Monday, January 12, 2009

Attention vs. Affection.

I had some pretty interesting feedback from my last post about "What Matters. Who Cares?" I can be a smart ass about things, because I've forsaken much of what most people want in life. I'm not about the nice car, but boy am I about writing something worthy of a Pulitzer, hell that's something I can get behind. Re-read that last sentence, it didn't say I aspire to win a Pulitzer, but to have the talent to do something that good. Some years, the competition is just too good. But to be in that company would be inspiring. One thing where people rightly care about things is raising their kids. Everyone wants their kids to do well, it's probably evolutionarily inspired to make sure your kids do well, actually just better than everyone else.

But what amazes me is that people have to ask, how did they turn out and most people will say ok. And they didn't have all the advantages that today's typical kids have, the lessons, the programs, the computers. Those things don't make a student better, but what they may do is find what someone is good at through exposure. Too much of our educational dollars is spent on sending people to college. It's a waste, since they might be happier and more effective in non-college type work. We need people who can work with their hands, who can build stuff. It's not as easy as it looks. But we convince ourselves that if you don't have a college education, you don't have a chance. Actually, you don't have a chance if you don't offer something of value. Now the Wall Street jobs are probably gone, Michael Lewis so vividly recounts in "The End"

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

So why the College-Industrial complex? In short, the money. There's a lot in grants, scholarships, etc. Education is not a calling, it's a business. Don't let anyone fool you. And what do they address, not skills but fear. Love of learning is so not on the radar of the average college student, no it's about getting a job and getting into bed with the girl on the other side of the lab. Speaking of fear, I recently re-engaged with Television (capital T), and it's an amazing thing. If you look at the advertising, there are two kinds:

First, you totally suck and you got to improve yourself. This is the drugs, the workout tapes, the do it yourself stuff.

Second, you totally rock and deserve to pamper yourself. The luxury goods.

A bit of a contradiction, eh. (Bear with me, this all actually connects).

When we raise our kids, we want them to be in a good school district, and sure it helps. We want them to have resources. And most of all we don't want them to be left behind. Fear and Deservedness in our personal legacies. Frightening. But if you look at success, you realize there's a lot of luck. Malcolm Gladwell's new book "Outliers" if nothing else should rob ourselves of our self determination. Yeah, we have to put effort in but it doesn't mean it's going to happen.

So what can you do? You can create a spark in your children that causes them not to ask what's missing, but what can I do with what I have. (I'm assuming they have a decent lifestyle and are not dodging bullets, I'm not naive.) To get them to wonder and explore, regardless of what they have. I love the stories of Feynman playing with ants going, what are these ants doing? What, why, how and make are the values you inculcate in their minds. If you can think that way, you can see opportunity wherever you are at.

This post has gone too long, but it all boils down to Robert Redford in my posts these days. The actor Sam Waterston was getting accolades for his recent work and Robert Redford gave him some advice that is timeless, "Don't confuse attention with affection." In my career I've seen wild swings, it happens. I see how people respond to the it company of the moment. I try to remember Redford's maxim in these times. In the same way, preparing and mentoring is not about showering them with attention of the best, but genuine affection, that leads to the ability to affect the world they live in.


At 8:11 AM , Blogger ruchi aka arduous said...

I dunno, dude. You are a person who has obviously benefitted from your college education, yes, in terms of your job, and financial situation, sure, but also in terms of your ability to make a cogent argument, and in your ability to think critically. So this argument here doesn't sit well with me. Given that you have reaped the benefit of a college education, why would you classify it as a waste for others? What is non-college type work? Just because someone works with their hands doesn't mean that they couldn't benefit in life from learning to think critically. A university degree does not preclude you from becoming a carpenter if that's what you choose to do later in life.

Besides, being in school right now, I'd say that you're wrong about love of learning not being on the radar of your average college student. Sure, college is about hooking up and drinking beer, but it's also about protesting the situation in Gaza, and about having a discussion until 3:00 am about the first amendment. I know a lot of undergrads, and they are very engaged in the world, and intellectually-minded. Sure, they might put off writing papers or ignore the reading sometimes. Sure they cut class sometimes. Didn't we all, back in undergrad? But they are still interested in having an intellectual debate. And that intellectual debate that you have with someone in your dorm over pizza is as important a part of the college experience as any.

