Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brooks Again

OK, it's official. I am obsessed with David Brooks. His column in today's Times rubbed me so raw that I find I must say something about it.

Picking up in the middle of this column about this year's college graduates, I am first amazed by his deriding of the commencement speech themes to follow your passion, chart your own course, etc. He says these words mislead "on nearly every front." Why?

Because they don't help at all in the solemn work of "finding serious things to tie yourself down to" such as "a spouse, a community, a calling." But isn't this often part of the problem? So many of us exhort young graduates to pursue stability and security without reference to passion or calling. We urge them to pursue majors in business or pre-law even though they are so often, at best, indifferent to the courses required for these majors. An interest in teaching or working for a non-profit is condemned as impractical. A desire to study history or literature is characterized as too idealistic. And while commencement speakers may occasionally encourage us to follow our bliss, the overwhelming message from society is to prepare for a career that ensures a good income right away, even though we may hate the work associated with that career.

Mr. Brooks repeatedly refers to the notion of "calling," and to the idea that we are "called to a problem" first, through whose pursuit the sense of self is then shaped. But the evidence for this claim is non-existent as far as I can tell. A few very lucky and often privileged youth are called to a profession or career that they love, but virtually none of us is called to problems, because our educational system, as Mr. Brooks knows perfectly well, is not structured around problems, but around disciplines and professions that more often than not actually mask the problems that will eventually confront us.

Of course, Brooks' larger point is that we ultimately make a meaningful life by contributing to a task that is much larger than we are and that forces us to lose ourselves in the pursuit of this task. I more or less agree. What I disagree with most vociferously is that our passion, our dream, our bliss doesn't matter. In fact, it is ONLY through the finding of such a passion, a process that often takes a long time, that we develop the strength and the resiliency to dedicate the self to some greater cause. Indeed, let me go further. The problems we face have much more to do with the foreclosing of the search for one's passion, one's calling, than the other way around. The commencement speakers have it right; it's the rest of us that have it wrong. And the reason those commencement speeches that implore us to follow our bliss are so universally ridiculed has everything to do with the fact that just about every other societal influence is arrayed against such advice. It is at our peril that we continue to ignore it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Brooks Versus Krugman

I don't know, must be something wrong with me, too naive, I guess, but I continue to be flummoxed and frustrated by the ongoing differences between David Brooks's and Paul Krugman's visions of the world, particularly when it comes to the Medicare debate.

I assume that Krugman is right, that Paul Ryan's ideas about Medicare and all the other conservatives who seem to think that there must be radical change in the way Medicare is financed, are, well, just plain wrong. That all they're trying to do is privatize Medicare and if they get their way, by, say, 2030, the elderly will be left forlornly holding a very short healthcare stick. The Republican charge is that the Democrats are playing politics with this, but Krugman is absolutely convinced that there is nothing to the charge. He holds that Democrats are telling the straight-up truth about the holes in this Medicare proposal.

Brooks, on the other hand, keeps trying to play the middle man. Republicans have to be willing to tax the rich and Democrats have to halt spending, but most of all those nasty Democrats need to stop this demonizing of Paul Ryan because he's brave and thoughtful and certainly well intentioned.

The thing is, though, my sense is that Ryan is not any of those things, that he is, in fact, a kind of charlatan. But Brooks's support and admiration for Ryan pull me up short a bit. He knows what Ryan is up to. He's far better informed than I am. He must have some reason to believe that Ryan is a good guy. Or, could it be, is it possible, that because Brooks always has to be the guy to find the middle way, he feels compelled to identify someone on the right to pit against Obama, and the best he can do is Paul Ryan? But in reality, like all the other Republicans we hear about, Ryan is the Wizard of Oz, all full of polished bluster and seemingly impressive noises, with no ideas of any value whatsoever to contribute to this important discussion?

Monday, May 23, 2011

New York Public Library Turns 100...and so does my father!

One of the greatest libraries in the world officially turns 100 today - May 23, 2011. Yup, on May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft personally made the trip to Midtown Manhattan to dedicate the great lion-bedecked main building of the New York Library. As Clyde Haberman of the Times tells us, the original cost of the building in 1911 was a mere 9 Million dollars. How much is that in today's dollars? About 210 Million. Still a bargain, I'd say. First book checked out from this imposing structure? "Farm Management."

So are you imagining swarms of people descending on what is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (because Mr. Schwarzman donated 100 million of his own Wall Street-begotten money to offer the Library a helping hand)? Well, think again. The Building is not open to the general public today. Something tells me, though, that Mr. Schwarzman and his family and all their rich friends will be permitted to squeeze in a special visit.

