My Fav 2017 Books

A longtime reader of the Humble Blog has a brief respite from reading his high schoolers’ French and German exercises. Consequently, he wants some book recommendations. PressingPausers take note, you too can make suggestions and requests of your benevolent dictator.

My fav books of 2017:

1. America the Anxious by Ruth Whippman. Subtitle: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. An endearing Brit deconstructs the commercial happiness industry. I’m looking forward to teaching it in January.

2. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. Since I’m an economically privileged, tenured university professor, a friend sometimes laments that I’m clueless about the “real world”. He underestimates the power of the pen and the imagination. Goldstein provides readers an intimate look at what it is like to build a middle class life through an assembly line job and then lose it.

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. A group of Indians strike it rich when oil is found on their tiny, hard scrabble corner of Oklahoma. Whites purposely marry into the tribe and the proceed to kill them. So much for American Exceptionalism.

If your name is Alison and you’re allergic to non-fiction, consider fast forwarding to my first book of 2018, The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei. A “slim comic novel which follows the travails of a likable loser trying to stay afloat—financially and emotionally—in contemporary Beijing.” My literary sources are raving about it.

Apple, Foxconn, Wisconsin

After reading Janesville, I couldn’t help but be interested in this perfectly titled piece in The Atlantic.

Numbers to ponder:

“It has up to $3 billion in tax breaks, to be passed and provided by the state government. Those kinds of tax incentives can get a manufacturer to plant a factory in a given location—but generally at a significant cost to the state budget, and without doing much to help the economy overall.”

What does $3b mean?

“The Washington Postestimates that the breaks could cost the state as much as $230,700 per job created. Tim Culpan at Bloomberg Businessweek puts it at $1 million per job, enough to buy every man, woman, and child in Wisconsin a new iPhone.”

So the margin of error is only $770k/per job created. I recommend the rest of the succinct piece.

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.