Besides which, in terms of jobs, I think we're moving further towards a world where a college education will be necessary for almost everyone. Because the truth is, we've automated a lot of the stuff you do with your hands. Now, we really need people who can think critically, not fewer.

At 11:46 AM , Blogger Charles said...

Ruchi, I have to say I love how you keep me honest and you bring up some good points. My issue is not college education as an idea, but as a credential. We as a nation are becoming more credentialed with a higher percentage of individuals obtaining college diplomas, but it is not clear to me that we are better off. My general sense is that the college diploma has become so devalued that it has forced more people to seek higher credentials. Why is that?

I'm going to take a digression to explain how that may have happened. College education in the population expanded during the 1950s with the advent of a GI bill giving deserved opportunity for veterans to advance their education from at that time, a stellar example of public education in the world. It my understanding that we had a fairly consistent (if not equitably accessible) system of secondary education. To handle the increase in the number of college students, universities and colleges flourished to handle the returning GIs and their baby boomer children. However the problem is there was going to be a bubble in the pipeline, there would be fewer children of college age after the baby boomers but many more colleges that had to employ people. Institutions thrive to protect themselves. So in order to fill the classrooms, universities in effect lowered their standards in the name of access (this so reminds me of the sub-prime bubble where homeownership was taken as a sacred good, I see the same with a college education today.) And this had a ripple effect on secondary education. As long as high schools could claim they were putting students into college (didn't say which ones) they could claim they were doing a good job. This led to a cascade where a high school diploma was of questionable value. Hence leading to the conclusion that a college education was necessary. (In disclosure to others, I am making broad assertions here that gut check with intuition but need facts).

As a result of the excessive amount of colleges, (i.e. businesses) needing to fill seats the general quality of college grads declined (hence pushing up the need for Masters students, note that this also devaluing the value of higher degrees as well. )

I concede your point that college education done right can be a miraculous thing. We both know that the institutions we attended are not the norm nor are our classmates the average. I am also not saying that a liberal education does not foster critical thinking. However, many college degrees do not require a broad liberal arts curriculum. Business majors, engineering majors require only a paucity of distribution requirements. I see this when I looked at my brother who attended a state institution (a good one) and his classes. I think it would be good if liberal arts colleges had a practical arts requirement as well to foster empathy and understanding of the crafts.

But this is not most college experiences. Right now my sense is college degrees are pursued and marketed for what they enable, the "chance" at a better paying job. And as students try to get that credential, they are being run through the system. Two articles have influenced me tremendously in my thinking in this regard. The first is "In the basement of the Ivory Tower" in the Atlantic and Paul Graham's "After Credentials" Paul Graham who is a successful entrepreneur is ironically probably the best argument for a college education in that he studied Philosophy as an undergrad. But most college students today aren't pursuing philosophy degrees.

I do agree the non-classroom experience is critical to one's development and education. But that is an emergent property that our classmates were well chosen.

This brings me back to the crux of my original post, I think the attention (focus on the right credential) is far driving out the affection (a love of learning, and learning how to learn.) Kids are no longer taught how to do times tables and memorize facts for context but sent on their way to college. We would be better off spending the vast amounts of money of college education and doubling down on secondary education to give more people the ability to learn.

I leave with a personal example, in college I was working with a classmate on a problem set and to be honest he was a bit of a leech. It was a junior level class. We were working on a problem and the resulting answer was suppose to be a speed. He showed me the answer he got after punching values into the calculator and got something on the order of 10 ^ 18 meters/sec (the exact number is not important) and asked me if it was right. I told him to look at if something was odd about the answer. And he said, I punched in the numbers and this is what I got. Obviously the answer didn't make sense since the maximum is the speed of light is orders of magnitude smaller. That was a fact that is covered in any high school class. John Allen Paulos's Innumeracy talks that perhaps we should emphasize less calculus and more basics.

My belief is that a great education system will not make everyone a Ph.D. but provide opportunities for everyone to find their talents where they can contribute to the society in the best way they can and desire, AND learn how to learn. I don't think our current education system does that when it emphasizes the degree over the knowledge.


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