As for my father, he is no longer alive, but we do celebrate his 100th birthday today. Yes, he, too, like the New York Public Library was brand new on May 23rd, 1911. Born in Chicago to two Lithuanian immigrants who at that time scraped out a living as harness makers, my father, Alfred Willis Preskill, was the first member of his family (he had a brother and sister at the time) to greet the world in a hospital. Apparently, when an automobile brought the new baby home a few days later, the entire neighborhood turned out for the historic homecoming.

Alfred went on to distinguish himself in school, while his father built up a very successful business as a hardware store proprietor. He skipped three grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15 before going on to the University of Chicago (by way of Crane Junior College because his family could not at first afford the tuition at the University of Chicago), graduating from UC with a law degree at the age of 21. Which meant, as it turned out, that he was destined to initiate the practice of law in 1932, just as the Great Depression reached its darkest and most dangerous phase.

He continued to practice law for many years, but never particularly liked it and when World War II ended and he and my mother (also a lawyer!) were looking for a place to live, they settled in the Chicago area where he landed a position in the mail room at an electronics start-up called Allied Radio, noted for, among other things, their ingenious do-it-yourself radio kits. While toiling in the mail room, he devised a clever new way to distribute the company's mail order catalogs more efficiently and quickly rose to the executive suite, eventually becoming Vice President of Operations and General Manager of this increasingly profitable company. See this link about the history of Allied Radio and its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s: http://www.alliedelec.com/alliedhistory.aspx

When Alfred wasn't making a nice living for his wife and three sons (for a long time he even went to the office on Saturdays!), he was writing poetry, singing the popular songs he so cleverly penned during the 1930s and 1940s, and joyfully attending just about everything the Chicago Opera and Chicago Symphony had to offer.

He was a cool, funny, playful guy who savored puns and literature and history and could have been perfectly happy if he hadn't worked a day in his life. Almost certainly, his happiest days occurred during a long and largely healthy retirement when his long walks and daily crossword puzzles took up most of his time and when his many trips to the West Coast to be with his grandchildren gave him untold pleasure.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

David Wagoner Wins Prize

The New York Times reports today that the poet David Wagoner was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Arthur Rense Poetry Prize given every third year for excellence in poetry.

I found myself getting a little emotional about this news, as Mr. Wagoner is one of "my poets," if you know what I mean. Well, in case you don't, I mean the sort of poet that isn't too well known and that you run across on your own without the help of a teacher or expert. And then when you read his stuff, you find yourself wondering why you haven't read him before. It should be noted that actually Wagoner is a famed poet, probably the leading writer of verse in the American Northwest. To give you an idea of why I like Wagoner so much, here is one of the poems I recall encountering when just leafing through a copy of the Atlantic. It is called "Lachrymals."

Some Roman women saved their tears in them.
They held flat narrow-necked heart-shaped delicate phials
Below their eyelids against each cheek in turn
And caught their tears. No one could shed enough
In a single spasm to fill that tiny hollow,
So the women stoppered them with glass teardrops
And waited. In the meanwhile, some wore them
Like pendants to have that smooth translucent glass
(The colors of changing light on the hills)
Nearby all day and all night: none could be certain
When grief or pain or a sudden abundance
Of sorrow might come welling into their eyes
Again. When they were full to the brim,
Some women carried them as charms
Of remembrance through their lives
And into their tombs, and some would pour them out
Into quiet streams or onto the bare earth
And walk away, and some would drink them.

This is a beautiful poem and an amazing set of images skillfully arranged for appealing lucidity and maximum emotional impact.

Here's another that I found in a volume of his poetry that I picked up in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania campus. The poem is called "Lost."

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

There is something so reassuring and comforting about this poem. Of course, we CAN be physically lost, but we often overestimate the extent of our separation from our surroundings and forget that those surroundings are to a certain extent part of who we are, part of what it means to be. To be at home in the world is sometimes to be lost, but also to know that it will not last too long and that you will learn something worthwhile from the experience.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Academically Adrift

I can't resist commenting on the op-ed in today's Times by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the authors of a recent higher ed best seller - "Academically Adrift." Their data show, based primarily on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a widely used standardized test of general knowledge for college students, that at many colleges and universities, students aren't learning anything at all. They found, for instance, that nearly forty percent of the college students taking this test showed no gains whatsoever from their freshman to their senior years. An absolutely shocking conclusion that when you think about it defies logic.

While I am sure it is true that college students are not being challenged as they once were, it is a bit much to expect us to believe that after 4 years of education, including at some very fine colleges, significant numbers of students have learned nothing. Maturity alone would assure them of some increases in knowledge.

