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.

 

Choosing to Be Different

A bright, personable, caring young woman in my writing seminar this fall said she had absolutely no interest in marriage because her parents had failed so miserably at it.

I felt no need to sell marriage, but her passionate rejection of it reminded me of how we often generalize from our experiences way too much.

Then I read this blog post, The In-Between Process, by an exceptional alumnae of my writing seminar. And this sentence jumped off the page, “I get to choose to be different, and I will be.”

As sociologists remind us, the vast majority of time we follow pretty damn closely in our parent(s)’ footsteps. As we see in her friend’s kitchen, some though do manage to “be different” by seeking alternative family mentors and friends.

Those of us fortunate to enjoy happy and healthy families should never take them for granted. Instead, we should look for opportunities to love and support those mired in troubled, dysfunctional families.

Paragraph to Ponder

From Tyler Cowen, “The Marriages of Power Couples Reinforce Income Inequality“:

Universal preschool, further experiments with charter schools, and higher subsidies or tax credits for children are among the policy innovations that might lift opportunities for children of lower earners. Even if those are good ideas, it is not clear how much they can overturn the advantage that comes from being a child of highly educated, highly motivated parents with lots of will and also money to spend on lessons, outings, travel and other investments in the future of their children.

The technical term is “assortative mating”. Read the New York Times marriage announcements for examples. In hindsight, I probably should have “married up”. My wife’s beauty blinded me to the fact that she rarely balanced her checkbook; planned to be a public school teacher; and owed more on her old, beat up Honda than it was worth. It’s a limit of the discipline that few economic models factor in “hotness”.

I suspect Cowen’s extrapolating from the present data too much. Sure assortative mating will continue contributing some to income inequality, but as I’ve written before here, academic achievement among female college students so dwarfs that of males that many female college grads will have no choice but to settle for partners with much more modest economic prospects.

Let’s Say You’re a Non-Conformist

And you find boxing medieval and barbaric. Let’s say you used to like the violent science back in the day when heavyweights like Foreman, Norton, Frazier, and Ali roamed the earth. But you’ve learned about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and evolved. Hell, you may even be done with football.

What are you going to do late Saturday night when everyone else is watching a guy with a history of domestic abuse take on a legislator who has left his constituents hanging?

Happy to help.

If you’re a non-conformist like me (pun intended), evolutionary history still has some hold on you. Meaning you like a good fight as long as it doesn’t end with anyone bloodied, bowed, and maybe permanently damaged.

Turns out there’s a major brouhaha taking place within the upper reaches of the black intelligentsia. In one corner, Cornel West. In the other, Michael Eric Dyson. Spend Saturday night reading Dyson’s 9,000 word roundhouse punch for the ages. Like a fighter in the early rounds, Dyson’s spends the first few thousand words bobbing and jabbing. Then mid-way, he attacks with a remarkable, astounding, vindictiveness.

Then read this anti-Dyson counterpunch from a Harvard doctoral student. Spoiler alert: like in war or any protracted, especially vicious fight, no one is going to win this one.

west-header-crop

Retrain Your Brain to Be Grateful Part Two

Ledgerwood’s and the others research applies most poignantly to teaching. Consider this hypothetical. A teacher has 25 students, four whom really like her, 19 who don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, and two who really dislike her class. The two act out regularly and are highly skilled at getting under her skin. Even though they represent 8% of the classroom total, they occupy 80% of the teacher’s thinking. Consequently, they teacher wrongly concludes that most of the students are unhappy and thinks negatively about their work more generally.

This phenomenon, which Ledgerwood describes as “getting stuck in the loss frame” applies to school administrators too. More often than not, administrators’ thinking is disproportionately influenced by a few especially adversarial faculty.

Maybe the same applies to doctors working with lots of patients or ministers interacting with numerous parishioners. Or anyone whose work is characterized by continuous personal interactions.

Ledgerwood ends her talk by sharing the personal example of being pressed by her husband to “think of the good things” that happened during her day. And she’s quick to describe two positive memories. But what if you’re work or life situation is so difficult that when it comes to cultivating gratitude, you can’t gain any traction or develop positive momentum?

If I was to take the baton from Ledgerwood at the end of her talk, I’d pivot from psychology to sociology. Meaning you greatly increase your odds of being more positive if you consciously surround yourself with “gain framers”. The inverse of this, you greatly increase your odds of being more grateful if you assiduously avoid people who are “stuck in the loss frame”.

Ledgerwood contends we have to work really hard at retraining our brains. The sociological corollary is we have to be more intentional about who we seek out to partner with—whether in our work lives or our personal lives.

Got Religion–Where are the Young Adults?

In her new book, Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley has advice for religious leaders who want to connect with people born after 1980. Here’s her conclusion*:

“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”

Yesterday’s on-line version of the New York Times included a prominently placed article that makes me think Schaefer Riley’s conclusion needs tweaking. Here’s the lead of the article titled, “Mormon Church Warns 2 Activists of Excommunication“:

Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin, who have gained national attention for pushing the church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members, have been notified this week that they face expulsion for apostasy.

This is how I would amend NSR’s concluding insight, “They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married; male, female, or transgendered; straight or gay.” Maybe Schaefer Riley sidestepped sexual politics because the heaviest religious hitters—the Catholic Church and Mormon religion among them—seem to be doing fine despite their heterosexual, patriarchal dictums.

But I can’t help but wonder, given the pace of cultural change, whether over the next 50-100 years, the Catholic Church’s and Mormon religion’s growth will slow and/or reverse if women and sexual minorities are not embraced as full-fledged members of those communities.**

* thanks to Amazon reviewer George P. Wood for this reference

** some recent studies already show a decline within Catholicism, granted some would argue that a liberalizing of church policy would only hasten it’s decline, a point upon which reasonable people can and do differ

 

Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.