hone a skill is not just valued simply because of the opportunity to have a career. My wife, who I am enormously lucky to have in my life, started piano lessons at age four and half and stuck to it all the way through a Master Degree in piano performance. She entered my life as she was just beginning her Masters degree at ASU. I remember her crying many times as she was trying desperately to prepare for her Masters recital, where she was to memorize and perform an hours worth of intense classical music. She pulled through the experience and did it. But for what? She continued on as a part time piano teacher, charging as much (or maybe marginally more) as many other teachers with less education and experiences. She is now teaching one student, and is relegated to using her piano skills as an accompanist to a church's volunteer choir. Surely she didn't need a Master's degree for that.

But the experience of pushing herself to the absolute peak of her potential, to really understand what it takes to master something at a high level, to appreciate and know music as well as she does now because of that experience, is part of the reason why living on this earth is so enjoyable. The fact that each of us has the potential to pursue some interest, whatever it is, the fact that almost any subject imaginable is wonderfully complex and deep enough to offer a lifetime of study, and the fact that we can with our knowledge, skills and talents, give back both to our economy and our community in ways that can deeply affect each other's lives in real tangible ways, makes each day so exciting (and at times frustrating), but immensely rewarding.

Genius is within our grasp, if only we have the self-awareness to reach out and take it.