So let's say, for the sake of argument, that the data are deeply flawed, that the CLA is not getting a true measure of what students have learned, in part, because there is no incentive for them to do well on the test. There has been occasional commentary on the limits of this test and the way it is administered, but really not enough has been said about its inadequacies and what it aims to measure.

Here are the areas of critical thinking, data analysis and writing ability that the CLA assesses:

How well does the student assess the quality and relevance of evidence?

How well does the student analyze and synthesize data and information?

How well does the student form a conclusion from their [sic] analysis?

How well does the student consider other options and acknowledge that their [sic] answer is not the only perspective?

How clear and concise is the argument?

How effective is the structure?

How well does the student defend the argument?

What is the quality of the student’s writing?

How well does the student maintain the reader’s interest?

The authors of the CLA are very proud of the fact that this test measures general knowledge, the sort of knowledge that so many colleges profess to be concerned with. But that has not been my experience. Most colleges, and certainly most college teachers, want students to acquire knowledge in a single academic discipline more than they want them to be proficient in the realm of general knowledge. The reason for this is obvious. That is what professors value, that is how they themselves were trained.

So when authors like Arum and Roksa tell us about the problems of higher education - too many adjuncts, not enough rigor, overreliance on student evaluations, etc. - we should take them seriously while also remembering there is another reason embedded deeply in the culture of higher education. It has everything to do with our love of the specialist and our contempt for the generalist. Future studies should spend far more time on what higher education does best: prepare students to think, analyze, and write in their academic major. Now, whether that's a good goal or not for higher education is a different question entirely. But, to be fair, that is by far what colleges have come to care about most and should be given its due.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ethical Reading

The other day in a Wagner College discussion group, I confessed that the books I am most drawn to are the ones that seem to be striving to teach me, however indirectly or unintentionally, how to live. Reading the Times Book Review today, I noticed that two of the books reviewed, one about a father who cares for his profoundly disabled son and another about a woman reared on a remote utopian farm, grapple with this very question of how to live and how the attempt to find answers shape our values and exhort us to make the most of our days.

I am now almost finished with a book that offers a wealth of wisdom about how to live. I found it on a public library bookshelf last Saturday and have been reading it aloud with Karen, with frequent pauses for sobs and laughs, most of the week. It is called "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy" by Priscilla Gilman, and it, too, is a book about a parent who struggles to raise her mysterious but extraordinary son.

A Yale Ph.D. in English and for a while a Professor of Literature at Yale and Vassar, Gilman's life is turned entirely upside down by the birth of her distant, aloof, but remarkably gifted son. Reading before the age of 2, but seemingly cut off from those around him, her son Benjamin whom the family usually refers to as Benj, is eventually diagnosed as having hyperlexia, a form of high functioning autism in which a precocious ability to read words is paired with difficulty understanding spoken language and abnormal social skills.

The story that she tells about her struggle to find help for Benj is incredibly inspiring, but it is the changes that occur in her that especially intrigue me. Her profound insight that there is no hard dividing line between normal and abnormal and that there is a continuum of behavior on which all of us can be found comes across with striking clarity and power in her narrative. Additionally, she brilliantly develops the insight that our quest for high achievement and recognition is far more dependent on luck and chance than we usually concede and that such a quest often carries with it a heavy burden that is not always worth the cost.

Her final chapter, which develops these themes and many others with far more wisdom than I can capture here, is truly a meditation on how to live a different kind of life than Americans, in particular, are used to hearing. The life she describes does not disdain high honor, but also avoids overdoing it, endeavoring instead to more deeply appreciate our unique constellation of abilities and limits. As she says in this last chapter, "In my experiences as first a high-achieving student, and then as a professor of high-achieving students, and later as a mother navigating the intensely competitive New York City private-school admission circus, I've had to confront artificial benchmarks of progress and achievement over and over again. And while on the one hand, I've often been saddened to learn that Benj is falling short of a norm, on the other I've often felt a strong resistance to the idea that he must conform to that norm."

Quoting the German poet Heine - "What the world seeks and hopes for has now become utterly foreign to my heart" - Gilman rejects the race for prestige and distinction and embraces the everyday sort of loving relationship that her son Benj and his brother James have been able to build together. It is paying attention to these relational milestones that now more than ever give her life new meaning and purpose.

The story Priscilla Gilman tells is the life of a single American family and it is unique to that family. But how she tells this story and the way in which she explores its impact on her own life offers me and, I am sure, many others a glimpse of how we can begin to live our own lives a little more compassionately and appreciatively.